Sunday, October 23, 2016

Pentecost 23C

Luke 18:9–14

 

GOD, BE MERCIFUL TO ME

 

Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.

 

In a commentary on our gospel reading for today David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, writes: “We are just days away from an election, one that—at least in my corner of the world— is more negative than I can recall. Barraged remorselessly by attack ads, I have little idea of what the candidates stand for, I only know the failings of which they accuse their opponents. How, I wonder, after months of slashing each other, can those elected imagine working with each other for the common good? Whoever wins such a contest, it seems, has already lost the larger and more important campaign for a better state, nation, and world. Nor is this a problem only in government, as I am often struck by the disdain many Christians currently hold for each other: liberals dividing the world into the just and unjust, conservatives into the pure and the immoral. Nor I am exempt, as I also regularly divide the world into neat categories, demanding to be right rather than to reach out to those with whom I disagree.”[1]

 

Lose wrote these words in October 2010, just prior to the first mid-term elections after Barack Obama had been elected president. Imagine what he might have written prior to this election day. This presidential campaign— both in the primaries and the general election— has been one of the most, if not the most, contentious in history. Often it has not just been contentious— candidates have treated one another with contempt. We have been told repeatedly that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the two most disliked major party nominees in history. The attitude toward them of many voters has gone far beyond dislike— many voters have expressed vitriolic contempt.

 

Now a parable of Jesus, set in the temple in Jerusalem and focused on our posture in prayer, would not be the typical place we would look to gain understanding of the current political climate in the United States. But a close analysis of this parable can offer us significant insight into what ails our political sphere and our society as a whole.

 

Jesus addressed this parable to some “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Two went to the temple to pray. The first was a Pharisee, one of the respected leaders of the religious community. He stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” In his fasting and tithing the Pharisee went beyond what was expected of the righteous in the community. He was confident of his own goodness.

 

The tax collector stood far off. He was too ashamed to dare look up to heaven. Tax collectors were not well-liked. They worked for the Roman occupiers and were notorious for getting wealthy off their own people. As long as the Romans received their share of the tax revenue, a tax collector could tack on extra charges to line his own pockets. The tax collector knew he had no claim on righteousness or goodness. He knew he was a sinner. In fact, the Greek means “the sinner.” He was a prime example of someone who was not right with God or his fellow human beings. All that he could pray was: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

 

Jesus drew what would have been a surprising conclusion for many of his listeners: “I tell you, this man—[that is, the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other.” How could a tax collector be right with God, especially in comparison to a respected religious leader who exceeded his religious obligations? Jesus offers a clue in the last verse of our gospel text: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

 

With the benefit of twenty centuries of hindsight, the temptation for us today is to dismiss the Pharisee as a self-righteous hypocrite and assume the moral of this story is to be humble like the tax collector. We might pray: “Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: hypocrites, overly pious, self-righteous, or even like that Pharisee. We come to church each week, listen attentively to Scripture, and we have learned that we should always be humble.”[2] In effect, we would have adopted the prayer posture of the Pharisee— just what Jesus was warning against.

 

In Life Together Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns against occupying what he calls “the proud throne of the judge.”[3] The last thing Jesus wanted to encourage his followers to do was to look down on their fellow human beings. Nor was Jesus simply teaching his followers to be humble.

 

Jesus took the Pharisee to task for trusting in himself. Although the Pharisee prayed to God, he was convinced that his own efforts to fast, tithe, and avoid immoral behavior had merited him a right relationship with God. In fact, he would have been viewed as a model believer in the religious community of his time. However, he lacked a clear sense of his dependence on God.

 

And what Jesus seemed most concerned about was the way the Pharisee looked down on other people. He occupied the proud throne of the judge. He regarded others with contempt. He failed to see that God does not write people off, whatever their shortcomings may be.

 

The tax collector was no humble hero. Nor does humility adequately describe what the tax collector was experiencing. He was so ashamed of his immoral behavior he could not even look up to heaven. As mentioned earlier, he referred to himself not just as a sinner, but as the sinner. He recognized how utterly dependent he was on God’s mercy. He prayed to God without comparing himself to others. He could not even begin to occupy the proud throne of the judge.

 

Next Sunday is Reformation Sunday. The heart of the Reformation was Luther’s insight that we cannot make ourselves right with God through our own efforts. We are completely dependent on God’s mercy. Our parable for today would have been an excellent gospel reading for Reformation Sunday.

 

Since we are all ultimately dependent on God’s mercy, no one has any basis for looking with contempt at our fellow human beings. That does not mean we are to overlook sinful or unjust behavior. Certainly in the public realm we need to hold our leaders and one another accountable. We need to name sin and injustice. But there is a distinct difference between holding one another accountable and viewing one another with contempt. How can we pray to God whom we have not seen if view our fellow human beings whom we have seen with contempt? The most pompous, arrogant person among us is still our fellow human being. The most cold and untrustworthy person in our midst is still our fellow human being. The most self-righteous, holier than thou person is still our fellow human being. Even the most vile terrorist is still our fellow human being. We are not to justify or bless or ignore destructive behavior. In fact, we are called to do everything we can to stop destructive behavior. But nothing justifies looking at any human being with contempt.

 

The political climate has become so polarized and contemptuous in our society that it is very difficult to find safe places to engage in respectful conversation about pressing issues we face. During Council meetings this year we have set aside time for what we call Council 101. For example, one month we devoted Council 101 to a review of Robert’s Rules of Order. This past Thursday for Council 101 we discussed Margaret Marcuson’s the “Ten Smartest Things You Can Do at Church to Improve Communication.” Margaret is a local church consultant, and she is currently serving as the President of the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon Board. The third “smart thing” she lists is: “Don't worry about convincing people, just say it.” She explains: “Let go of how people will respond to your ideas. Don't try to talk people into anything. It never works in the long term, and your ideas get lost in the process.”

 

In a way we have tried to practice this way of communicating in our Table Talks. We do not shy away from tough issues. Participants are encouraged to speak with passion, but to do so with respect. Careful, thoughtful, respectful listening is also crucial to our discussion. Even in our political discourse we need to trust that God is at work. We need to say our piece and then be confident that the Holy Spirit will help us sort things out. We need to recognize that each one of us has a limited point of view. We need to share what we see from our limited point of view as clearly we can. And we need to listen to what others are sharing from their limited viewpoints. But finally we need to let God be the judge. People of faith of all people need to recognize that ultimately we are dependent on God’s judgment and mercy. What a wonderful gift the church can provide if we can truly offer a relatively safe place where people do not view one another with contempt and avoid dividing the world into neat categories and where people engage in respectful discourse on the pressing issues of our time!

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] “Beyond Righteousness,” Craft of Preaching: Dear Working Preacher, October 17, 2010. https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1520

 

[2] David Lose, “Commentary on Luke 18:9–14,” Working Preacher.

https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=815.

 

[3] Volume 5 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, 96.