A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
October 27, 2013
The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Last week Dr. Jim Flamming, our Pastor Emeritus, was kind enough to step into the middle of this sermon series and keep you “on the road with Jesus” while I was off doing a wedding in the mountains of North Carolina. I’ve listened to the sermon since then, and I thought he did an outstanding job of reminding us to pray for the things we need and to do it daily. He said at one point in that sermon, “[in this passage] Jesus is nearing the time of his death, [the end of] his time on earth, and he’s trying to get the disciples ready for that time when they can no longer come to him and seek his counsel, get his advice, and even receive his inspiration, and so Jesus is giving them instructions, basic instructions, bedrock instructions, on prayer.” As I reflected on that statement it occurred to me that there is no teaching in this lengthy section of Luke’s Gospel known as the Travel Narrative that could be considered trivial. Even when Jesus is telling us how to take our places at a banquet in chapter 14 he is giving essential instructions on how to live the life of the kingdom. Today we come to the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in chapter 18, and to some essential instructions on the subject of humility:[i]
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (NRSV).
“He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt,” Luke tells us, and because we have been conditioned by the Gospels to think of Pharisees as contemptuous, self-righteous snobs it doesn’t surprise us that a Pharisee shows up in the parable. And apparently he is a self-righteous snob, thanking God that he is not like other people—thieves, rogues, adulterers—or even like the other character in this parable, the tax collector. But while we may not care for thieves, rogues, or adulterers, the Gospels themselves have taught us to have sympathy for tax collectors. We know that Matthew left his tax-collecting booth to follow Jesus; we know that Jesus welcomed sinners and tax collectors and ate with them; and in next Sunday’s reading we will meet a lovable tax collector named Zacchaeus, who welcomed Jesus into his home. In the upside-down world of the Gospels, the Pharisees are self-righteous snobs and the tax collectors are children of Abraham. But not in the world where Jesus was telling this story; in that world the Pharisees were the most righteous of all people and the tax collectors were among the most despicable sinners.
So, if you want to feel the surprise of this story, if you want to experience the dramatic and completely unexpected reversal, you have to put yourself in that world: you have to think of the Pharisee as a saint and the tax collector as a sinner. Let’s do it like this: let me ask you to play the part of a casting director. Don’t say it out loud but think of the best person you know—a true saint, the salt of the earth, the kind of Christian you’d like to be—and then cast that person in the role of the Pharisee. Got it? Now, think of the worst person you know—maybe it’s someone who has done you wrong, someone who hurt your feelings, the last person in the world you want to be stuck in an elevator with—and then cast that person in the role of the tax collector. Got it? OK. So, it’s that first person—the saint—who goes up to the temple to pray, and she (or he) begins by looking up to heaven and thanking God that her (or his) life hasn’t ended up in the garbage dump. “I thank you that I am not like some of those other people out there,” she (or he) says, sincerely, “thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this sinner over here. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of all my income.” But the other person (and you know who I’m talking about) wouldn’t even look up to heaven, but stood at a distance beating his (or her) breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Picture it: this is the worst person you know, and if you’ve done it right, you will feel the shock when Jesus says, “I tell you it was this person who went home justified rather than the other one.” “What?! You mean the biggest sinner I can imagine (fill in the blank) went home justified and the most saintly person I can imagine (fill in the blank) didn’t? What kind of parable is this? And what does it mean to be justified?”
Well, that’s a good question. To justify is to “make right,” and these days it’s not as hard as it used to be to understand that. I can type a paragraph on my computer where all the words line up nice and even along the left side of the page but then, with the simple click of a button, I can make them line up nice and even on the right side of the page. That’s called justification, and believe me it’s a lot easier than it used to be when people used to set metal type by hand, and had to count the letters and the spaces and do the math to make them line up right. It reminds me of the way the scribes and Pharisees used to keep the law: doing their best to obey all 613 rules and regulations so that at the end of the day they would appear righteous.
They tried to justify themselves.
But this parable makes it clear that you can’t do that—you can’t justify yourself. The only one who can make you right is God, and in this story the one he chooses to make right is the tax collector, which begs the question: what did the tax collector do to earn his justification? Why did God make him right? According to the parable he stood at a distance from the Pharisee, probably in some dark corner of the temple. He wouldn’t even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And what did the Pharisee do? He thanked God that he wasn’t like other people, like thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even that tax collector over there. Not only that, but he fasted twice a week and gave a tenth of all his income. Those don’t sound like bad things to me; they sound like good things, and if you are doing those things I don’t want you to stop. But I do want you to stop thinking that you can justify yourself; that by doing those things you can make yourself right. Only God can make you right, and at the end of this parable we know that. But there is a moment in the middle I want to call your attention to, and it is that moment when the Pharisee peeks during his prayer, when he looks over at the tax collector and thanks God that he is not like him. With that one, sideward glance he not only sets himself apart from the tax collector, he puts himself above him, and that’s what I want to talk about.
