Have you ever been in one of those situations in which your hands are tied and any move you make feels like a wrong move? You keep waking up in the night and obsessing about it, trying to work out a scenario that will help solve the problem and yet you are completely out of answers? Not by your own choice, but by your absolute lack of choices, you are forced to conclude: “the only thing I can do here is pray for God to do something, because I got nothing.”
If by some miracle you’ve just sailed along in your life on smooth waters and you’ve never had this experience, then all I can say is praise the Lord, but hold on tight, because it’s coming at some point and may even show up tomorrow around 3:30 pm. Operators will be standing by if you need some assistance.
If, however, like the rest of us mortals, you have experienced your utter and complete powerlessness in a situation, or your life feels like it’s strung together by one of these situations after another, then you have a clear and open window into the parable that Jesus tells in this morning’s gospel reading from Luke.
The first thing to say about this short story concerning a tax collector and Pharisee going up to the temple to pray is that it is not a pithy little lesson about humility. It is not a TED talk on the right religious stance to choose before God – a humble stance rather than a proud stance. Instead it is a story about dropping all religious stances whatsoever when it comes to justifying yourself before God. When it comes to putting yourself right with God, you got nothing.
Putting yourself right with God is the vernacular for the theological term used by Jesus – justification or justified. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t lobotomized who doesn’t instinctively understand the concept of justification. That’s because most of us spend all day everyday attempting to justify ourselves – prove our selves acceptable and worthy.
Any and all human activity can and does operate as a courtroom of self justification. It always involves comparing yourself with other people, which is why the Pharisee says, “Thank God I’m not like that guy.” From the clothes we put on and the scales we step on first thing in the morning, to the eggs we scramble (free range? Organic? Oh, you eat eggs? I’m a vegan – love animals don’t eat them)….
To the office we go to or don’t go to in our SUV or Prius or bicycle (thank you very much, haven’t you ever heard of a carbon footprint?), to the work we do or the work we are looking to do (Oh, do you work outside the home? No, and I haven’t had time to even take a shower the last 4 days because of this baby)….
To the paycheck you deposit on the way home, which no matter how big it is, one thing is for sure: it’s never big enough, as billionaire John Rockefeller famously answered when asked how much money is enough – “just a little bit more”, to the home you come to at the end of the day (what neighborhood? What side of the street? Which house? Um… next year we’ll remodel the bathroom)….
To the schools you went to and the schools your children go to. I went public schools in Richmond growing up and I find myself surrounded by people who went to private schools and so 30 years later when people ask me where I went to high school I find myself on the hot seat of justification – um… I didn’t go to St. Christopher’s, but Douglas Freeman was a really good school and…um…
And the list goes on and on and on and on to the jokes you make, the clams you bake, the friends you forsake, the leaves you rake, the credit you take, the people you fake, and your home at the lake, your life is one big clusterjam of self justification. You, like me, have a thirst to slake and no matter how much you imbibe, you always need just a little bit more.
“It’s true that we will never be free until we are dead to the entire business of justifying ourselves. But since that business is our life, that means not until we are dead” (Capon). Though we may find ourselves back on the hamster wheel of self-justification to others and to ourselves (are you a person who has to think about your check list of what you’ve accomplished during the day before you can rest at night?), Jesus’ story today tells us that as far as God is concerned you might as well drop the whole ridiculous charade right now. Upon looking at the justification cards we bring to the table, God might say, like Queen Victoria, “We are not amused.”
Let’s take a quick look at the two characters in the story. First, the Pharisee. Let’s put aside for a moment all the disparaging things Jesus says about Pharisees and look at the guy from a positive light. He’s an upstanding citizen who comes to the temple to thank God for all his gifts. He’s not a hypocrite either. He fasts twice a week. I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to give up my flank steak and pinot noir once a year, much less twice a week.
What’s more, the Pharisee puts his money where his mouth is – literally. He tithes – giving 10% of all his income. You have just received our Sr. Warden’s stewardship letter in the mail. I know Jesus says that the Pharisee is not the one that went down to his home justified, but I sure hope he stops by Christ Church on his way! He sounds like a great candidate for the vestry.
The other guy in the story is a real slime ball. He’s a
“tax-farmer, who is the worst kind of crook: a mafia-style enforcer working for the Roman government on a nifty franchise that lets him collect from his fellow Jews….all the money he can bleed out of them, provided only he pays the authorities an agreed flat fee. He has been living for years on the cream he has skimmed off their milk money. As one commentator imagines him, “He is a fat cat who drives a stretch limo, drinks nothing but Chivas Regal, and never shows up at a party without at least two $500-a-night call girls in tow.” (Capon)
So you get the picture. Given the two characters, if anyone is justified by works or worth of any kind, it would be the vestry candidate. But instead it is the crook who looks at the tips of his shoes and says, “Lord, have mercy.”
And just so you get the full scandal of the story, imagine that the crook goes down to his home right with God, then gets up Monday morning, fleeces some widows and orphans out of their money, with which he buys another handle of scotch and hooks up with a few more call girls. Then, the next Sunday he comes back to church, looks once again at the tips of his shoes, and says, “Lord, have mercy.” If the gospel is really the gospel, then he will once again go down to his home justified, week after week after week.
Does this offend you? Of course it does. This is why St. Paul calls the gospel “an offense.” It’s an offense to justice. It’s an offence to self-justification. But, ostensibly we’re all here because we believe this. This is why we pray the best prayer in the BCP week after week after week. I’m talking about the prayer of humble access. It could be the prayer of the tax collector. “We do not presume to come to this Thy table O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in Thy manifold and great mercies.”
When it comes to righteousness, all we can say is, “I got nothing.” I got nothing, but God has everything. He justifies us completely and entirely apart from who we are and what we do. In a recent interview, Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron was asked to evaluate his performance on the field. He answered, “That’s not my job to judge myself. That’s the coaches job.” It’s not your job to judge yourself or to judge others. It’s God’s job. And because of the death and resurrection of His Son on your behalf, He has judged you to be perfect. St. Paul puts it this way,”(Jesus) was delivered over to death for our sins and raised for our justification.”
I was thinking about the “thank God I’m not like him” part of the sermon on my daily walk through the UVA Grounds Thursday morning, wearing my fleece with a fly-fishing logo on it (justify me! Justify me!) when I spotted a man whose appearance I immediately judged as “not my type, not our tribe.” As I approached him I saw he had a stack of little books in his hand and he very politely said, “Hello, Sir. Would you like a free copy of God’s Word”, to which I grunted, “no” as I thought, “these darn bible thumping fundamentalists… Thank God I’m not like him.” Oops.
The gospel is this: you look at another person, any other person and say, “By God, I’m just like him.” And then you take your eyes of the other person and look at Jesus Christ and say, “Thank God I’m not like Him,” which is the same thing as saying, “Thank God He’s not like me.”
Thank God He isn’t like me, a combination of the 2 characters in His story, both a sinner and a self-justifier. Thank God He’s not like me. Thank God He went to the cross for me to prove that His property is always to have mercy, day after day, week after week, year after year.
- Luke 18:9 - 14