There is always a temptation I suppose to say a whole lot more in sermons than is actually necessary. This isn’t to say that there aren’t passages which really do need some breaking down. But then there are Gospel readings like today’s which are pretty clear in their intention.
In today’s reading we find Jesus in a crowd of people. Now, these people, we’re told, trusted in themselves, and despised others… A modern equivalent to these people might be what are known as jerks by today’s standard.
We can only guess at how Jesus got into this situation, but recognizing this as a teachable moment, he offered the group a parable. There were two men, Jesus says, who went up to the Temple to pray. One happened to be a Pharisee who prayed out loud, and took the opportunity to make known his piety. And in case everyone wasn’t clear about how wonderful he was, the Pharisee points out how glad he is that he isn’t like other people: thieves, rogues, and adulterers—and even this nasty dirty tax collector who stood nearby. It’s actually not a really hard list to beat when you think about it.
But what about this tax collector? It’s true that as a tax collector he was guilty of stealing, fraud, extortion and a whole host of other bad, nasty things. All of it sort of came with the job, and, incidentally, it was a job given by the Roman government. So, not only was this man a party to dishonest dealings, but he also worked for the conquerors and oppressors of his own people. Jesus said that he wouldn’t even lift his eyes to heaven when he prayed. This man stood far off beating his chest asking for God’s mercy. Just as we might assume, it’s the tax collector who returns home justified.
It’s a pretty straight forward parable, and the lesson doesn’t take too much abstract thought to get at the meaning. Jesus comes through loud and clear. Basically, don’t be a jerk. Right? Amen…
Except, to end there would be just a gloss over the surface. Because there’s more here than just what we get on the surface. What Jesus sets up in this parable is not just about a person’s behavior, but as usual is a matter of the heart.
Jesus begins this parable by telling the crowd that two men went up to the temple to pray. Most likely this would have been one of the appointed times for sacrifice in the temple—and the people that Jesus spoke to would have gotten this piece. This sacrifice was offered twice a day as atonement for the sins of the people, and people might come to the temple to offer prayers that God would accept the sacrifice on behalf of their own personal sins.
However, the Pharisee, much like the crowd to whom Jesus is speaking, cannot see how much he also needs God’s grace—he doesn’t seem to get that even he needs to be reconciled to God. Because like all of us, he needs God’s as much as any tax collector.
One of the things that initially attracted me to the Episcopal church was that all of our services have a confession built in to them. In college, this was a point of contention for my more Evangelical counter-parts, as they saw this as a license to do whatever one wanted because there was always the assurance of confession and absolution.
What I had been taught to understand it as, however, was not so much that I had been given free license, rather whenever it was that I said the confessions, I knew I needed it. Because like the Pharisee, and the tax collector, none of us is perfect. And rather than pretend that our short-comings are not the subject of polite society, and so we ignore them—instead, our tradition helps us to have every opportunity to confront and be freed from them.
Something that we can learn from 12 step programs is that one is always in recovery, and this is why the saying “One day at a time” is so poignant. Because it is a statement that presupposes that we are still always susceptible to the old patterns and ways which draw us away from God. In our spiritual lives, one thing that we know all too well is that we’re never immune to driving a wedge between us and God. Whether it’s an unkind word, an attitude or how we choose to treat another person, what we know is that at the center of our negative behavior is a matter of the heart. And we know that we’re never really ever completely free from falling into those same traps.
What’s more, even if we may have already been forgiven of the hurts caused by our actions, sometimes it’s the guilt of the action that lingers. Sometimes that’s enough by itself to keep us from returning to loving relationship with God and God’s people.
In Baptism we say “whenever we fall into sin” that we will return to the Lord. This isn’t an act of hedging our bets, instead it is part of the acknowledgement that we can return “with God’s help.” And like the saying “One Day at a Time”, we admit that all of our healing and reconciliation is a continued and daily process. Not because we’re such miserable people that we have to always be in a state of repentance, but because God understands how lost and abandoned we feel when we are at odds with ourselves and God.
So, as it turns out, today’s reading isn’t just about not being a jerk. While that’s not a bad place to start, it isn’t the end. Because as people called by Jesus Christ to be in community, we know that at the core of relationship to God and others, there is a matter of heart. And like the tax collector, we offer our personal prayers of penitence, believing that the sacrifice that was offered in Jesus Christ is more than sufficient to reconcile us once more to God and one another.
Today as we turn our hearts to the altar of God, and remember the sacrifice of Christ in our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, remember that we’ve been given another opportunity to make the slate clean. And whatever it is that we might be carrying with us in our hearts, I would remind you that this is the place to leave it. Because if we’re willing to trust in God and not ourselves, we will leave this place justified not by our own righteousness, but by the work of Jesus Christ.