The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
October 28, 2007
Joel 2:23-32 Psalm 65
II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 St. Luke 18:9-14
This parable was told to those who trusted in themselves and considered themselves “righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Ahhh, I know what you are thinking! This can not possibly apply to us here at St. Peter’s. We don’t regard others with contempt. Perhaps Father will let us off the hook today! No such luck.
The first thing we need to understand is that Pharisees were not all bad guys, believe it or not. In spite of the almost universal appearance in the Christian Scriptures of Pharisees as bad guys, they were not all the same. To view them all in the same light is the make the same mistake of thinking that all Christians are like the worst examples that you can find around. It would be simply not true. In fact, this story is a made up parable. Many, probably most, of the Pharisees were faithful and righteous people committed to the needs of the common people. They were people whose prayer was the same as ours in today’s collect. Like us I’m sure they often prayed for an increase in the “gifts of faith, hope, and charity.” They worked for justice among the poor. That sounds sort of familiar. It sounds exactly like what we are called upon as Christians to do.
But like all faithful and righteous people we face a danger. The danger is when we start comparing ourselves to others and admiring our piety and the counting the failures of others. Holding your own personal spirituality in high esteem is a dangerous thing. And that is exactly the trap in this parable.
The prayer of the Pharisee in the parable immediately starts out with pride, the Pharisee expressed gratitude that he is not like others, less pious and more sinful than himself. I am reminded of the point taught by my parents when I was growing up that when you point a finger at someone else there are three fingers pointing back at you. It is a simplistic view for sure, but one of significant meaning if we can apply it to our lives. Of course, the only problem is that I never remember that until after I have already pointed my finger at someone else. This finger pointing of the Pharisee is contrasted with the humble person who understood that he had failed to meet God’s expectations.
This tax collector is a person who saw himself as he was, a sinner needing the grace of God. He had no time to be pointing fingers at others as he was focused on examining his own life. That is the example we are called upon to emulate in our own lives. When I’m sitting at my desk musing about what is going on in the world and in the Anglican Communion and in the Episcopal Church, I wonder how much better a place it would be if we remembered that simple lesson from elementary school. If all of us were willing to turn our attention to ourselves, imagine how much more spiritually developed we might be, and what a better place the Church and the world would be.
In order to do this, to change our focus from judging others to judging ourselves, we need to ask ourselves what are the ways in which we can act like the Pharisee in this story? One of the easiest ways to act like the Pharisee is to see ourselves in the place of the tax collector, knowing that we could never be as bad as the Pharisee. And yet, in that very action we are judging the Pharisee, being able to comfortably improve our own estimation of our spiritual condition in comparison with his. In the end, we fall into the very trap we identify in this story.
Jesus was a clever guy. In setting us up to identify ourselves in the place of the tax collector, we actually become the Pharisee. The beauty in this parable is that it allows us to see how easy it can be in our own lives to make the same mistake as the Pharisee. I’m sure none of us would be so bold as to hold ourselves up to the extend he did in the story, but still pride is a very dangerous thing.
And I think Jesus did this on purpose. Jesus set us up to be the very person we would condemn. Jesus did this to challenge our complacency. Think about it. I’m sure that there are many people grateful for the spiritual growth they have been given from God. And yet, if they allow pride to enter in, then they are failing. I think a large part of pride is the taking responsibility on ourselves for blessings that God has given us. Pride gives us the credit for what God is doing in our lives.
The danger of spirituality is that we might start patting ourselves on our backs for our growth and development. God wants all of us to grow spiritually. In fact, God is busy about the work of encouraging, preparing, and growing us spiritually. But we need to remember to always give God the glory. The Pharisee was taking the glory for himself. The tax collector knew well that it all depended utterly on God.
As we work on our spiritual life, we need to remember that all of it depends utterly on God. That needs to be our focus and our mantra. Our human nature will encourage us to stand up for the credit we deserve. We must fight that natural inclination.
Let us strive to live together in humility and love. Perhaps our example will show the rest of the world.
A link to the podcast of this sermon can be found at: http://episcopalpadre.libsyn.com/rss