Sunday, October 24
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
O God, the strength of those who humbly confess their sin and place
their hope in you, save us from vain displays of righteousness, and give
us grace to keep faith with the true humility of our Lord Jesus Christ.
He also 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."
All Readings For This Sunday
Joel 2:23-32 with Psalm 65 or
Sirach 35:12-17 or Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 with Psalm 84:1-7 and
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 and
1. With whom do you identify in this text: the Pharisee, or the publican, or perhaps the audience?
2. In what ways might we be tempted to believe in our own accomplishments and in our deserving of what we have received?
3. How do you think you would have reacted if you had been in the audience listening to Jesus that day?
4. Who are those, in our churches, in our denomination, in our society, from whom we stand apart when we pray?
5. What does it mean to you to go home from church "justified"?
by Kate Huey
The Gospel of Luke gives us a mixed picture of the Pharisees. For
example, two chapters before Jesus tells these two parables about
prayer, the Pharisees are called "lovers of money," but in Chapter 13,
some presumably friendly Pharisees warn Jesus of Herod's intention to
kill him. Even commentaries on today's passage provide a more complex
portrait of these religious "elites." Richard Swanson sees them in a
positive light: "The Pharisees preserved faith in God even under the
crushing force of Roman military domination, and they preserved it by
maintaining clarity about the way the goodness of God ought to shape all
of faithful life." But we all tend to remember the many times Jesus
criticized them, calling them not only money lovers but adulterers and
In much the same way as shepherds, tax-collectors, at least in the
Gospels, have a more positive image for us than they would have had for
Luke's earliest audience. In fact, as long as they stay in the ancient
past, those people Jesus ate dinner with--prostitutes, tax-collectors,
sinners of all kinds--are the ones we want to identify with; we'd like
to think that we, too, would be included in those meals with Jesus. And
we certainly don't want to identify with the religious hypocrites. But
the tax-collector was hated by the people, and not without cause,
because he was the instrument of economic oppression by the Roman
Empire. That makes him a collaborator, and ritually unclean as well.
"Tax-collectors are not merely 'misunderstood': they are on the wrong
side religiously, politically, and economically," David Schnasa Jacobsen
writes; this man is not the "publican with a heart of gold."
Undoubtedly, the Pharisee and the tax-collector must have both evoked a
strong, but mixed, reaction from Jesus' audience as he taught them about
This is the second of two parables in a row about prayer, the first
being about the persistent widow in last Sunday's reading (Luke 18:1-8).
Jesus uses the least likely examples as teaching aids: widows were at
the bottom of society, without power or voice, and yet how powerful was
the voice of this widow! In this passage, another dimension of prayer is
addressed, the heart of prayer, really: who God is, and who we are
before God. For the Pharisee, God seems to live right inside him. His
prayer is more of a Shakespearean soliloquy, praising himself and his
works and his own goodness. He has it all figured out, and things add up
rather nicely for him. Perhaps he comes out looking better than even
God does! It helps to have the tax-collector nearby for stark contrast,
because the Pharisee far outshines him in his virtuous works. To this
religious leader, God is benevolent and has surely noticed how good the
Pharisee is. Actually, there isn't much need for God to do anything in
the life of this Pharisee except to agree with him.
Another most unlikely teacher
And yet Jesus once again uses the unexpected example to teach his
audience a lesson. The tax-collector pours out his heart and buries
himself so deeply into the voicing of his deepest anguish, his most
profound awareness of his own weakness, failures, and sins, that he
apparently never notices the Pharisee, let alone compares himself with
him. He flings himself on the mercies of God and depends on God to do
something remarkable in his life. There are so many reversals in the
Gospel of Luke that perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that this hated
collaborator goes home justified while the observant religious type
Raymond Bailey draws an uncomfortable (for us) comparison between
Pharisees and "good elders, stewards, or deacons. They are the ones who
do the work of the church and provide the financial support necessary to
support religious institutions. Pharisees were devoted to God and
righteousness, and most of their faults were the result of overstriving
for holiness. Their zeal was often misguided, but at least they had zeal
in their desire to please God." When religion, and the institution and
our place in it, become the end instead of the means (as they so often
can), church leaders can easily lose our way, as the Pharisee praying in
the Temple evidently did. The same pitfalls on the journey of faith
endanger us in the church today, so this little story Jesus tells hits
home for us as well.
Making room for God in our lives
So Jesus teaches a lesson about God's mercy in justifying the abject
sinner, the tax-collector, instead of the apparently holy Pharisee. If
we come before God in humble openness and fervent trust in God's
goodness (how else would we be forgiven but for God's goodness?), we
make room for God to work in our lives. That is much closer to
righteousness than all the good works we can manage. Charles Cousar
writes, "Prayer is the occasion for honesty about oneself and generosity
about others." Honesty flows from openness: an open heart, an open
mind, a life opened to God and to transformation. For Luke's audience,
learning to be Christian years after Jesus died, "Prayer was not a last
resort when all the plans and programs and power plays had failed;
prayer was, rather, the first and primary task of Christians." Prayer
helps us to discover who we are, and who God is: merciful and loving and
The hook in this story may be our own temptation to identify with the
tax-collector and not the Pharisee, even though the Pharisee may
resemble many more of us in many more ways than we would like to think,
in the life of the church and in our society. At what moments have we
thanked God with a kind of self-satisfied, self-centered prayer of
gratitude, thankful that we were able to accomplish our own
righteousness? Whichever side we are on, in any question raging in the
life of the church, how is the Stillspeaking God calling us to find that
common ground of radical dependence on God’s grace that enables us to
pray together for forgiveness, recognizing ourselves, whether Pharisee
(religiously righteous in our practices) or tax collector (living
outside the bounds of proper society and rules)? What issues divide us
and keep us from this kind of shared prayer, this kind of shared
recognition that we are all sinners, but we all belong to God? And if we
do belong to God, and if we are all sinners, how can we leave church
this day, thanking God that we are not like that prideful,
A preaching version of this commentary (with references) can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel
For further reflection
Richard Rohr, 20th century
It's not addition that makes one holy but subtraction: stripping the
illusions, letting go of pretense, exposing the false self, breaking
open the heart and the understanding, not taking my private self too
Mother Teresa, 20th century
If you judge people, you have no time to love them.
C.S. Lewis, 20th century
A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course,
as long as you're looking down, you can't see something that's above
Voltaire, 18th century
We are rarely proud when we are alone.
Monica Baldwin, 20th century
What makes humility so desirable is the marvelous thing it does to us;
it creates in us a capacity for the closest possible intimacy with God.
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