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October 24, 2004 (Pentecost 21)—“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Pastor David Barber
Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
In a July issue of the Christian Century magazine, Martin Marty wrote a column entitled "How great we are." Most of the article was lifted from a community newspaper, and the names have been changed to protect the innocent or the guilty--whatever the case maybe.
A family had placed this ad in the newspaper when their daughter had graduated from high school. "Congratulations Margaret Standford on being valedictorian of Murphyville High School. From: your parents, Drs. John and Thelma Standford, and sister Mary-Ellen."
The ad went on: "What is Margaret going to be? Double-majoring to be a doctor...Fall 2004--going to Central State University. Attending Warren Beecher Honors Science College...1 of 10 students accepted into medical school from high school.
"Margaret's graduation gifts include...
It also listed her up-to-date achievements, which "doesn't include scholarships and school awards to be given the first week of June.
And then the ad continued with a number of her other accomplishments and the rewards she had received.
This article reflected about the damage done by the "chest-thumping egotism of obviously gifted parents gloating over the honors of their gifted daughter."
It's enough to make one vomit, and I wonder if and how the words of the gospel will come true in her life--"all who exalt themselves will be humbled."
At first glance what we have here mirrors the Pharisee who in his own chest-thumping way prays: "God, I thank you that I'm not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I not only fast once a week but twice a week and I tithe on all my income and not just my income after taxes."
His attitude as well is enough to make us regurgitate, and we might be thinking, "Thank God, I'm not like this Pharisee, and hopefully, I'll never become like him." And yet, that's probably not the way our first-century audience heard these words.
John Dominic Crossan suggests that an equivalent reading for our time would be: "Two people went up to St. Peter's to pray--one was the pope and the other a pimp."
But that's not all suggests another commentator. The pope was singing "Amazing Grace" on his way to St. Peter's and actually had tears in his eyes as he said his prayers. He's truly moved to gratitude for the life God has blessed him with.
And the pimp--well, that's another story. After he wipes his eyes, blows his nose, and has gone home, he probably won't be quitting his profession of exploiting and taking advantage of the powerless. He can't see any other options; it's a dangerous and terrible business, but he's stuck with it.
Tomorrow he'll be back to the same old wicked job of taking money from his neighbors. He'll hand some over to the government, and put some aside for himself. There's not going to be any drastic changes to his behavior here.
I know which one most churches depend on and the one I want to have in my corner for the fall stewardship capital campaign. I know which one Carl Crosier would like to have in his choir unless of course the Pharisee can't carry a tune.
I know which one would volunteer to teach the unruly Sunday School class even though he wouldn't last much longer than any other volunteer. And I know which one would work faithfully down at IHS or labor diligently for the health and well-being of the community.
Why, what would happen if we had a church filled with such folks--folks who are diligent in Bible Study, daily devotions, and prayer--and folks who tithe of all their income and thank God for the opportunity? Can you just imagine what we could accomplish together and our outreach into the community?
Recently I read where two people estimated that it would take 70-80 billion dollars annually to meet basic human needs worldwide through projects for clean water and sanitation, prenatal and infant/maternal care, basic education, and long-term development.
That's a lot of money, but these two people also suggested that if church members in the U.S. would increase their giving to 10 percent of their income, that would generate an additional $86 billion for such projects. And that's something that the Pharisee would stand up to support.
To see the tax collector as honorable and the Pharisee as a creep makes this story false. That's a wrong interpretation. Jesus is not telling us, "Now I want you to go and model the life of the tax collector."
Nor is Jesus encouraging us to pray, "thank God I'm not like all those other hypocrites that go to church. Thank God I don't make a big deal out of my religion like all those other folks. If we do that we fall into the same trap as the Pharisee--exalting ourselves or even demeaning ourselves in comparison to others.
It's better to see them as they are--the Pharisee as a thoroughly generous and committed man and the tax collector as a compromised and certified scoundrel. For that's when we see the surprise and the reversal in this story.
Perhaps this reversal is similar to this Jewish folktale concerning prayer. "Once there was a rabbi who was at the point of death, so the Jewish community proclaimed a day of fasting in the town in order to induce the Heavenly Judge to commute the sentence of death.
On that very day, when the entire congregation was gathered in the synagogue for fasting and prayer, the town drunkard went to the village tavern for some schnapps.
When another Jew saw him do this he rebuked him, saying, "Don't you know this is a fast-day and you're not allowed to drink? Why, everybody's at the synagogue praying for the rabbi."
So the drunkard went to the synagogue and prayed, "Dear God! Please restore our rabbi to good health so that I can have my schnapps!"
The rabbi recovered, and it was considered a miracle. He explained it in the following way: "May God preserve our village drunkard until he is a hundred and twenty years! Know that his prayer was heard by God when yours was not. He put his whole heart and soul into his prayer!"
The Pharisee certainly seems to be sincere enough or just as sincere as the tax collector, and yet there's a reversal or a surprise here. For Jesus tells us that the tax collector went home justified. Why?
The Pharisee's righteousness led him down the path of contempt for others. He gives thanks that he's not like them--like other people--and specifically like the tax collector.
There's no awareness whatsoever that he's in the same boat with the tax collector or that he's a sinner like him. He wouldn't understand the words of Luther on his deathbed: "We are beggars. That is sure." We come with empty hands, and our only hope is the mercy of God.
With the Pharisee, it's us and them--the insiders and the outsiders--once again. He measures himself against a neighbor--against this tax collector--and is quietly pleased with the difference.
Unfortunately, if we live and pray like this man, we won't know much of God's grace and mercy and we won't be open to our neighbors and the suffering that they endure. If we come with hands and hearts clenched and full, we'll go home empty.
This is a story about grace--the grace of God. The Pharisee and the tax collector are in the same boat. They both need God and God's mercy. They both fall short.
The only thing is, one man doesn't know his need and the other one does. The tax collector who comes before God with his hands empty understands the truth of the Gospel--that we are made right with God and with each other through grace alone.
Perhaps his prayer is like that of a dying person. It's not a prayer of thanksgiving that we are not like someone else, but an honest confession of who we really are when we stand before God, "God, be merciful to me a sinner."
And God is--God in Jesus Christ is merciful--God in Jesus Christ is full of grace and goodness.
"As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is God's steadfast love."
God's steadfast love is from everlasting to everlasting. God's grace and mercy is without boundaries--extending to sinners like you and me--sinners of all kinds--sinners with well-spoken prayers and sinners with blurted out prayers.
It's only through God's grace that we return home justified or different than we came--only through grace.
If you came this morning with empty hands and empty hearts, then this story is for you. For you, too, may pray--"God, be merciful to me a sinner"--and God is! way, your faith has made you well."
Copyright © 2004 David Barber
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