October 23, 2016. The Tax Collector and the Pharisee in the shadow of the cross

This sermon was delivered to First Parish Church, Newbury.

Texts: JOEL 2:23-32, LUKE 18:9-14

Grace to you, and peace, from the one who is, and who was, and who is to come. Amen.

In these past weeks we’ve heard quite a few Gospel accounts of Jesus in our weekly readings in church. We’re hearing them the way the people of his day must have heard them. They’re a little bit disconnected. They, and we, could be forgiven for thinking Jesus is a traveling sage, dispensing bits of wisdom here and there: sometimes to the disciples with him, sometimes to a crowd of people or maybe a group of Pharisees or other learned types.

That view, though, obscures what’s really going on. We’re at chapter 18 of Luke now. Halfway through Chapter 9, it says that the days are drawing near for him to be taken up, so Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. So, we are on a journey with him. The cross looms larger with every day that passes and every Gospel incident we hear.  With each parable — the shepherd leaving 99 sheep to hunt for the one, the dishonest manager, the healing of the lepers in the village, the story of the rich man and Lazarus —  Jesus and his disciples draw nearer to Jerusalem.

Today’s reading from the doomsday prophet Joel underscores the point.  “The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” Time is short.

The Gospel lessons of the next few weeks bring us ever closer the day of the Lord — to the cross. To listen carefully to Jesus on this journey is to hear a steadily increasing urgency – maybe even harshness – in his voice and his stories. We also hear more and more about the institution of the Jerusalem temple and our savior’s skepticism about it.

This week’s parable is such a story. When we read it in isolation in a beautiful and secure place surrounded by people we love, it conceals some of its good news. When we read it in the shadow of the cross, we understand it more clearly.

The setting of this parable is the temple on Mt Zion. It’s the focus of all that’s holy. The parable’s audience is people “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” The characters are a well-known insider and a despised outsider.

There’s an obvious moral lesson here. Humility: good. Arrogant self-righteousness: bad. That’s a fine lesson about virtue and sin. Hopefully we all try to live that way. Hopefully we lovingly teach each other, and our children, to value a humble and respectful way of life. We all have heard of arrogant self-righteous people. (If you haven’t heard of such people, blessed are you. Please don’t start now with watching TV or reading newspapers.)

It’s a fine moral lesson; let’s do our best to live by it and teach it to our children. But let’s not mistake it for the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Let’s take it to the next level. For us church folk, this moral lesson has a built-in edge to it. Might you and I be tempted to pray thus? `God, I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee: I don’t think I’m holier than these thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax collectors. I have a holy compassion for all people.’

There’s a trendy phrase for this – the “humblebrag.” Are we tempted to do some of this humblebragging? You bet.

Is it a form of self-righteousness? Yes, it is. As self-righteousness goes, is it less bad than the Pharisee’s self-righteousness?  …

Whoa. Less bad self-righteousness? What does that even mean? Self-righteousness is something we all share. Is it evil, or only bad, or what?  When we humblebrag, do we bring the realm of God any nearer than that Pharisee did?  Not really. Ouch. This is where we start to feel the sting of Jesus’s urgency in the parable.

Let’s go a little deeper into this. In Gospel times tax collectors were the heartless and arrogant ones. They could take anything they wanted from the people as long as they handed over their quota to the Herodian rulers. A visit from the tax collector often meant near-starvation for a peasant village. Jesus’s followers feared them, rightly, because they were the local face of oppression.

At the same time, the Pharisees were the good guys. They knew the ancient law of Moses: “Don’t steal. Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.” They applied that knowledge to help people put the law into practice, even in the face of the Herodian oppression. They followed the spiritual disciplines of generosity and fasting. They lived lives of service and piety. We people of faith all hope to live that way.

A man I know who lives near here is a retired bank president. In this century, admitting you’re a banker is a bit like saying “I’m a tax collector” at the time of Jesus. Both occupations have earned bad reputations for their greedy shenanigans. Remember back around 2007 when banks sold mortgages to people who didn’t have any hope of making payments?

I asked my friend about that. He surprised me with his vehemence. “That’s why I retired. That’s not banking. In banking, you keep the loans you make instead of selling them to another bank, or to a brokerage house. You made those loans to people in your community. You worked hard to convince your loan committee they could make the payments. It’s irresponsible to sell the loans, because a banker must have a stake in the prosperity of his community.”

So, my banker friend, in his working life, took the part of the Pharisee in our parable, not the tax collector. He followed the rules, behaved responsibly, and tried his best to support his neighbors. And that was good.

Back in the late 2000s in the banking business, it seemed like the great and terrible day of the Lord was coming, and soon. How should we live when that day seems near? When we hear Jesus tell this parable in the shadow of the cross, we wonder why he’s presenting the tax collector as the good guy. Is he suggesting we grab what we can while the grabbing’s good, and then repent, and go home justified? No, certainly not. Does he mean that God somehow favors evildoers who mistreat their neighbors and then repent? What do you think? The deeper we get into this parable, the murkier the moral lesson becomes.

So, let’s dare to step into the shadow of the cross as we consider this parable. Let’s go together: the shadow of the cross is a dangerous place, and we need to look out for one another there. Let’s put on the mantle of the Pharisee or even the humblebragging church person.

Let’s look at that evil tax collector. He’s harassed our neighbors. He’s served a government that has made our lives hard. If we’re Pharisees we name and blame him for our troubles: thieving murderous adulterous tax collector.  If we’re humblebraggarts we may have compassion for him. We may even rejoice at his repentance. But we still think of him as different from us. We still pin our troubles on him.

We look on him as an outsider, a stranger to us. He doesn’t dare stand in the middle of the temple court, but only at a distance. If only he were gone, we’d be better off. If only we could get rid of him, our troubles would come to an end, and we’d be saved. It’s us vs. him. Now we truly are standing in the shadow of the cross. We’re coming very close to chanting what the mob near Pontius Pilate’s house chanted:

Crucify him! Crucify him!

NO! says Jesus, with his voice and his blood and his body. That is his Good News: the news he gives us from his cross and before his empty tomb.  We cannot oppose evil by ganging up and getting rid of the bad guy.  We need not oppose evil that way.

The Good News sets us free from the shadow of the cross.  Jesus sets us free from the corrupting hope that we can solve our problems by setting ourselves above scapegoats. He sets us free from the shameful task of driving them out of town or crucifying them. He tells us there’s no us vs. them. The repentant tax collector is no stranger to be driven away, but one of our companions in the shadow of the cross.

Now look: Jesus doesn’t mean there’s no evil, or that we should not oppose evil. He means that God’s kingdom can be found when we have the courage to stand together in the shadow of evil and reminding each other that the darkness cannot overcome the light.

Jesus shows us the way out of the shadow and sets us free to live together the way Joel prophesied. Let’s read it together.  Joel ch. 2 27-29   page 804  starting halfway down the second column,

27You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
28″And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.
29Even upon the menservants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

Let us embrace the Good News and live together with grace and courage in the light of the Spirit of God.  Amen.


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