a sermon on Luke 18:9-14
preached on October 27, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Back in high school, I spent a lot of time helping out my choir director with special projects. I designed the programs for our concerts, helped with data entry for our singers database, set up her computer for all sorts of other things, and even made the first website for the choir. I was in her office nearly every day for one reason or another, so she got to know me pretty well. One day, after a long conversation about something where I had been insisting that my answer was correct, we realized that I had not been right. Suddenly she stopped the conversation, pulled out her calendar, and made a note on that day: “Andy was wrong and admitted it.”b A lot of things have changed about me since that day back in high school, but I haven’t gotten a whole lot better at swallowing my pride and admitting when I am wrong!
When I hear this parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector that we heard this morning from Luke’s gospel, that part of me that insists that I am right immediately connects with the Pharisee. He’s quite a faithful and pious man. He follows the law and doesn’t steal, cheat, or sleep around. He fasts twice a week to help sharpen his spiritual practice and follow the requirements of his day. He gives the obligatory tithe of ten percent of his income to God. He does everything he is supposed to do, and he does it all right. While he is certainly a good man whose actions are upstanding and commendable, the attitude that emerges from them is not. He uses his confidence to look at others and place himself above them. In the parable, this gets played out very clearly. Jesus tells us that while this Pharisee was praying in the temple, another man, a tax collector, was also praying nearby. The Pharisee notices him and so opens his prayer with great confidence: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people… or like this tax collector.”
The Pharisee scorned the tax collector, and quite likely for good reason. As much as we dislike the IRS these days, tax collectors in Palestine were even more despised in Jesus’ time! These tax collectors were not just agents of the government—the whole system that engaged them was designed to be corrupt and unfair. One commentator explains the system like this:
[Tax collectors] are franchisees of a corrupt and byzantine system that gouges the poor and enriches the wealthy. The tax collector, by definition a wealthy man, pays the empire a set amount for the privilege of gathering whatever he can squeeze from his neighbors. Although he is personally responsible for the money owed by his district, he is free to collect that money any way he wants, and anything he collects above what he owes is his profit…. Tax collectors are frequently foreigners, and they often farm out their responsibilities to others. It is no wonder they are roundly despised. (E. Elizabeth Johnson, “Exegetical Perspective on Luke 18:9-14,” Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 4, p. 215, 217.)
A tax collector would be the last person you’d expect to see at the temple praying to God. Yet in the parable Jesus tells us that he was right there next to the Pharisee, kneeling fervently, looking down in sadness and hurt, crying out to God in anguish: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” While he doesn’t name the sins he was confessing in our hearing, it seems safe to assume that he was seeking to make amends for the exact sort of thing that the Pharisee was condemning him for. After describing these two characters, Jesus made his preference clear. He wasn’t interested in the Pharisee’s brand of religious piety and self-exaltation. He didn’t want much to do with anyone who put so much confidence in his own ability and refused to admit that he was not perfect. Jesus welcomed the tax collector’s honesty and humility. So he singled out the tax collector for his blessing: “I tell you,” he said, “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.”
There are lots of ways to think about this wonderful parable, even more than its challenge to people like me to admit all the times and places when we are wrong! On this day when we celebrate the gift of the Reformation among us, we can’t miss one element of this story that connects us to the great reformer John Calvin. One the of the better-known elements of Calvin’s theology is a doctrine known as total depravity, meaning that all humans are completely and totally doomed to our sinful nature. It sounds like an awful thing, really—and to be honest, it kind of is. Under total depravity, there is no way that we humans can avoid taking up the ways of sin. We cannot not sin.
The tax collector seemed to understand this very well. He knew that the system that employed him was corrupt and unjust, and he recognized that it was easy for him to treat people unfairly and suffer no consequences of his actions. The Pharisee, though, thought that he could make things right on his own, through his actions of piety and obedience to the law. He couldn’t see that even his best actions were tainted by sin—especially the sin of pride and arrogance that led him to place himself above others but even also above God. He trusted in his own actions to make his life right rather than leaving room for God to act. And so this simple parable retells in its story this great emphasis of the Reformation, that our trust must be in God alone, that “our hope is in no other save in Thee,” as our first hymn put it so beautifully, that God’s grace alone makes things right for us and enables us to live the lives that God calls us to live.
Ultimately, this knowledge that we are not in charge, that our own actions do not save us, that God’s amazing grace is the empowering force of our lives, ought to affect more than just how we view our lives. It means first that we must look at others differently. We can’t behave as the Pharisee did in the parable, emphasizing our own right actions to the detriment of others, insisting that we are always right, and lifting up our own obedience and faithfulness in ways that put others down. If we take Jesus seriously here, we instead look at others with humility, not condemning them for their bad acts but seeking instead to embrace them as the beloved sinners that we all are. We recognize that we all have work to do in reordering the priorities of our lives, and so we shift and change and reorient our lives to God’s greater intentions along the way.
But when we hear Jesus clearly here, we also look at ourselves differently. We also must take an honest look at our own lives and ask ourselves, “Where do we put our trust, in ourselves or in God?” We have to ask if we are emphasizing our own actions of obedience and faithfulness or if we are truly welcoming the depth and breadth of God’s great grace. We must wonder if we are placing our confidence to make it through to something new in our own abilities or instead deepening our trust that God will lead us through to a new day. And we must transform our understanding from trying to justify ourselves and instead seek to be full participants in God’s work of bringing justice and peace to our whole world. We probably don’t need to beat ourselves up about our sins quite as much as the tax collector did, not because our sinfulness is any less than his but because we can be confident that God is working in us to guide us away from all the things that seem to separate us from God. As another commentator puts it,
The liberation of knowing that God is merciful and loving means that we can leave behind our reliance on our achievements in work or in our faith community. They have their place but not at the center of our relationship with the God of the cross and the Friend of the poor. (Laura S. Sugg, “Pastoral Perspective on Luke 18:9-14,” Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 4, p. 216)
Our ultimate confidence, then, lies not in our own ability to make things happen or even in our understanding of the depth of our sinfulness but rather in deepening our trust and understanding of God’s mercy and grace that ultimately makes the difference in us and in our world.
So may we set aside our confidence in ourselves and our abilities to make things right and place our trust in God alone so that we can be all the more free to join in what God is doing in us, through us, and in spite of us as all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.