“What To Do When You’re Wrong”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
October 23, 2016
Joel 2:23-32 & Luke 18:9-14
One of the more difficult challenges we face as Christians is interpreting the Scriptures week after week, year after year, in ways that are meaningful and relevant. We put our faith and trust in a God who is living and dynamic, the one who spoke order over chaos at the beginning of creation and is still doing the same today. This God has spoken to us throughout the ages in the voices of prophets, kings and queens, apostles and disciples, and through Jesus Christ our Savior. This God is still speaking to us today through prophets and rulers, apostles and disciples and martyrs, and through Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. One way we listen to God and obey God’s will is by listening to and interpreting the many voices of the Scriptures. And yet, probably more often than we would like to admit, we read the Scriptures, hook into a message and meaning, and leave it at that week after week, year after year. The Scriptures do not change, so it is easy to interpret them in straight-forward, even simplistic ways. However, the God of our faith and the Scriptures is anything but straight-forward and simplistic.
The parable that Jesus tells us today is a good example how we often interpret a scripture in a singular way and leave it at that. Jesus says that two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, a religious expert, and the other a tax collector, not a religious expert. While in the temple, the Pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” The Pharisee is good to go; he fasts twice a week and gives away a tenth of his income. The other man praying in the temple, the tax collector, prays something different. With his eyes towards the ground, beating his chest, the tax collector prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus says that the tax collector went down to his home justified, but not the Pharisee. And Jesus ends this parable with a common Gospel refrain: all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
That seems pretty straight-forward, right? Be humble. The tax collector is an example to us all of the proper way to live before God. We should, like the tax collector, take on a humble posture of prayer, confessing our sin and need for God. We should avoid congratulating ourselves for the good we do, and we should avoid any talk of how we are not like ‘those’ people, the thieves and rogues and adulterers. If we embody this way of life, live with humility before God, Jesus says that we will be exalted. If we embody the opposite, pray and live as the Pharisee does, Jesus says that we will be humbled, and that doesn’t sound too pleasant.
This is a good lesson for all of us. But is that all there is? Is that all our dynamic and living God has to say to us through this parable? I don't think so, and here is why.
Luke prefaces the parable by saying that Jesus was speaking to some who 'trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.' Hear that again 'who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.' This should be a big red flag to us. Jesus is not just offering a moral lesson to those who are listening. This is not theoretical or abstract. Jesus is speaking directly to some in the crowd who are more like the Pharisee, congratulating themselves before God, and less like the tax collector, whose recognizes his sin and relies fully on God. In other words, the tax collector is right and the Pharisee is wrong, and there are some in the crowd who are wrong. Jesus is using this parable to call for self-examination and contemplation.
We need to acknowledge that everything the Pharisee says is true. He has set himself apart from others by his faithful adherence to the law. He is, by the standards of Jesus’ time, righteous--right before God. He has followed God’s command to fast and to give of his treasure; his behavior is above reproach. Before we judge him too harshly, we might reframe that Pharisee’s prayer and wonder if we have ever uttered it ourselves. Maybe we haven’t said, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people…” but what about when we see someone down on their luck and say, “There but for the grace of God go I”? It isn’t that the Pharisee is speaking falsely, but rather that the Pharisee misses the true nature of his blessing. As Luke states, the Pharisee trusted in himself. His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to the Lord, but it is really about himself—every sentence starts with ‘I’. The Pharisee, and those in the crowd listening to Jesus, base their righteousness entirely on their own actions.
The tax collector, on the other hand, knows that he possesses no means by which he can claim to be righteous. He has done nothing of merit, nothing to deserve God’s blessing or God’s grace. He has done much to offend the law, and for this reason he stands back, hardly even within the doors of the temple, and throws himself on the mercy of the Lord. And that is the essential difference between the tax collector and the Pharisee. One makes a claim to righteousness on his own accomplishments, while the other relies entirely on the Lord’s generosity. Rather than being grateful for his blessings, the Pharisee appears smug to the point of despising the men and women around him. In his mind, there are two kinds of people: good and bad, and he is grateful that he has placed himself among the good. The tax collector, though, isn't so much humble as he is desperate. He is too overwhelmed by his sin to spend any time dividing people into good and bad. All he recognizes as he stands near the Temple is his own great need for God. The tax collector places all of his hope in God, not in anything he has done or deserved.
It is not an accident that this exchange takes place at the Temple. On the grounds of the Temple, you were always intimately aware of who you are, of what status you had, and of what you could expect from God. At the temple there were insiders and outsiders, and according to these rules there was no question of where the Pharisee and the tax collector stood. But when Jesus dies on the cross, all of this changes. As the gospels report, the curtain in the Temple is torn in two on Good Friday. The curtain in the Temple was a way to separate the righteous from the unrighteous, a way to separate God from sinful worshippers. At the moment Jesus died on the cross, the curtain in the temple was torn and so too were all the division of humanity before God. This act is prefigured in the Pharisee and the tax collector, though the death of Jesus is still a ways off. God’s justification rests not on the one who was favored by Temple law, but rather on the one who is standing close to the Temple door, aware only of his utter need for God.
