Monday, October 29, 2007

Sermon for October 28th: Luke 18:9-14

“God, Be Merciful To Me, A Sinner!”

You might have noticed that in the Anglican world at the moment there’s a civil war going on about the subject of homosexuality. On the one hand we have the churches in North America, where a majority seem to be in favour of changing the official teaching of the church to allow gay and lesbian people to get married to partners of the same sex, and to take a full part in the ordained ministry of the church while continuing in those marriages. On the other hand, we have the churches of the so-called ‘Global South’, where the vast majority take the traditional view, and see the North American church as abandoning the clear teaching of scripture.

Actually, both sides appeal to the scriptures. The traditionalists appeal to the texts in Levicitus which condemn a man lying with a man as with a woman, and the texts in Paul which talk about men and women exchanging natural intercourse for unnatural and so on. The liberals reply by claiming that Paul wasn’t talking about people who want to make life-commitments to each other, but rather to people who want to be promiscuous and have gay sex with anyone they want. And they appeal to Jesus’ gospel example of reaching out to marginalised people and including them in the circle of his disciples.

Who’s right? Well, there are people on both sides of the issue who are absolutely sure that they are right, with no shadow of a doubt – or so it seems by the confidence of their pronouncements. The one possibility that doesn’t seem to have entered into their heads is the possibility that they might be wrong. On the last day, when the Lord comes again to judge the living and the dead, they are quite confident that they will be vindicated and their opponents will be shown up for the evil and unchristian people that they really are. I say again – I’ve encountered this attitude in people on both sides of this issue.

Now, why am I using this illustration as an introduction to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector? Well, it’s the little word ‘justified’ in verse 14 that I want to focus in on. Jesus says, “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”.

What does that word ‘justified’ mean? Well, come with me, if you will, to a courtroom. A civil case is being presented. Someone is claiming that his rights have been infringed, perhaps in a property dispute of some kind. The plaintiff sits there with his legal team; they assemble their evidence and present it in a systematic way. This is what happened, this is why our client is claiming that his rights are violated. The defence team makes the opposite case: no, the facts aren’t quite the way the plaintiff says, or perhaps the interpretation placed on them by our learned friends isn’t quite accurate. Through it all, the judge is listening, making notes, weighing the evidence that both teams present to him. At the end of the case the judge will make a decision. One of the two parties before him will be vindicated, or ‘justified’- that is, will be declared to be in the right.

That’s what ‘justification’ means – it’s a legal term, from the courtroom, meaning that at the end of the trial someone’s claim to justice is vindicated. The biblical writers take this legal term and use it as an illustration of God’s declaration that a person, or a nation, is ‘in the right’ with him, and in the time of Jesus the people of Israel saw this vindication as an eschatological event. Now there’s a word you don’t hear very often on coffee row, right? But don’t be scared by it. The Greek word ‘eschaton’ means ‘the end, the last things, the final consummation that we’re all looking for and hoping for’ – the time when God’s kingdom will come, and God’s will be done, on earth as in heaven. So, in the view of the Jewish people, the time of the coming of God’s kingdom will be the time when God will finally vindicate his people, in a way that is obvious for all to see. Just like those Anglicans who are confident that on the last day the Lord is going to rule in their favour, the Jewish people looked to the future, when God would vindicate those who were his own – which, they assumed, meant them!

You see, the people of Israel saw themselves as the plaintiffs in a great lawsuit. It went something like this: ‘God, we’re supposed to be your chosen people. You gave us the Law of Moses and we’ve done our best to obey it. But what respect have we got for it? Look at all these pagan foreigners who’ve walked all over us! They don’t keep your law; they worship idols and commit all sorts of disgusting sins. But over and over again they’ve invaded us and burnt our cities down and stolen our land and oppressed us and made us suffer. It’s as if they’re really your people, not us! Now – how long do we have to wait before our claim to be your people is justified, before you vindicate us in this great heavenly tribunal? How long will it be before your people receive the justice they deserve?’

Okay, now let’s take this courtroom analogy a little further. Those of you who hang around courtrooms for a living know that it’s not enough for a claim to be made by a plaintiff; the claim has to be justified by the offering of evidence. So if the claim is that you are in fact God’s chosen people – or, in the case of an individual, that you are a member of God’s chosen people – what constitutes valid evidence to prove that claim? The traditional answer was, ‘Well, God gave us the Torah, the Law of Moses, and we obey it. These pagan foreigners who’ve been oppressing us don’t obey it! Therefore, you should vindicate us by driving them out of our land and punishing them!’

But if you know anything at all about the history of Israel, you’ll know that it’s not quite as simple as that. God may have given Israel the Law, but for large periods of their history Israel was not particularly good at living by that Law. In fact, they chased after idols, worshipping Baal and Asherah and the other gods that their neighbours worshipped. And even though the Law told them to care for the poor and needy and to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with their God, they weren’t too good at actually putting those things into practice. The ones who had been given the Law turned out to be lawbreakers; in fact, their lives weren’t all that different from the pagan foreigners they were looking down on.

