A Righteous Stance
| Luke 18:9-14
||Sun, October 24, 2004
Rev. Ed Searcy
|We imagine that Jesus’ tells parables to make things simple and straight forward. We teach them to our children as if they were child’s play. But Jesus parables are riddles. They are puzzles. They surprise and astound. We want to figure them out, to solve them, to close the book on them. But they continue to haunt us, to destabilize us, to trouble us. The church tries to domesticate Jesus. It would rather not be troubled by Jesus’ riddles ... riddles like this one. “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” We are so accustomed to these stock New Testament characters that we hardly flinch. We hear Pharisee and see a legalistic, hypocrite. Pharisees have become, for us, symbols of all that is wrong with religious piety. Tax-collectors, on the other hand, are, for us, the misunderstood, marginalised, hard-done by folk of Jesus’ day. Centuries of handling have worn off the shock and puzzlement of Jesus’ parable. We fully expect the Pharisee to get the raw end of the deal. We cheer on the poor outcast tax-collector and are glad to know that such humble folk are exalted in the end.
So, to be clear, the parable can only recover its puzzlement for us if we allow its characters to be recast in troubling ways. The Pharisee is keeping the Torah. He is not legalistic or hypocritical. He worships God. He fasts and tithes. The Stewardship Committee holds him up as a paragon of virtue. His prayer echoes Psalm 17: “My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped.” And the tax-collector is hardly misunderstood or hard-done by. He makes his living by contracting toll-collection for the Roman occupying forces. Think of a French citizen collecting taxes to support the Nazi occupying forces in Vichy France. The tax-collectors of the New Testament are the lowest of the low. They are rated as nobodies, and for good reason. Their behaviour is clear proof of their unrighteousness.
Righteousness. The parable’s voltage relies upon the question of righteousness. Which one is righteous? Sometimes I imagine that we have all but given up on righteousness as a positive attribute. We hardly speak in our congregations about living a righteous life, nor do we think of honouring someone because they are righteous. I suspect that we have become so wary of self-righteousness that we have abandoned righteousness as a category worth consideration. But this parable depends upon an audience that is longing to live a righteous life. A righteous life is a life lived rightly with God. The entire Bible can be read as a commentary on the call to live in right relationship with God. The law and the prophets codify and critique society on the basis of righteousness. They remind the people that living rightly with God inevitably entails living rightly with neighbour. The righteous person will love God with all the heart and soul and mind and strength and will love neighbour as their own self.
Do you see the shock of Jesus’ parable? He portrays a Pharisee who is an upstanding keeper of God’s way - one who is active in social justice work, who practises the spiritual disciplines of daily prayers, who visits the sick and the imprisoned, who studies the scripture and whose offerings are substantial. One would have to say that this Pharisee is the dream of every congregation. If he showed up here on Sunday morning you can imagine our delight to find one so motivated and so faithful. In comparison with this remarkable Pharisee we see a miserable low-life of a tax-collector, who has made his living by cheating his own people. If right relationship with God requires right relationship with neighbour then this tax-collector is blatantly unrighteous. There is simply no quibbling about it. The case is open and shut.
Jesus’ parable is an incendiary device, exploding our assumptions and leave them scattered all over the pavement. He states it plainly. The tax-collector, the sinner, the unrighteous one goes home justified, judged innocent, made right with God. The Pharisee is not so fortunate. He is found to be unrighteous in site of his righteous behaviour. It is clear that we are not the only ones who find this parable to be explosive. Luke’s community must also have wondered at Jesus’ strange logic. Notice that Luke provides us with a narrator’s introduction, to prepare us for what is to come: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Jesus doesn’t warn his audience in advance, but Luke assists the reader by providing an interpretation before the parable even begins. It is evidence that Luke knows we are going to be shocked by Jesus.
He is right. We rather enjoy being Pharisees. Oh, we don’t imagine that we are. Actually, we rather enjoy noticing the Pharisee in someone else. If we are conservative fundamentalists we thank God that we are not like other people - like liberals, for example. Then again, if we are liberal fundamentalists we regularly exhibit delight in not being like those conservative evangelicals ... or Catholics ... or, well, take your pick. It is so easy to slip into the Pharisees’ shoes. Have you noticed the odd irony that folk who do not attend church because it is filled with Pharisaic hypocrites have, in making that judgment, placed themselves squarely in the Pharisees’ shoes. All it takes to stand with him is to trust in one’s own righteousness and to regard others with contempt ... which is precisely what anyone who critiques church folk for being hypocrites is doing. It turns out that the Pharisee may not, in fact, be standing by himself. He is surrounded by a huge crowd of denominations and congregations and individuals who are grateful not to be like those other unrighteous churches and misfits.
