Sermon Seeds: No Distance Too Great
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 25
Joel 2:23-32 with Psalm 65 or
Sirach 35:12-17 or Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 with Psalm 84:1-7
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
No Distance Too Great
by Kathryn Matthews 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. 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). But we all tend to remember the many times Jesus criticized them, 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.
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 we’d be included in those meals with Jesus, too. 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” (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.
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 often 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 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.
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 doesn’t.
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” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). Sometimes, when religion became the end instead of the means (as it so often can) these leaders could easily lose their 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 for a preacher to draw too strong a comparison between Pharisees and good stewards!
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). 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, and who God is: merciful and loving and just.
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. In what ways might we be tempted to believe in our own accomplishments and in our deserving of what we have received? 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? Who are those, in our churches, in our denomination, in our society, from whom we stand apart when we pray? 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, self-righteous Pharisee? Would we have missed the point entirely?
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 be performed,
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 with richness.
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 of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to 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.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading (Series 1) through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings (Series 2). It is suggested that a congregation choose one option and follow it.