Sermon Seeds: Just Worship/No Distance Too Great
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25)
Worship resources for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time are at Worship Ways
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
Just Worship/No Distance Too Great
by Kathryn 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” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke).
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” ((New Proclamation Year C 2007). 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” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).
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 pitfall on the journey of faith endangers us in the church today, although, deeply into stewardship season, it might not be a good idea to draw too strong a comparison between Pharisees and good stewards!
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” (Texts for Preaching Year C). 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” (Cousar). Prayer helps us to discover who we are (or remember 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 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, and hated by many)?
What does it feel like to go home “justified”?
With whom do you identify in this text: the Pharisee, or the publican, or perhaps the audience? In what ways might we be tempted to believe in our own accomplishments and in our deserving of what we have received? How do you think you would have reacted if you had been in the audience listening to Jesus that day? Who are those, in our churches, in our denomination, in our society, from whom we stand apart when we pray? What does it mean to you to go home from church “justified”?
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?
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in July after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
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.”
“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.”
Søren 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 Brontë, 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.”
O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in the Lord your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain, as before.
The threshing-floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will repay you for the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent against you.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
Then afterwards I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth,
blood and fire and columns of smoke.
The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood,
before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved;
for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape,
as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.
Praise is due to you,
O God, in Zion;
and to you shall vows
O you who answer prayer!
To you all flesh shall come.
When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
you forgive our transgressions.
Happy are those
whom you choose
and bring near to live
in your courts.
We shall be satisfied
with the goodness of your house,
your holy temple.
By awesome deeds
you answer us with deliverance,
O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends
of the earth
and of the farthest seas.
By your strength
you established the mountains;
you are girded with might.
You silence the roaring
of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples.
Those who live
at earth’s farthest bounds
are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways
of the morning
and the evening shout for joy.
You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
and settle its ridges,
you soften the earth with showers,
and you bless its growth.
You crown the year
with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.
Give to the Most High as he has given to you,
and as generously as you can afford.
For the Lord is the one who repays,
and he will repay you sevenfold.
Do not offer him a bribe, for he will not accept it;
and do not rely on a dishonest sacrifice;
for the Lord is the judge,
and with him there is no partiality.
He will not show partiality to the poor;
but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.
He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan,
or the widow when she pours out her complaint.
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
Although our iniquities testify against us,
act, O Lord, for your name’s sake;
our apostasies indeed are many,
and we have sinned against you.
O hope of Israel,
its savior in time of trouble,
why should you be like a stranger in the land,
like a traveler turning aside for the night?
Why should you be like someone confused,
like a mighty warrior who cannot give help?
Yet you, O Lord, are in the midst of us,
and we are called by your name;
do not forsake us!
Thus says the Lord concerning this people:
Truly they have loved to wander,
they have not restrained their feet;
therefore the Lord does not accept them,
now he will remember their iniquity
and punish their sins.
Have you completely rejected Judah?
Does your heart loathe Zion?
Why have you struck us down
so that there is no healing for us?
We look for peace, but find no good;
for a time of healing, but there is terror instead.
We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord,
the iniquity of our ancestors,
for we have sinned against you.
Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake;
do not dishonor your glorious throne;
remember and do not break your covenant with us.
Can any idols of the nations bring rain?
Or can the heavens give showers?
Is it not you, O Lord our God?
We set our hope on you,
for it is you who do all this.
How lovely is your dwelling place,
O God of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints
for the courts of God;
my heart and my flesh sing
for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow
finds a home,
and the swallow
a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars,
O God of hosts, my Ruler
and my God.
Happy are those who live
in your house,
ever singing your praise.
Happy are those
whose strength is in you,
in whose heart
are the highways to Zion.
As they go through
the valley of Baca
they make it a place
the early rain also covers it
They go from strength
the God of gods
will be seen in Zion.
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
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.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”