When It’s Wrong to Be Right
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Today’s gospel is like a Far Side cartoon. It tells an entire story in a single frame—only not a very funny one. The Pharisee in our gospel today was, as Mark Twain might have described him, “a good man in the worst sense of the word.” I wish I could say I don’t recognize him. Will religion ever be free from those who use it merely to aggrandize themselves? Our evangelical siblings in faith have sparked a fire fueled by conservative religion and politics which now burns beyond their control and that threatens to replace democracy with their narrow-minded theocracy ruled by men like this Pharisee in our gospel today.
The Pharisee was religiously righteous. The other, a tax collector, was universally despised, a traitor to his people, and aid to the foreign oppressor in Rome. The religious expert was smug and confident, the outsider was anxious and insecure. The self-appointed saint paraded to the temple, the sinner “stood at a distance” from that sacred building—a nonverbal expression of his spiritual alienation. The righteous man stands up; the sinful man looked down. In an act of shocking narcissism, the Pharisee prayed loudly and only “about himself;” whereas the tax collector could barely pray at all. The Pharisee puffed out his chest in pride; the publican beat his breast in sorrow.
Yet, Jesus said, the respectable, reputable believer, so competent and accomplished, who had done everything right, was rejected, whereas the secular sinner — the disreputable, inadequate, and incompetent failure — “went home justified before God.” (Daniel Clendenin)
Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Luke 5:32). His words echo the accusation of his enemies who complained: “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). In fact, many sinful people followed Jesus. Today, we might call them “failures.” Failures flocked to Jesus. They felt safe, somehow sheltered rather than judged; valued rather than dismissed; called rather than belittled; transformed rather than labeled. When they were with Jesus, the kingdom came to earth just as it is in heaven. Can Jesus accomplish the same today among us?
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke contrasts two characters set in bold relief. Together they paint us a picture of two ways of being religious. One way is death-dealing, the other is life-giving. In the kingdom of heaven ruled by our Lord Jesus Christ, the winner loses, and the loser wins.
Lutherans know this. We are sanctified by grace alone. Yet, like the Pharisee, somehow, we keep trying to make religion a ladder that leads up to God –or that takes us at least one step higher than the rest of our neighbors. But self-justification doesn’t work, and neither is it necessary. God accepts me “just as I am.” Full stop. We have a hard time accepting that God comes down to us, which, after all, is the meaning of the Incarnation (see Philippians 2:5-8). We must stop running up the down escalator! We will miss Jesus on the way—as he descends into our so very ordinary world.
Christians have named this paschal mystery, this path of descent, the Way of the Cross. Jesus brings it front and center. A “crucified God” became the logo and central image of our Christian religion: a vulnerable, dying, bleeding, losing man. How often do we have to look at the Crucified and miss the point? Follow Jesus on this pathway of descent. Walk the way of his cross. Learn the wisdom of winning by losing so that you may be more kind, that you may be a better listener, that you may grow thicker skin, become more compassionate, more ready to cry foul when others suffer injustice, that you may be more generous, more welcoming, more hospitable, that you may be a better lover, friend, parent, spouse, sibling, and neighbor and may we let the kingdom come among us.
Remember how Luke’s gospel begins. In the wonderful, famous prayers Zechariah and Mary from the first chapter of Luke, each of them gives thanks to God. God has sent the rich away empty and filled the hungry with good things (Luke 1:53). God’s grace is paradoxical: only the merciful can receive mercy, and only those who forgive will be forgiven (Luke 6:36-38). The Pharisee had enough religion to be virtuous, but not enough to be humble. As a result, his religion drove him away from the tax collector rather than toward him. (Culpepper, Luke, New Interpreter’s Bible). Ironically, his religion became an obstacle that stood between him and the saving power of God. D.L. Moody once said, “God sends no one away empty except those who are already full of themselves.”
It’s like one of those quizzes you take on the internet. Which type of Christian are you today? Are you channeling your inner pharisee or your repentant tax collector? We take the measure of our faith by its fruits. A humble heart and a hunger for justice offer more evidence of grace than does any religious success.
Luther encouraged Christians to awake each morning and rededicate themselves to the spirit of reformation found in baptism. Baptism makes us all equals –equally unable to be righteous in God’s eyes –equally lucky and blessed by God’s generous mercy and forgiveness. The grace of God poured out for us in Christ Jesus sets us free to love and serve one another as equals; to embrace our inner-pharisee and be healed.
The punchline in Jesus’ one-panel parable-cartoon from our gospel today is the realization that God loves both. God loves the tax collector and the pharisee the same. Grace opens a door out from anger, division, grievance, and tribe. To find our way into that place, into what has been called the peaceable kingdom, Jesus says, we need only seven words — the same ones mumbled by the tax collector as he stood at a distance from the temple and stared at the ground: “God, have mercy on me, a failure.” Cast your unadorned self upon God and experience the inward flow of grace. This is the love we need to heal and to feel confident in our connection to God and each other. We are made human again. Enemies become friends and allies. This is how the kingdom comes and we are a living sanctuary of hope and grace. We become circles of people here at Immanuel around the altar, at the font, at the tutoring table, and among neighbors including children, and youth in which it is possible to glimpse and to feel the power and the presences of God. How great is that?