Jesus used this parable to call the crowd before him to self-examination and contemplation. I believe Jesus is doing the same to us today, and asking us to examine ourselves and contemplate which of the two describes our way of life better, the Pharisee or the tax collector.
If you’re like me, then you hear Jesus speaking to you because you love to be a Pharisee. There is nothing more gratifying and self-righteous than taking stock of the people around and thanking God that I am not like them. I worship every Sunday and throughout the week. I read my Bible regularly. I give to the church. I pray and study and take a regular sabbath, though I’m not good at fasting. This sets me, and you, over and above many, many people in this world. At least we aren’t addicted to drugs or dependent on alcohol or other substances. At least we don’t rob and cheat and steal. At least we are faithful in every single thing we do, and we are, more or less, always on the right side of history or politics or religion. If our sanctuary were set-up like the Temple in Jerusalem, we would all be way up at the front, almost on the toes of the preacher.
Or would we? Not in Jesus’ estimation of things. Everything that gives us reason to puff up and be prideful are the very things that make our behavior wrong. Our way of life, in fact, would push us towards the back where the unrighteous stand. Each time we draw a line between us and them, the good and the bad, we are wrong. Each time we distinguish between those of us who regularly occupy a pew on Sunday morning, and those who may spend their Sundays at home or on a sports field or elsewhere, we are wrong. Every time we imagine that our religion or our politics or our history and background make us better or more righteous or more worthy than any other person, we are wrong. Every time we suppose the color of our skin, the amount in our bank account, or the neighborhood we live in somehow makes us better than someone else, we are wrong. If we believe that there is anything we can do to earn God’s favor and grace, we are wrong. Each time we go before God in gratitude for all that we have and all that we are, and start each sentence with ‘I,’ we are wrong.And we’re wrong not because we are bad people or because we do bad things or live bad lives; we are wrong because we imagine that we are God and, like the Pharisee, base our righteousness on our own accomplishments.
Total dependance on the grace and mercy of God is one of the pillars of the Reformed tradition, the tradition in which we stand today. It makes the bold claim that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s grace and mercy, and nothing we can do un-earn it either. God’s grace and mercy is a gift from God, and God is generous. God is generous to the point that he sent his son into this world, gave that son over to suffering and death, and raised that son from the grave so that we might have new life. God’s grace and mercy is given on the merits and accomplishments of Jesus and not our own, and for that we should be extremely grateful. This means that no matter how far we fall, no matter how far off the path we stray, no matter how much of a stranger God seems to us, God never see us as a stranger, God always brings us back, God always lifts us up. Maybe not how we expect or want, but always as God wills. We didn’t do anything to deserve it; we can’t do anything to shake it off; we must accept it, be grateful, and live life in a totally new way.
When you and I come to grasp, even a little, of the height and depth and breadth of this great gift, it should become abundantly clear what to do when you’re wrong, when I’m wrong. When we draw that line between us and them, we must repent. When we look down on those who have not found there way into a house of God, we must repent. When we use our religion or our heritage or our ethnicity as a weapon, we must repent. If we believe that everything we have and everything we are comes from anywhere other than God’s generous and loving hands, we must repent. The Biblical meaning of repentance is to literally turn and go in another direction. It is not about punishment or restitution or paying off a debt, but about turning from the direction of our sin and towards the goodness of God. Just as we turn around and go another way when we take the wrong exit on the turnpike, so it is with our lives. When our actions, when our words, when our way of living, take us the wrong way, away from God, we must turn around and go another way. If what we are doing, how we are living, and what we believe is doing anything other than leading us and the world to the abundant life God promises, we must turn around, repent.
The tax collector in the temple is our best companion when it comes to repentance. His prayer is all we have to utter in order to repent and turn in another direction, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” It is just that easy. No restitution has to be made, no payments, no punishment; Jesus already did that for us on the cross. Jesus paid the debt for our sins on the cross, and God greets our prayer of repentance with more grace and mercy than we could ever need or imagine. The prayer of a sinner falls with beauty on the ears of God, and God is always eager to forgive and restore. Repentance is not a sign of weakness, it is an act of faith. It is an act of faith that recognizes the true source of all things: God, the creator of the heavens and the earth. Repentance is not a one-time deal either; it is something we can and must do regularly because the temptations of sin are attractive and we are easily drawn away from God. No matter how often we pray the prayer, no matter the reasons we pray the prayer, God hears us, restores us, and is waiting like a father waiting to welcome his wayward child home.
Beloved in Christ, hear and believe in the good news of the gospel today: you are loved by God and you have been forgiven. There will be times when you fail to live into that love, and there will be times when you forget God’s forgiveness. Like the tax collector, today and always, put your full faith and trust in God, confess your sins, turn, and you will be counted as righteous before God. Then as the prophet Joel says, you will see visions and dream dreams, the spirit of God will be poured out on us all, and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Repent, turn, and have faith. May it be so for you and for me and for all of creation. Amen.