On the other hand, in the Old Testament story we get little hints here and there that even pagan foreigners who turn in humility to the God of Israel and learn to walk in his ways will be vindicated as his people. For instance, we have the little story of Ruth. She was born in the neighbouring country of Moab, but she married an Israelite boy who had moved to Moab with his family when there was a famine in Israel. But there were tough times ahead for Ruth. We’re not told the exact circumstances, but her husband, her brother in law and her father in law all died there in Moab. Eventually Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi decided to return to her native town of Bethlehem in Judah. She expected that Ruth would choose to stay in Moab, but to her surprise the young woman decided to go to Bethlehem with her: ‘Your people will be my people’, she said, ‘and your god will be my god’. So this young foreigner moved to Bethlehem, and showed by her actions in caring for her mother in law that she understood the spirit of the Law of Moses, even though she had not been raised in it. Eventually she married into Naomi’s family again, in the person of a local landowner named Boaz, and she became the great-grandmother of the famous king, David. The outsider became an insider, even contributing to Israel’s royal family tree.

And that’s the story we have in this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. It takes place in the Temple, the place of prayer and worship for God’s chosen people. The Temple was set up in such a way as to emphasise that some were in and some were out. There were several courtyards surrounding the most holy place where it was believed that God lived. The furthest out was the court of the Gentiles, where the tables of the moneychangers were set up; they had to be content with praying with all that noise and bustle around them. Next in was the court of women; that was as far as the women could go. Further in was the court of the men of Israel, then the court of priests, and lastly the holy place, right at the centre of the Temple.

We assume that this little scene in Jesus’ parable is taking place in the court of the men of Israel. It’s supposed to be a place of prayer, but the Pharisee has made it into a lawcourt, a place of competition. He’s brought his superiority to the tax collector right into his prayer life. Look at verse 11:
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”.
You see what the Pharisee is doing? He’s presenting evidence in a lawsuit. “God, I am one of your chosen people – far more deserving of the claim than anyone else I know, and particularly that scumbag in the corner over there! I’ve been honest, faithful to my marriage vows; I’ve disciplined myself in fasting and given sacrificially, offering a tenth of all my income to you”.

Let’s stop to recognise that the Pharisee was probably telling the truth. He was not a bad man; he was a very good man. In fact, we’d have loved to have him here at St. Margaret’s; his tithe would have been very useful to help us meet our budget! He had a strong marriage and good kids who didn’t run with the wrong people. He never cheated on his expense account, and his business was probably a model of honesty and ethical dealing.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing at all, as far as it goes. But the problem is that it doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t deal with the question, “What’s in this guy’s heart?” Because when you look at his prayer as a whole, you see that here is a man who is totally absorbed in himself. He’s a good man, and he knows it, and he wants to make sure everyone else knows it as well! A man like that isn’t going to admit his failures to God. He isn’t going to say, “God, I’ve tried to keep your commandment against adultery, but I have to admit I noticed that pretty girl in the office the other day”. He’s not going to say, “God, I’ve tried to be honest, but I have to admit I wasn’t as generous as I should have been when the church was appealing for the water well project last month”. No – he’s presenting evidence, and it’s a highly competitive environment. He’s only going to tell the good things about himself; he’s going to keep the bad things quiet and hope no one finds out.

And that’s the difference between him and the tax collector. Most of you know that tax collectors in the time of Jesus were pretty unsavoury characters. The Romans farmed tax collection out to the highest bidder, and they didn’t care how much extra the tax collectors charged as long as they remitted the required sum of money to Rome. So the Pharisee was probably quite accurate in describing the tax collector as a thief and a rogue. Also, because tax collectors were not allowed into the Jewish synagogues they tended to scoff at religion and morality and live their lives exactly as they pleased with no care for the requirements of God’s law.

But this tax collector has one great virtue: he tells the truth about himself! He knows he has absolutely no evidence to present to justify himself; all he can do is to throw himself on the mercy of the court and plead for a pardon. And that’s exactly what he does:
‘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’ (vv.13-14).

What’s the story telling us? It’s telling us that if you want to be welcomed into the presence of God, give up the idea of parading your good deeds – for two reasons. First, they’re never the whole story – there are all sorts of stories of failure as well. Personally, I’m very glad that my innermost thoughts aren’t projected on a big screen for all of you here to see; if they were, I’d be hanging my head in shame. And secondly, the very fact that I might be tempted to parade my good deeds shows that I’m fundamentally a self-absorbed person anyway, which isn’t exactly a commendable thing!


No – if we want to enter the presence of God, we have to do what the tax collector did – tell the truth about ourselves. Just like an alcoholic who can’t be helped unless he’s willing to admit that he’s an alcoholic, we can’t get any help with our sin addiction until we admit that we are in fact sinners. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” seems at first glance to be the admission that’s going to get us excluded from the kingdom, but in the end it turns out to be our ticket to the kingdom. Because the world isn’t divided into sinners and good people; rather, it’s divided into people who admit they are sinners, and people who are too scared or too proud to admit it. God’s going to rescue us from our sins; make no mistake about that. But he can’t do it until we admit the fact that we need rescuing. That’s where we all start. The sooner we accept that fact, and begin to live in the spirit of the tax collector’s prayer, the better it will be for our relationship with God.

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