Just Worship/No Distance Too Great

Just Worship/No Distance Too Great

October 23, 2016
Written by Kathryn Matthews

Sunday, October 23
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Weekly Theme
Just Worship/No Distance Too Great

Weekly Prayer
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. Amen.

Focus Scripture
Luke 18:9-14

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
Luke 18:9-14

Focus Questions

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"?

Reflection by Kate Matthews

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. Commentaries on today's passage provide a still 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."

However, we tend to remember the many times Jesus criticized the Pharisees, calling them not only money lovers but adulterers and hypocrites, too. In fact, the word "Pharisee" has become a synonym for "hypocrite," and many folks use it that way even if they've never read the Gospel stories about them. It's safe to say that few of us religious folks would take it as a compliment if someone called us a Pharisee.

Neither man was beloved by the people

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 safely in the ancient past, those people Jesus ate dinner with--prostitutes, tax-collectors, people with leprosy, 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 those judgmental religious hypocrites.

But the tax-collector was no innocent: he 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 in Jesus' story 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 prayer.

Hoping God will just go along with this prayer

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 begins the series by using that most unlikely character as a teaching aid: widows were at the bottom of society, without power or voice, and yet how powerful was the voice of that 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 an unexpected illustration 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 to 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 doesn't.

Raymond Bailey draws an uncomfortable (for us church folks) 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, 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 (as Barbara Brown Taylor mentioned last week), and who God is: merciful and loving and just.

Examining our own righteousness

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 Godís 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, and hated by many)? 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 all belong to God, and if we are all sinners, how can we leave church each time, and live our lives each day, thanking God that we are not like that prideful, self-righteous Pharisee?

A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) is the retired dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection

Martin Luther, 16th century
"True humility does not know that it is humble. If it did, it would be proud from the contemplation of so fine a virtue."

Madeleine L'Engle, 20th century
"Humility is throwing oneself away in complete concentration on something or someone else."

Henri J.M. Nouwen, 20th century
"As long as we continue to live as if we are what we do, what we have, and what other people think about us, we will remain filled with judgments, opinions, evaluations, and condemnations. We will remain addicted to putting people and things in their 'right' place."

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 seriously."

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 you."
and
"Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man....It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone."

S¯ren Kierkegaard, 19th century
"The proud person always wants to do the right thing, the great thing. But because he wants to do it in his own strength, he is fighting not with man, but with God."

Andrew Murray, 19th century
"Pride must die in you, or nothing of heaven can live in you."

Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century
"Pride slays thanksgiving....A prideful man is seldom a grateful man, for he never thinks he gets as much as he deserves."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
"A great man is always willing to be little."

J.M. Barrie, The Little Minister, 20th century
"Life is a long lesson in humility."

Emily BrontÎ, 19th century
"Proud people breed sad sorrows for themselves."

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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