Sermon for 21 Pentecost, Year C Based on Lk. 18:9-14
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
There is a modern-day version of today’s gospel, which I came across lately, and it goes like this:
Two people, one a church leader and the other a drug dealer, went into the church to pray. The church leader prayed thus with himself. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people, welfare cheats, pornographers, or even like this drug dealer. I go to worship every Sunday, I give a tenth of my salary and my time to the church and I spend two weeks of my vacation every summer building homes for the poor.” But the drug dealer, sitting way in the back of the sanctuary would not even look up toward the altar, but wrung his hands and said, “God, forgive me, I am a sinner.” I tell you the drug dealer went home justified rather than the church leader; for all who hold themselves up will fall, and those who admit their shortcomings will be lifted up. 1
In today’s society, we talk a lot about being independent, self-sufficient, and the necessity of having a sense of worth, self-esteem. We encourage children also to do things on their own, by themselves. To a certain degree, this is well and good and healthy—for individuals as well as society. But—as many of us know—sometimes our greatest strengths are also our worst weaknesses. When we look at our gospel parable—and the above version of it—we discover that the Pharisee’s and the church leader’s worst problem was independence and self-esteem.
The Pharisee and the church leader do not seem to be praying to God. Rather, it seems more like they are engaged in a conversation with themselves. They didn’t seem to need God to make them righteous—they we perfectly capable of doing that on their own, by themselves. Unquestionably, what they did was good, right, helpful and responsible—who could fault them for that? The Pharisee fasted twice a week—I don’t even fast twice a year! although it would likely do me a lot of good to do so! J--according to Jewish law he was only required to fast once a year, on the day of atonement (that’s a requirement that most of us could likely fulfill!) He also gave a tenth of all his income—even by this standard, he was a lot better than most Pharisees of his day; since most folks only gave a tenth of their food. His generous tithing was considerably more than a lot of parishioners give today.
This Pharisee was indeed a devout, honourable gentleman, who went above and beyond what was required of him by law. The church leader went to worship every single Sunday—there’s certainly nothing wrong with that! He gave a tenth of not only his salary but also of his time to the church—which was likely more than a lot of the other members. And he too went above and beyond the call of duty by giving up two weeks of his vacation time to build homes for the poor. Both the Pharisee and the church leader were fine people with independence and self-esteem.
The problem was that they were too good for their own good and everybody else’s good to boot! Did they not like themselves a tad bit too much? Could anyone else match them in their goodness, their sense of righteousness? Not likely.
According to Jesus, true righteousness is more than looking at external behaviours. One of my seminary professors, the Rev. Dr. William Hordern, points out that even non-Christians do not believe external behaviour equals true righteousness. Dr. Hordern cites the following example:
People in general see that the ethical value of an action depends upon its motivation. After World War II the United States engaged in the most widespread relief program that the world has ever witnessed as billions of dollars were poured into foreign aid to help build or rehabilitate other nations. But the American people were shocked to find that their generosity won little in the way of gratitude. “Yankee Go Home” signs often seemed to be the typical result of massive efforts to aid other nations. Why was this? No doubt in part it was an expression of ingratitude and perversity, but the main reason was that the primary motivation of the foreign aid was no secret. American political leaders justified the foreign aid to their electorate by insisting that it was necessary to prevent the aided countries from going communist. So obvious was this that it became a worldwide joke that any country which could not get American aid should immediately organize a native communist movement so that it could become a candidate for aid. In other words, while the world recognizes that feeding the hungry and clothing the naked are good deeds, nonetheless, when they are done for self-seeking motives, they fall short of righteousness.
Martin Luther saw this fact clearly. He notes how giving to those poorer than ourselves can be a source of considerable satisfaction to our own egos. (He says of such people): “They are like God Himself, but only in their pride.” 2
Righteousness then—according to Jesus—involves, most of all, true humility. The truly righteous person is a humble one—because they know how much they need God. They have no pretenses about this need whatsoever.
The tax collector in today’s parable had nothing to boast about. Tax collectors then were hated and regarded as outcasts by most Jews of Jesus’ day. They often collected more taxes than the Romans required, keeping it as their own profit. They were considered by many as robbers. Worse yet, they were often Jewish—hence, the people felt betrayed by them because they supported the Roman occupation of their nation. They were thus betrayers of everything Jewish and guilty of treason. For these reasons, they were not allowed to give testimony in a Jewish law court. They were also regarded as ritually unclean concerning matters of faith. The tax collector, in humility admitted before God that he had no good deeds to boast about—he was empty of self-made righteousness.
A gifted violinist who played with a famous orchestra sent her young daughter to study violin under the tutelage of a stranger, a much less talented person. She said, “I would like to teach her myself, but I must wait until she asks. (Would that more confirmation students and their parents reached this point! it would change radically the whole spirit of teaching and learning)! I cannot impart these things to her until she is ready to receive them.” (Would that more clergy were given the courage and support to say this to parents and would-be confirmands)! Often such relationships exist between parents and children. Parents may have the knowledge, but they cannot force it on their children and must wait until the children are ready to listen and to receive. Something similar exists between God and us. God often wants to give us grace and love and forgiveness, but God cannot do so until we admit our need and are ready to receive. When we discover our own helplessness and humbly acknowledge it, God can give us his help. 3
In humility, when we admit before God that we are empty of ourselves then we, like the tax collector and the drug dealer are able to become filled with God’s grace, love and forgiveness. To reach that point of humility is also the multidimensional work of God’s grace, not a virtue of our own.
Today’s gospel confronts each one of us with two very important questions: 1.) Do we measure our righteousness only by our external behaviour, our good deeds? 2.) Do we measure our righteousness by our humility, our innermost condition, our emptiness before God, which, itself is God-given? May God have mercy upon us all. May we trust in and live by God’s righteousness—not ours!
1 Cited from: John E. Sumwalt, Lectionary Stories (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 116.
2 Cited from: Wm. Hordern, Living by Grace (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press), pp. 32-33.