I’ve known some people who were judgmental, and you probably have, too. They tend to do what this Pharisee did: they begin by looking at themselves—taking stock of their own righteousness—and then they begin to look around to see how it compares with others. “Well,” they say, “I may not come to church every Sunday, but I come a whole lot more than some people I know!” jerking their heads in the direction of someone who doesn’t come nearly as often. Or they may sit in front of the television set, watching the evening news as someone is taken off to jail, and saying, “I may not be perfect, but at least I’ve never done that!” Do you see what they’re doing? They’re deflecting attention away from themselves and onto others, and the others they deflect it onto make them look pretty good by comparison. But have you ever wondered why they do it? I have, and lately I’ve been wondering if people who judge others do it because they, themselves, are so insecure. Imagine someone who never felt very loved as a child, someone who was never sure if he was worthy, doing whatever he can to prove himself worthy, lifting himself up as high as he can go by his own efforts and putting others down just so he will compare favorably. Imagine this Pharisee as someone whose father never said, “I love you, son, I’m proud of you,” so that he had to spend his life proving himself. Imagine him standing in that temple saying to his heavenly father, “Do you love me? Are you proud of me? I fast twice a week! I give a tenth of my income! And, hey, at least I’m not like that tax collector over there!”
Have you known people like that, people who were so desperate for affirmation they would do anything to get it, even if they had to put someone else down? I have. But I’ve also known the other kind, people who have been so well loved in life that they don’t need any affirmation. They may not always be the best-dressed people in the room; not always the smartest; but, gosh, are they loved. I was on an airport shuttle not long ago, going from the remote parking lot to the terminal, and there was a woman across from me who was attractive, well dressed, perfectly made up, checking email on her smart phone and grimacing every time she opened a new message. But there on the seat beside me was a young mother who had her child with her in one of those baby carriers. She was looking at that baby. I couldn’t see his face, but I could see hers. She wasn’t all that well dressed. I don’t recall that she was wearing make up. But she had this look of absolute adoration on her face that made her beautiful, and she was shining it on that baby in a way that must have made him feel beautiful because he was gurgling and cooing as if she were feeding him a big bowl of vanilla ice cream.
The other woman—the one who was checking her email—finally looked up to see what all the commotion was about and that baby must have smiled at her because suddenly her face softened, and her eyes brightened, and she smiled, too. Imagine having so many smiles in you that you could give them away to total strangers. Imagine feeling so well loved that you didn’t care if you were lying there in a dirty diaper with drool on your chin. I think that’s what happened for that tax collector that day. He knew he was a sinner. There wasn’t any question in his mind. But he came to the temple and confessed his sin, he beat his breast and said, “Lord, have mercy,” and in that moment the Lord did have mercy, he beamed his love and forgiveness on that miserable sinner, and at the end of his prayer the tax collector went home justified—made right—not by his own power but by the power of God. The Pharisee, on the other hand, did not, and it wasn’t because there wasn’t enough justification to go around, it was because he didn’t think he needed it, and so instead of going home different he went home the same.
Suppose we could, all of us, acknowledge that we need God’s forgiveness? Suppose we could agree with Paul when he says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? Suppose we could stop trying to pretend that we have it all together, and that we don’t really need any help? Suppose we could sit on our pews today like that child in the baby carrier, letting God shine on us a look of absolute adoration? Do you think we would be able to receive it? Or would we cover our faces and say, “We are not worthy!”? You see, I believe God wants to love us, I believe that he is trying to love us, but I also believe that we feel so unlovable we won’t let him do it—not very well, not very often. We keep trying to prove ourselves to him, we keep trying to earn his love, when maybe all we have to do is say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and fall into the arms of grace.
“Those who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus says, “but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” But you can’t humble yourself in order to be exalted; that’s just another way of exalting yourself. Maybe what you have to do instead is become like that child in the baby carrier, maybe you have to stop working so hard to earn God’s favor and try, instead, to receive it, to believe that even when you have dirty diapers and drool on your chin, he loves you, and looks on you with absolute adoration.
—Jim Somerville, 2013
[i] It didn’t make the sermon, but I love this quote from Anthony Bloom: “Basically, humility is the attitude of one who stands constantly under the judgment of God. It is the attitude of one who is like the soil. Humility comes from the Latin word humus, fertile ground. The fertile ground is there, unnoticed, taken for granted, always there to be trodden upon. It is silent, inconspicuous, dark and yet it is always ready to receive any seed, ready to give it substance and life. The more lowly, the more fruitful, because it becomes really fertile when it accepts all the refuse of the earth. It is so low that nothing can soil it, abase it, humiliate it; it has accepted the last place and cannot go any lower. In that position nothing can shatter the soul’s serenity, its peace and joy” (from Living Prayer).
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.