10/23/2016 Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost The text is Luke 18:9-14.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The bigger, the better, or so they say…but that all depends upon what you are comparing. The bigger, the better might not fit if you are trying to weave a needle in a small hole. And it might not fit any better if you are looking to buy a house. For the bigger the house, the higher the cost. And yet, we always seem to have our eyes set on the highest prize, the loftiest goal, the greatest achievement.
We compare ourselves, our actions, our possessions, our accomplishments to those around us to see how we measure up. The question is the point of the comparison. Take the right point and you can feel as good as the little boy who announced to his mother, “I’m like Goliath. I’m 9 feet tall.” “Why do you say that?” asked his mother. “Well, I made a little ruler and measured myself with it; I’m 9 feet tall!”
Today’s gospel is all about comparisons as the Pharisee in today’s story compares himself to the tax collector. Now everything that this man says about himself is true. For instance, when he says, “I thank you that I am not like other men,” indeed he isn’t like other men. He has a standard of morality that is far above the standard of that day. When he says, “I fast twice a week;” it happens to be literally true. The Pharisees fast on Monday and Thursday of every week. When he says, “I give tithes of all I possess,” he means he tithes on the gross and not on the net. And that means he does what so few do today – he gives a full 10% of his income to the work of the church.
This man goes beyond the Law of Moses. But that’s no big deal; all the Pharisees do that. And when he says, “I am not a crook,” he really isn’t a crook. When he says, “I am not like this filthy tax collector,” he’s really not like that guy. When he says, “I do not commit adultery,” he really doesn’t commit adultery. He is faithful to his wife. When he says, “I am honest, I am faithful, I am zealous for my religion,” he means it and every word of it is true. When he says, “Lord, you’re lucky to have a guy like me, because I’m one of the best guys I know,” it is really true. He really is a wonderful guy.
While he prays, people would be standing around watching. And they would say, “He’s a fine man.” While he prays, they probably applaud. He is the kind of guy you’d want living next door to you. A good citizen. A law-abiding man. A good, religious kind of person. If he were to come to this church today we’d love him because he would be faithful, loyal, and give us a lot of money. We’d probably elect him to the church council. He’s just that kind of guy. He looks really good on the outside. Everything he says about himself is absolutely true. He truly is a genuinely good man, a good man with an inflated ego that fits the words of the country song, “Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.” For there is one thing that this good man is lacking; he lacks clear vision as he really doesn’t see himself for who he is.
I remember the last time I went into a store to buy a new suit. I picked out a style and size that I thought would fit me well, but when I tried on a suit and stood in front of the 3-way mirror, reality struck. The mirror enabled me to see myself from three different perspectives and it wasn’t pretty. As I looked at my image in the mirror, I was very uncomfortable. Since I normally us a standard mirror in which I can hide from my eyes certain excesses that hang out for others to behold. As I tried to adjust the clothing to fit my mental image of how things should look, I began to realize that what I perceive as my good side is not that at all.
When the Pharisee prays to God he doesn’t see himself in a three-way mirror. He sees only his good side. He is filled with righteousness, proud of his perfect record, especially his fasting and tithing. The tax collector, on the other hand, the one the Pharisee proudly compares as being different from himself, throws himself on the mercy of God. This man’s body language shows humility and contrition. Why? Because unlike the Pharisee, he sees his bad side and realizes his unworthiness. So he says, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” And with this, the world of standard religion is turned upside down.
There is a great reversal here as a self-professed righteous person is sent away empty. And a tax collector (an occupation synonymous with sinner) is sent away justified. A person who recognizes his bad side and hands it over to Christ, prays and leaves his fate in the hands of our merciful God. And with the word of Jesus, a sinner becomes righteous. A tax collector becomes a saint. A man crying for mercy becomes justified.
Now it is important for us to realize that the tax collector in this parable is praised not because he is a tax collector but because he is humble as he prays and admits that he is a horrible sinner in need of the grace of God. The Pharisee is said not to have been fully justified, not because he is a Pharisee but because he exalts himself. Fasting, tithing, and good ethical behavior are not rejected, but the failure to understand that even the most righteous among us is a sinner is put into question. For sinful behavior is not condoned – and neither is an inflated ego and a comparison that makes us believe we are better than the person standing next to us.
So how do you see yourself? Are you like the Pharisee, who only sees how good he is, or are you like the tax collector who only sees himself in need of God’s forgiveness? In the end, human standards don’t count. The only evaluation that counts is the absolute standard of God himself and with that measuring stick, we all come up short!
Jesus knows this. He understands that there is a humanity-wide neediness that can never be covered over or wished away by the work of human hands. That “neediness”, that dependence, is created by sin. Sin is the huge, gaping hole we all keep falling into as we look into a mirror and see what we want to see instead of what is truly there.
We are all the same. We may look different, behave different, have different characteristics and backgrounds. We may have more or less than someone else. But there is no need to compare for under the skin, we are all the same. Since all sin and fall short of the glory of God, none of us can stand face to face with God on our own. We need Jesus as his cross is the only footbridge that can get us across that chasm into the Promised Land.
So may we see ourselves as we truly are – sinners in need of mercy and saints who are justified by Christ. And may the peace of God which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.