Sunday, October 24, 2010

Of Tax Collectors and Justification

Thanks to Kate Huey, David Lose, and George Elerick for help with this week's sermon.

As always, comments and constructive criticism are welcome.

Joel 2:23-32

O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, '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.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Throughout the Gospels, and especially, it seems, in the Book of Luke, Jesus has a habit of using characters and imagery which contradict people’s expectations, which upset the societal norms of the day. If we will allow them to, these parables will upset our own expectations as well.

At that time in history, if you wanted an example of what utter faithfulness, piety, purity, and true Godliness looked like, you looked to the Pharisees. In fact, the reason that there are people who can live and worship as Jews today is because of the Pharisees. When the Temple was destroyed in 70AD, it threatened to take with it the cultural identity of the Jewish people. Without the temple, without the sacrifices, without Jerusalem, how could one be Jewish?

It was the Pharisees who, though their extensive knowledge of the Law and long experience with cultural practices, were able to make sense of the Jewish faith apart from the Temple. They were, to the Jewish people at the time Christ walked among them, the picture of holiness.

By contrast, tax collectors personified everything that was wrong with the nation of Judah. You see, the reason Rome conquered so many lands and people was chiefly so that the Roman government could get its hands on the treasure of a given country, and tax its citizens. Thus the tax collectors were as much a symbol of occupation and oppression as the Roman soldiers who made up the occupying army. These tax collectors were Jewish, but not only were on the payroll of the pagan Romans, but used their power to bully and overtax their fellow countrymen, profiting on the backs of their fellow Jews.

And, in any case, was anything the Pharisee in his prayer untrue? He wasn’t, as a matter of fact, anything like that tax collector. He wasn’t like the thieves, rogues, or adulterers either. He worked very hard to be faithful. His group followed, more strictly than any other person in first-century Palestine, the absolute letter of the Mosaic Law. He indeed fasted twice a week and gave a tenth of his income. Rev. Kate Huey writes, “For the Pharisee, God seems to live right inside him. His prayer is more of a Shakespearean soliloquy, praising himself and his works and his own goodness. He has it all figured out, and things add up rather nicely for him. Perhaps he comes out looking better than even God does! It helps to have the tax collector nearby for stark contrast, because the Pharisee far outshines him in his virtuous works. To this religious leader, God is benevolent and has surely noticed how good the Pharisee is. Actually, there isn't much need for God to do anything in the life of this Pharisee except to agree with him.”

The problem, of course, is obvious, and Luke explains it in the very first sentence: the Pharisee was comfortable in his righteousness. What’s more, he had constructed that life of righteousness under his own power, had attained doctrinal purity through his own efforts alone.

By contrast, the tax collector knows he has no claim to righteousness. He has, in fact, done everything he could to offend the Mosaic Law and oppress the people of God. He must rely, completely and solely, on the mercy of God, and he knows this to his core. Because of this fact, and this fact alone, the tax collector found forgiveness and justification in the eyes of God.

It’s easy to read through the parable, see the Pharisee as the bad guy, the tax collector as the good guy, lesson learned, be like the tax collector, Judy plays the piano, we pass the plate.

But here’s a strange contradiction for you: the moment we begin to thank God we aren’t like that Pharisee, being all braggy about how un-self-righteous we are and all, we become… like… the Pharisee. “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.”

The biggest complaint Jesus had against the Pharisees was that they had lost the point of all that righteousness they worked to attain. The keeping of the Mosaic Law in every point had become the focus of their existence. Rather than using the Law as a tool to serve God, they had let the Law become their god. And make no mistake, any time we let our doctrine become the focal point of our righteousness, rather than the lens through which we see the Living God more clearly, that doctrine has become an idol, and must be pulled down.

In this parable Jesus teaches a lesson for us about God's mercy in justifying the abject sinner, the tax collector, instead of the apparently holy Pharisee. If we come before God in humble openness and fervent trust in God's goodness – and, honestly, how else would we be forgiven but for God's goodness? – we make room for God to work in our lives.

More than all the good works we can manage, all the doctrines we can perfect, all the church services we can attend, all the sermons we can preach, it is approaching God as a benevolent and loving Parent, as the wellspring of mercy and grace, which produces righteousness.

Charles Cousar writes, “Prayer is the occasion for honesty about oneself and generosity about others.” Honesty flows from openness: an open heart, an open mind, a life opened to God and to transformation. For Luke's audience, learning to be Christians in those early post-Resurrection years, “Prayer was not a last resort when all the plans and programs and power plays had failed; prayer was, rather, the first and primary task of Christians.” Prayer helps us to discover who we are, and who God is: merciful and loving and just.

This is why the tax collector, and not the Pharisee, left from his prayers a justified man. Going back to the quote I read from Rev. Huey, it could be argued that the Pharisee wasn’t really praying as much as he was bragging. And I don’t know about you, but I can’t ever feel particularly close to someone who spends all their time telling me how awesome they are.

So is the only proper context of prayer to be sobbing, breast-beating, and begging? Is our only prayer the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner?”

There is immeasurable value in the prayers we say when there is nothing left to say, of course. But prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of praise, hymns sung as worship, all of these are just as valuable, because it is the attitude of the person praying, more than the content of the prayer, which is important.

The shelves of the local Christian bookstore are stuffed full of books on how to pray. I hate to say this, but most, perhaps, all of these books are completely useless. The question is not so much what are we praying, but why are we praying? Is it to remind ourselves of the righteousness we have attained through the good things we do, through believing the right things, through supporting the proper causes, through saying the right things? Or is the reason for our prayer to communicate and grow ever closer with our God, who loves us and has redeemed us through the blood of Christ?

Are we righteous under our own power, like the Pharisee? Or are we made truly righteous by God, like the tax collector?

Righteousness isn’t a commodity we can earn, or a goal to be attained. Just like every good thing that comes from God, it is a gift. And isn’t that a wonderful thing? How exhausting it must have been for the Pharisee, to have to work so hard every day to make sure that nothing he said or did or even thought was contrary to the letter of the law!

By contrast, in Jesus Christ God has emancipated us from the need to seek out righteousness through good works, through right thinking and right practice. Rather we are set free to seek mercy, receive righteousness, and find rest in grace.

1 comment:

  1. Nice sermon, John. Very good build-up, I like how you use the setting of the sermon itself ("But here is the contradiction.... always be humble")to clarify your point. Main point: "any time we let our doctrine become the focal point of our righteousness, rather than the lens through which we see the Living God more clearly, that doctrine has become an idol" <- I think this is a point you have made in the past. It is, either way, something I could read and recognize as something you would have said.