October 28, 2007
Oh my friends. What a double bind we find ourselves in this morning. Again, we are listening to the words of Jesus, telling us a parable. Again, Luke gives us a rather broad hint in the first verse as to the subject matter of the parable. Again, the content of the parable is prayer. Again, the two main characters of the parable are as different from one another as can be. Again, an undercurrent of justice flows through the parable, capable of bearing us away to some entirely new place! But this is a different parable, too. Let’s meet our main characters.
First, we need to say a word about Pharisees. Pharisees have the reputation, especially in Luke’s gospel, of falling into that unfortunate category of religious hypocrites. They tend to be the moneyed class, the elite religious class, and that means that they have the means to observe the law in all its complexity, down to the tiniest stroke. I have shared with you in another sermon that complete observance of the law was out of the financial reach of the poor most of the time. They poor couldn’t afford the Temple offerings to be made ritually clean after illness, after childbirth, after the normal rigors of a life of labor. Not so the Pharisees. They thought of themselves as models of holiness and righteousness… something made possible, in part, by their financial status.
Next, let’s have a word about tax collectors. If Pharisees were models of holiness and righteousness, tax collectors were models of a different kind: they were mostly thought of as models of greed, uncleanness and dishonesty. Imagine the poor opinion most Americans have about our own system of taxation, and then add to that the fact that the tax collector was a member of the community, a son of Israel, working on behalf of the enemy, occupying nation. They worked for the Roman Empire making themselves rich off the misery of their own people. Tax collectors were traitors.
Both these men go to the Temple to lift their voices in prayer. And what a contrast we see. The Pharisee, we are told, is standing by himself… but really, in the Greek, we read that he is “praying to himself.’ Most likely, the Pharisee was saying a “berahkah,” a Hebrew prayer of blessing. These always begin in the same way: “Baruch atah Adonai, Elokeynu, melekh ha-olam” “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, king of the universe, who has…” and then the blessing continues by naming that for which the person is giving thanks. Here, the Pharisee gives thanks that God did not make him like four different kinds of people he clearly thinks are inferior, including tax collectors… and he singles him out, maybe even points to him, that guy sitting in the back, very much alone. Instead, the Pharisee thanks God for giving him a heart for Jewish piety. He fasts. He tithes. In just these two areas he shows himself to be someone who not only obeys the law, but goes beyond it. By the tone of what he says, he reveals that he is pleased with the state of his religious observance. Thank God, he says. Thank God I’m not like other, lesser people.
Then Jesus turns our attention to the tax collector. But before we hear his words, Jesus paints a vivid picture with three brushstrokes. First the tax collector is standing far off, not at the center or front of the Temple where we assume the Pharisee stood. Second, he does not even raise his head as if to look towards heaven, but keeps it bowed. Third, he is beating his breast, an action signifying repentance. This is a snapshot of someone who is so filled with remorse or shame that he is wearing it visibly on his body. He utters just seven words. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” There is no pride in what he says. There is no pride in what he does. He looks down on no one except himself. And, Jesus tells us, he returns home that day justified, forgiven, restored to right relationship with God. Despite being a traitor. Despite being a truly despicable person. He goes home, a beloved child of God.
It seems simple enough, doesn’t it? The clear lesson is that we should be like the tax collector and not the Pharisee? But there is a danger in this parable. The danger is this: as soon as we hold the Pharisee and the tax collector up for our examination, as soon as we come to a conclusion about which of these is truly the better human being, we begin to pass judgment. You see what I mean? It’s a double bind. If we take the parable seriously, the worst possible outcome for us is to say, “Thank God. Thank God: we’re not like the Pharisee.”
But we come to the story ready to judge the Pharisee. And, truthfully, many Pharisees were simply people who sought with their whole hearts to follow God’s law. And, if we are honest with ourselves, every last one of us has said a prayer at least a little bit like the prayer of the Pharisee. We say these prayers when we observe some human tragedy, and realize our own vulnerability to such things. After we pass a terrible accident on the highway, we might say, “Thank God: it wasn’t me.” On hearing of some misfortune, injury, death, we might be tempted to say: “Thank God, it wasn’t my family.” Which is just a millimeter away from, Thank God, it was them, thank God it was their family. Here’s the problem, as one writer expresses it vividly.
If the New Testament were like some hiss-and-boo melodrama from the Old West, the Pharisees would be the fellows in the black hats, twirling their moustaches and fingering the six-shooters on their hips. It doesn't much matter what a character like that says, we expect it to be ugly even before the man opens his mouth.
