Sermon Notes: Ordinary 30, Year C

Text: Luke 18:9-24

  • In our intercessions book “Dear Lord, So far today, I have done alright. I haven’t gossiped, lost my temper, been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or over indulgent. I am very thankful for that! But, in a few minutes Lord,  I am going to get out of bed, and from then on I’m going to need a lot more help ~Amen”
  • Humility is a key Christian virtue, but I suspect that it also turns out to be one of the Key Christian vices.
  • With his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, my training Incumbant, the wonderful Canon Fr Michael Lewis used to say:
    • “Like all truly great men, I am very humble!”
  • …but so often people say things similar to this, and mean it!
  • We hear today the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
  • Two men, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector, go up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee stands by himself and he really is quite impressive.
  • Although centuries of Christian interpretation have led us to think of Pharisees as the baddies, this is not really fair.
  • They are often presented as Jesus’ opponents in the gospels, but we need to remember that they were society’s good people.
    • They were dependable, honest, upright, good neighbours, contributors to the community.
    • Quite frankly, they were the type of people we would all like to have as members of our parishes.
    • The Pharisee is a man at home in the temple.
      • He says his prayers.
      • He gives more than he has to. Although the tithe on income was standard, he tithes on everything he has, and many people would have benefited from his generosity.
  • He stands in the correct posture for prayer in the temple, arms raised and head lifted.
  • But – and this is a big but – in his prayer, he has nothing to ask of God.
    • He’s basically giving God a progress report. As far as he can tell, he’s got it all under control, and he’s happy about it: “God I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, the unrighteous, adulterers, or even like that tax collector over there.”
  • Meanwhile, standing off at a distance, is the tax collector.
    • He has got nothing to show for himself, and he knows it.
    • He earned his living by working for a foreign government collecting taxes from his own people.
    • For years he has collected high taxes from his Jewish neighbours to give to the Roman government.
    • He gives the Romans their flat rate on every head, and makes his money by charging an excess and keeping it for himself. Basically, he is a crook, a traitor, and in the eyes of most, a lowlife.
    • He is guilty and he knows it.
  • He keeps his head lowered as he comes into the temple.
  • Who knows why his guilt has got the better of him today, but there he is in the temple, full of remorse, beating his breast and saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
    • He doesn’t even promise to shape up. All he does is ask for God’s mercy.
  • The surprise ending of the story is that the Pharisee, who gives a wonderful performance in the temple, goes home empty.
    • He came asking nothing of God and he goes home getting nothing from God.
  • The tax collector, despicable fellow that he is, shows up empty handed asking for God’s mercy,
  • He goes home justified, that is, in right relationship with God.
  • We may hear this parable as a lesson on humility: don’t be proud like the Pharisee; go home and be humble like the tax collector.
  • And so, we fall into a trap.
  • We take a parable about God’s amazing, unconditional grace and acceptance, and turn it into a story about how we can earn or merit God’s love.
  • We’ve got the answer now: If we can just be humble like the tax collector and not be puffed up with pride like the Pharisee, then God will accept us and love us.
  • We may even find ourselves praying, “God, I thank thee that I am not like the Pharisee.”
  • The trap here is that we ask the wrong question of this parable.
  • It’s that distorted question “What can I do to be worthy of your love?”
  • The Pharisee in the parable asks this question, and he thinks he has the answer in his religious observance.
    • He fasts, he prays, he tithes, he lives an upright life.
    • The tragedy and the irony is that in the very act of demonstrating that he is worthy of love, he is cutting himself off from his neighbours and from God.
    • The tragedy and the irony of trying to make ourselves worthy of love through our supposed virtues, even the virtue of humility, is that we end up casting a sideward glance at others and measuring ourselves against them.
    • “If I need to earn God’s love, then I will have to be better than the others”.
  • But if we ask the right question, the question “Do you love me?” then the parable gives us an answer.
  • To the question “Do you love me?” God replies resoundingly and forever “Yes.”
  • The tax collector’s humility was not a virtue that earns him God’s love and acceptance.
  • The tax collector’s humility is a posture of openness in which he is able to receive God’s love.
  • Ultimately, the Pharisee and the tax collector are the same.
    • They both need God’s love.
    • The difference is that the Pharisee doesn’t know it and the tax collector does.
    • The tax collector goes up to the temple with nothing to show for himself.
      • His hands and his heart are empty and he knows it, and therefore he has room to experience the gospel and the good news is that there is nothing we need to do, nothing we can do, to earn the grace and love of God.
  • The love that moves the sun and the other stars, the love that creates, sustains, and redeems the cosmos, is always uttering its eternal “Yes” to our question “Do you love me?”
  • We are all loved. Loved unconditionally.
  • The answer to that deep and yearning question will always be “Yes”
  • …but how will you ask it?
  • Amen

    With respect to Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano, from whom the middle of this text is taken.