October 27, 2013
First Christian Church
This parable reminds me of General Akbar from Star Wars. He’s the fish like guy from the Return of the Jedi who realizes the Rebel forces are in danger. He utters a line that most science fiction geeks know by heart: “It’s a trap!”
The reason I decided to give you one more clue that I’m a geek, is because the passage today has a trap built into it- one that you can’t see so easily. The trap is out there in plain sight but because we are so focused on the ruse, we don’t see it.
So, Jesus tells this story and Luke says he tells it “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” He then sets up the story. Here’s this Pharisee who come to the temple to “pray.” He is supposedly praying to song, but he starts talking in a voice that everyone in the room could here. He gives thanks to God that he wasn’t like the low lives he regularly encounter; including, a tax collector. The Pharisee knows that the tax collector is in the room and makes a point to look at him. The Pharisee continues telling God, and everyone else, of all the good things he has done.
Then there is this tax collector. He isn’t even looking up, but is faced downward and pleading with God to have mercy on him, a sinner.
Did you catch the trap? Or did you fall for it?
Before I reveal the trap; a little background. To the first century hearers of this story, the Pharisee was considered a good person. He worked hard to follow the law and was looked up to by the populace. The tax collector on the other hand, was not seen as a good person. Tax collectors were employed by Rome, which meant they were viewed as collaborators to the occupying force. Rome allowed them to keep whatever the collected above the amount required by Rome, which meant that more often than not, these men would try to get every last cent from the local population. If you think people don’t like the IRS, the Jews of that day despised these fellow countrymen who worked for the other side.
So, the Pharisee was righteous. He did all the right things. The tax collector was not considered a righteous person and this particular tax collector knew it.
But here’s the General Akbar moment. Most of us will look at this parable and come to the conclusion that the moral of the story is to not be like the Pharisee. We are to be humble and not full of ourselves. That’s the trap. We end up thinking this story is about learning to not be self-righteous, but to be more humble.
But the minute we think this story is about not being the Pharisee, we end up…being the Pharisee. We want to think this is about being humble, but the line between humility and pride is thin, indeed. We can think we are being humble by living simply or eating organically, or driving a Prius or not smoking or drinking, but we are falling into the trap. We are justifying ourselves by what we do and looking down at others who don’t measure up.
The tax collector went home justified, not because what he did, but because of what he said. He asked God to have mercy on him. He realized there was nothing he could do to please God. He had to rely only on God’s mercy and grace.
This story is not about being humble. That’s a good thing and we should try to be humble, but this story is about resting completely on God’s grace and not on what we do.
In Paul’s letter to the Phillipians he takes note that all the things that he thought were so important to him- all the credentials and honors no longer mean anything. Here’s what Paul says in Phillipians 3:7-9:
The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness.
It’s easy to focus on being good, in being self-righteous. It’s hard for us, all of us to come before God and rest on God’s mercy. That means not being in control and relying totally on God’s grace.
Yesterday, a group of us went to pack meals at Feed My Starving Children. Now I believe that as Christians we are to be engage in helping each other, to do works of justice. But it’s so easy to think that we are doing this to justify ourselves, to make us feel good about ourselves and to get on God’s side. But our acts of justice are not done to become righteous, they are done out of the abundance of God’s mercy- they are acts of gratitude for what God has done in our lives.
I’ve noticed the song we sing for our Doxology. It’s a song that I remember singing as a kid. I don’t know the history of why it’s sung as the doxology, but it does seem to fit what we are talking about today. “Freely, freely, you have recieved; freely, freely, give.” We have recieved God’s grace. We did nothing to receive it. In response, let us live a life of gratitide towards others and God. Thanks be to God. Amen.