“A Parable for These Times”

Pentecost 23

October 23, 2016

Text:  Luke 18:9-14

    Today’s Gospel lesson begins with this sentence:  “Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust.”

    I have previously shared with you that surveys show that 87 percent of Americans believe that Christians are “judgmental”.  In other words, the vast majority of people see us as people who have convinced ourselves we are righteous and look upon others with disgust.  Now I am guessing most of us who are sitting here today don’t look upon ourselves as judgmental.  But I have certainly heard stories about people in other churches:  the ones who got upset when children from some of the poorer families in their community started showing up at church but didn’t understand what kind of behavior was considered appropriate in church; the ones who refused to accept people of a different skin color; the ones who were not accepting of families that did not conform to the model of the “nuclear family”; the ones who look askance at people who wear tattoos, smoke, drink, curse, or otherwise don’t look or act like respectable upper middle class white people.  In fact, just a few days ago at a cross country meet I found myself visiting with the non-churchgoing husband of a parishioner from a previous congregation I served.  He told me that his parents were not churchgoers, but he had gone to Sunday School as a child.  However, he soon noticed that the people he encountered at church wouldn’t speak to him if they saw him downtown, and decided that meant they looked down on him.  If nothing like that has ever happened here, then you are to be commended.  But if you recognize in yourself a tendency to look down on people who don’t act or look in ways you consider godly, respectable, and appropriate (and I confess this is something I am prone to do), then this parable has something to say to you.

    Now I am going to slightly change one word in that first sentence and read it again:  “Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were right and who looked on everyone else with disgust.”  

    Did you catch the change?  The only difference is that I changed the word “righteous” to “right”.  Of course, the words “righteous” and “right” are similar and very much related.  “Righteous” usually refers to being in a proper relationship with God and living in a godly way.  “Right” has a broader meaning, referring to being correct in our actions, beliefs, opinions, procedures, and knowledge of facts.

    I recognize in myself a tendency to look down on people I believe are wrong.  And I am confident I am not alone in doing that, judging from the attitudes and behaviors I observe in our world these days.  It is easy to be judgmental toward people whose opinions I disagree with, especially when I can’t imagine for the life of me how they can possibly think that way.

    Listen again to how the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable begins his prayer:  “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”  Right there is the problem.  When someone says something like that, they are insinuating that they are better than others.  When I start thinking I am better than others, I am living a delusion.  I am not being honest with myself about my own faults and failures, about the ways I fall short of what God intends, about my own sinfulness, about my need for a Savior.  The fact is, since I am a human being, I am like other people, both at their best and at their worst.  I have no business exalting myself as better than others.

Furthermore, the Pharisee’s prayer also is a rejection of other children of God.  It implies that “other people” have a lesser status in God’s sight.  The Pharisee directed his rejection at a tax collector.  Tax collectors were well known in Jesus’ time for being collaborators with the Roman Empire which ruled over them.  They were also known as cheaters who collected more taxes than Rome required and kept the difference for themselves, often becoming very wealthy in the process.  We know that Jesus was often criticized by the religious authorities for hanging out with tax collectors and others who were regarded as “sinners”.  Yet often those of us who profess to follow him often also reject the modern day equivalent of such people.

All people are part of God’s good creation just as much as I am.  Whether or not I happen to like them, approve of their behavior, or agree with them is irrelevant when it comes to God’s opinion of them.  When I start putting others down for believing, behaving, or looking different than me, I deny their status as a beloved child of God.

When I am honest with myself, I realize that I am no better than anyone else.  I, too, am a sinner who has fallen short of God’s intentions for me.  I sometimes am too judgmental, too critical, and too unforgiving.  I, too, need to regularly pray the prayer the tax collector prayed in the parable:  “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

And so do we all.  As Paul reminds us in Romans, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  And as the Protestant reformer Martin Luther said nearly 500 years ago, Christians are at the same time both justified, made right with God, by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and yet still struggling with sin in our lives.  Therefore, as both Jesus and Paul remind us, we have no right to brag on ourselves.  And we have no right to reject others because they are different than we are.  Let our prayer today be:

God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

God have mercy on you, a sinner.

God have mercy on all of us sinners.  Amen.

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