Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox
Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18;Luke 18:9-14
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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.' 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."
Jesus and his followers are getting close to Jerusalem. They’ve been on the road for a long time, and they can almost see the temple mount in the distance. Time is running out; they know what’s going to happen when they get there.
What they don’t want to talk about—nor do we—is that death awaits. The world as they have known it will come to an end. Jesus has been very clear with them that he is on the way to his final departure, his “exodus” as it was called earlier in the gospel, and like the Exodus in the earlier history of Israel, this crossing over will lead his followers into a new life they cannot yet imagine.
Jesus has been teaching them about the Kingdom of God all this time. This strange kingdom is like no other kingdom they—or we—have ever known. It is not about power or prestige; it is not about dominating other people or remaining dignified and aloof. Quite the opposite.
Jesus tells a parable this morning about two men, praying in the temple. One man is clearly the good guy: He does all the right things; he observes the rituals of his religious tradition; he gives ten percent of his income (that’s before taxes, by the way) to the priests. We would like him. This is someone we would welcome with open arms into our congregation, and probably send his name to Bill Mccuch as a potential vestry member.
The other man is a T-total mess. Our translation has “tax collector” but the term “extortionist goon” might be a more dynamic image. This is someone who has sold out to the occupying Roman political system, and is shaking his own people down for everything he can get out of them. He has grown rich by the exploitation of others; his own mother and brothers cross the street to avoid him; he is corrupt to the core.
And there they are, both of them together in the temple. Why they are there—who knows? The good guy would probably be there anyway, he was certainly one of the regulars. Maybe he was serving as the Vestryperson on duty that morning. Tony Soprano over in the corner there hasn’t darkened the door of the place in years…not even at the high feasts.
The good guy is thanking God for…well, for being himself. And that’s not a bad thing to be grateful for. But he’s more than a little impressed with his own good-doing, you’ll notice. “Thank you that I’m not like ‘them people’”. Especially THAT guy over there… And Jesus’ hearers would agree, that being THAT GUY would be a terrible thing.
Meanwhile Tony in the corner—for whatever reason he even showed up that day—looks down at his shoes. Won’t even lift his face to see the other people in the room. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He knows who he is, that he is NOT one of the good guys, that he does NOT have his life together in any ordinary sense of the term, that he is totally outside the boundaries. Definitely and assuredly one of “Them People.” Completely and Wholly Other.
This one, Jesus says, went home justified before God. He knew he needed mercy, and he asked for it, and God gave it.
Justified and justification are some of those churchy words that have picked up a lot of associations over the years. But I want you to think for a second in a slightly different context. As I write the words to this sermon, I can decide how I want the printed page to look. I can, with a couple of keystrokes, cause the words of the paragraph to line up vertically on the left, or on the right, or both at the same time. I tell the computer: “Justify the text”—that is, set the words in a particular relationship with one another. The words themselves—black dots on a white screen—have no agency in the situation, I can do with them whatever I like.
God’s justification—sometimes called “rightwising,” setting in right relationship, putting back in order—is frequently unlike our notions of such things. We want an apology when we have been wronged; we want to see the guilty punished and the innocent vindicated; we demand to see suffering visited on those who have caused suffering. (“O daughter of Babylon”, Psalm 137 again…) But this is not what Jesus is up to; not today, not on the cross of Calvary. (My ways are not your ways; nor are my thoughts your thoughts, says the Lord. Isaiah 55:8)
Tony goes home justified before God apparently because God desires Tony, and responds in mercy to his plea. Our good guy, our friend who does all the right things and keeps himself out of trouble, whom we would far rather have as a next-door neighbor, as a colleague, as a leader in any religious community, apparently thinks that he’s got it all together. That he’s doing fine—thanks God, much appreciated—but that that’s all he needs.
“Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves, and regarded others with contempt.” One of the most common and most seductive ways of making ourselves feel better about who we are, is to calculate who’s below us in the pecking order. We’ve all seen the bumper sticker: “I may be slow, but I’m ahead of you!” But then again, we’re all behind someone too…staring at their backside, possibly tailgating a bit, or a lot. This is the calculation of the old kingdom; the power plays and one-upmanship; the endless competition and addiction to success that the world has known from the beginning.
Jesus comes, preaching and teaching; healing the sick and raising the dead; proclaiming a kingdom that is in, but not of, that world and its addiction to success. In fact, he tells his hearers, the kingdom is found in the unlikeliest places and people. Among the last, the least, the lost and the dead is God most often found—for they know they don’t have their lives together, not even in the slightest. And in losing, and getting lost, in giving up the old game and dying—not just the big final breath, but all the little deaths and losses along the way—we also have the opportunity every day to find the kingdom. To cry out, when we can’t even take our eyes off our own shoetops: God, have mercy on me, a sinner. To repent, to turn around, to return to the God of mercy and welcome and healing and forgiveness and resurrection from the dead. The dying and rising of Jesus is the pattern for our lives as Christians; day by day, minute by minute, we are invited into deeper awareness and enactment of that reality. It is not about good-doing (although that may be a by-product); it is not about one-upmanship or a kind of churchified competitiveness that is simply the same-old-same-old with a cross stuck on top of it. It is about entering into a living mystery that changes us, first and last, into the image and likeness of Christ.
In the short story Revelation, Georgia author Flannery O’Connor tells of a day in the life of Ruby Turpin, a woman who has spent most of her life quite convinced that she is on the side of the good guys. But on this particular day, that certainty is compromised. In a doctor’s office waiting room, Ruby is attacked by a young woman with the remarkable name of Mary Grace—who literally throws a book across the room at her. In the melee which follows, Mary Grace and Ruby Turpin are very close together, and Mary Grace says to her: “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”
Ruby is stunned by this communication, and goes home and thinks about it. She demands an answer: How am I a good person, and a wart hog from hell too? At the last, she is standing out in a field, angrily yelling at God: “Who do you think you are?”
…The sun slipped behind the treeline. Mrs. Turpin remained there… At last, she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk…A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw this streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black [folk] in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were [singing] on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away…In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.
At length she got down…and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.
1 "Revelation" from Flannery o'Connor: The Complete Stories,(New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 1971), p. 508