It is intriguing that this stick of dynamite wrapped up in a parable has rarely been detonated in the church we know. Our careful work to defuse Jesus’ intentions seems to have worked. It is rare, indeed, to hear anyone refer to this parable, even after someone has spoken with disdain about the apparent unrighteousness of some other denomination or congregation or individual. You would think that if this parable puzzled us at all that we would remember it and ponder it and even talk about it ... especially when we noticed hints of self-righteousness and contempt slipping into our speech and hearts. I suppose that this is my not so subversive goal in lingering over this brief passage this morning. I dare to hope that some one of you will be puzzled enough by Jesus that you will never forget this text, but will remember it and chew on it like a dog with a bone. We need such puzzlers, such persistent rememberers to hold up a mirror to our easy slide into the Pharisees’ shoes. He has everything right in his relationship with God but for one thing - he imagines that he can control God with his faithfulness, guaranteeing his place at the heavenly banquet on his own merits.
The text calls such behaviour “self exaltation”. And it notes that all who self-exalt are destined to be humiliated. Well, in truth, it says that the self-exalters will be humbled. But the dictionary tells me that humiliation is what results in being humbled. To be humiliated, to be humbled is to be brought down to earth. The latin root of “humble” is “humus”. To be humbled is to be “earthed”. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. As Mary sings in the Magnificat, the powerful and mighty will be brought down. Humbled. It is an inevitability.
But then the text says a strange thing. It says that “all who humble themselves will be exalted”. Ahh. Now here is the path to right relationship with God. Self-humbling. Bringing one’s self down low. Walking humbly with God. There’s just one problem. The moment one sets out to be humble, the Pharisee’s arrogance is close at hand. Think of the cartoon in which two monks are speaking, one saying to the other: “Our Order specializes in humility”. The moment a denomination or a congregation or a person sets out to be humble there is a high probability if not inevitability of taking pride in being the humble, faithful Christians, not like those other Phariseeic Christians who give thanks to God that they are so right.
I am puzzled by all of this. I wonder what it is to humble oneself. Then I find myself at yesterday’s large gathering for congregational renewal. I find myself opening two workshops on cultivating a missional congregation by reading this text aloud. And I find myself saying that this text is at the heart of the cultivation of transformed congregations. More than a few of our congregations have the functioning motto: “Come as you are, stay as you are”. Come as a conservative, stay a conservative. Come as a liberal , stay as a liberal. To be a come as you are, stay as you are church is to be a church that is confident that it is right. Right about its politics and its worship. Right about God and right with God. But to be a humble church, to be a church of the tax-collector, is to be a church that knows there can be no staying as we are with God. Not for anyone.
The theme speaker at yesterdays re:VIVE gathering was Killian Noe, a minister from Seattle whose newly formed congregation - the New Creation Community - has recently opened the Recovery Café, a centre for addicts. Killian told us of one woman who they had seen bustling by the centre many times a day for weeks after it opened. One day the woman came into Recovery Café, requesting to meet with the Manager and with Killian. She confronted them angrily, saying “I am furious with you for opening this centre here in my neighbourhood. How could you do this? Ever since you arrived here I have been reminded that it might be possible for me to break my addiction to crack cocaine. I didn’t want to come through the door, because I knew that if I did my life would have to change.”
The tax-collector cries: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. Kyrie eleison. Have mercy. To stand before God seeking mercy is to know that life must change. God’s mercy does not leave us in our addictions. It saves us from sin, it turns us around, it makes us new. To enter the life of a church of the tax-collector is to walk through the door knowing that your life will change. To enter such a community is to humble oneself. Imagine attending your first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. Imagine the self-humbling that is require to stand up and say “Hello. My name is Mary and I am an alcoholic”. Well, you don’t have to imagine it at all. You have come here. And here we stand together before God and say: “Dear God, we are University Hill Congregation, a collection of tax-collectors and sinners. Have mercy upon us”. At AA they know that nothing can change, no newness can begin, until the humbling truth is told. And here ... here we are learning all over again that the renewal of the church and the redemption of our lives has nothing to do with strategies for growth or self-help plans for recovery. The renewal of the church and the redemption of our lives is as close as this daring, courageous, honest prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”