But suppose it was in a different setting. Suppose it is your sweet little old grandmother praying over the turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. "Dear God, we are grateful that we are not like other families we know: people who don't know you enough to offer thanks to you, families that have fallen apart and so they never gather around the table anymore. We rejoice that we went to church this morning to do what all people should do: render thanks to you as the Giver of all good gifts." So this is Grandma now, not the Pharisee in the black ten-gallon hat. What, if anything, keeps her prayer from falling into the error of the Pharisee? Or does nothing keep it from that error? Is it the same mistake all over again? When and how does gratitude go bad, and what can we do to make sure it doesn't happen to us?
If we look again at the words, the very carefully chosen words of the parable, we begin to find a clue. Remember all the fuss I made last week about the introduction? This week, I’m liking the introduction: “[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…” (Luke 18:9). I like the fact that Luke doesn’t interpret the parable for us here, as much as he tells us about the audience: they were those who trusted themselves. And remember when I was talking about the Pharisee’s prayer, that interesting little twist in the Greek: the Pharisee is “praying to himself.’ That could mean something like, “He was praying silently.” But that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on here. On the other hand, it could mean something a lot more troubling… that he is praying to himself, that God is not his prayer’s intended audience. And the words of the Pharisee are very much centered on himself: he makes claims about his character; he highlights his own admirable activities. All these things point to the fatal flaw in the Pharisee’s prayer: a prayer of Thanksgiving should focus on the goodness of God, not on our own goodness.
Every week in the prayers of the people, we give thanks for all kinds of blessings God has bestowed on us. We thank God for babies baptized and for couples joined in marriage, for people being ordained into offices of the church and for good test results. We thank God for our faith, because we believe that our faith is a great gift to be treasured. But this parable is a stern warning to us, in all our prayers, to be focused on the goodness of the Giver, not on the way in which these blessings make us such excellent people. This parable is a cautionary tale, telling us that our focus should not be on our own excellence, but rather on God’s unfathomable, immeasurable generosity.
Gratitude. Proper gratitude. For two weeks in a row we talked in the children’s message about gratitude, and you heard, I think, the kinds of things they said. They gave thanks for their excellent new shoes. They gave thanks for mothers and fathers. They gave thanks for good things to eat, and snow, because you can make snow angels in it. They gave thanks for Thanksgiving! Everything for which they gave thanks fell into the category of gifts… things and people and events over which we have no control. Things, which come to us from outside ourselves. Things, which come to us because of someone else’s love for us. Children have good instincts about gratitude. You will rarely hear a child say, “I thank you God because I was so smart in school today that I won the spelling bee.” They know that a prayer like that turns gratitude into self-congratulation. This week, somewhere in the United States, a minister wrote in his weekly newspaper column, “…Commercials for Jesus are the people like me who follow him.” Now, by quoting that, I have just become the Pharisee, by implying, “Thank God I’ve never said anything like that in my writing or sermons.” But I’m sure I have. It’s easy to slip and slide from “Thank you God for this faith I treasure” to “Thank you God for this faith, which makes me so much better than people with that faith.”
Proper gratitude helps us to be on the lookout for God’s providence, another foundational Presbyterian notion. Providence is a term that reminds us that God is very much in relationship with us, and with the world, that God continues to be our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Providence reminds us, in the words of the Psalm, that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). If everything belongs to God, even our very lives, then we begin to understand what gratitude is.
And so we can say, with confidence, Thank God!
Thank God for our lives.
Thank God for our faith.
Thank God for Jesus, whose response to the most broken, sin-filled lives was always, unfailingly, “This is a new moment, and a new day, and you can be a new person.”
Thank God for our bodies, imperfect and vulnerable and fragile as they are.
Thank God for our minds, and all the growth and stimulation they experience over a lifetime, the fresh beauty of new ideas, the holy complexity of our ability to reason.
Thank God for our particular talents, the ability to play a Bach prelude or run a marathon or cook a fabulous meal.
Thank God for loving family and friends to stand by us when our bodies and minds and talents begin to fail us and fade away.
Thank God for new lives, for new life.
Thank God for lives changed in positive ways.
Thank God for love.
Thank God for hope.
Thank God for the Holy Spirit, who is both beyond us and ever with us, claiming us for the One who was, and is, and is to come.
Thank God for this deep mystery.
Thank God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Sharon Ringe, Luke (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 225.
 Calvin Theological Seminary, “This Week in Preaching,” http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php.
 The Rev. Martha Gillis, PhD, “We Believe: A Theological Assessment,” http://www.pcusa.org/webelieve/theoassessment.htm.