Twenty-third Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 25, Year C)
“Power for Publicans & Pharisees” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
Jeremiah 14.(1-6) 7-10, 19-22
2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18
☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“The Pharisee and the Publican” — that’s the traditional name of the parable we read today. We’re in Luke 18 — If you’ve noticed, we’re on a long trip through Luke’s gospel, a trip we always take in Year C in the season after Pentecost (or, as Fr. Jeff explained last week, in “Ordinary Time”). And these past Sundays in Luke — man, it’s like being at a Carrie Underwood concert. Ellie and I went to see Carried Underwood a few weeks ago, and it was two solid hours of hits. No junk. All killer, no filler, you know? Well, Jesus rattles off hit after hit in Luke — the Good Samaritan (Luke 10); the Wedding Feast (Luke 12); the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son (Luke 15); last week, the Persistent Widow, and now today — hit, hit, hit, hit; no covers, no B sides.
I want to look at this latest of Jesus’ greatest hits, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, under three headings — players, point, and power: (1) The players in the parable (who are they? why does it matter?); (2) the point of the parable (what it teaches us); and (3) the power of the parable (how can it change your life?).
First, the Players: Two men went into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector (18.10). Two men; two very different identities. Identity is at the heart of this parable, as it is very much at the heart of American life. In a piece for the New York Times Magazine titled “Who Do You Think You Are,” Wesley Morris said we are “in the midst of a great cultural identity migration. Gender roles are merging. Races are being shed. In the last [few years] we’ve been made to see how trans and bi and poly-ambi-omni we are.” Everything touches on identity, even the selves we mediate through Instagram and Snapchat, images of how we want the world to identify us.
- If you asked the players in the parable “Who are you? What defines you?” you’d get two very different answers.
Who was the Pharisee? Even the name of this group is about identity — the Hebrew word it comes from, perushin, literally means “separated ones.” Pharisees got identity by being separate, set apart, holier than everybody else. So this Pharisee prays: “God, I thank you that I’m not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, not even like this tax collector.”
- Now put the question of identity to the tax collector. Remember Rome was a long way from Palestine. It would take a
huge bureaucracy to collect taxes there, so Rome subbed out the job. Some Jews became “tax farmers,” private citizens who collected taxes for Rome, and the system was set up so they had to collect more than Rome demanded to make their own cut. Nobody in Jewish society was more despised than these guys.
The identities of these two men couldn’t have been more different. Just look how they prayed.
- The Pharisee stands confidently before God, but away from the others in the temple. He knew he was righteous, and his prayer was completely self-directed:“I thank God that I . . . I don’t steal or commit adultery; the law says fast once a week, I fast two; it says give ten percent of what you earn, I tithe even on what I buy.”
- The tax collector prayed differently — He beat his breast, which we do at mass sometimes — it’s a sign of penitence. He looked down, a sign of humility. Rather than “God, look how righteous I am,” he said “God, have mercy on me because of how righteous I’m not.”
Two men; two prayers; two different identities. Those are the players.
Point two: The Purpose of the Parable: Jesus says “I tell you, this man (the tax collector) went down to his house justified rather than the other (the Pharisee) . . . .” (18.14) This parable is answering a particular question. That’s its purpose. Like last week’s parable of the Persistent Widow, this parable answers the question “Who is qualified to enter the God’s kingdom?” And the answer was shocking — It’s not the religious guy, the one who tithes and fasts.
May I just say something that probably should be clear but maybe isn’t? Fasting — is good. Jesus assumed his followers would fast. Tithing, sharing our blessings with the poor, serving others with our wealth — is good. We start our stewardship season in about a month, but I asked Jim to put the “Collect for Stewardship” in the bulletin, and I put a few bookmarks and magnets in the rear of the church for us to use as we pray about our pledges this year. It says “we swim against the tide of materialism and envy and individualism and greed in our culture,” and we need to pray that over and over because sacrificial giving is hard — if it isn’t you’re doing it wrong. Giving’s hard — but it’s good. It’s not the Pharisee’s practice of tithing he has to change; it’s not his commitment to the religious practice of fasting he has to lay aside; it’s thinking that those things make him righteous. They don’t! The one guy who gets in is the one who knows he doesn’t have the price of admission. The purpose of the parable is to drive home one truth: Good works won’t buy off God; Grace is the only game in town.
Third: The Power of the Parable: Almost every commentator says watch out for a trap. The story is dangerous because we could just adopt different criteria for righteousness before God. “Ok, maybe I can’t keep all the commandments like the Pharisee, but . . . what if I look down my nose at all the religious types and flip the situation?” Still trying to justify ourselves, this time by our great Humility, we find our mouths praying the words: “God, I thank thee that I am not like the Pharisee!” And that’s a sure sign that our hearts haven’t changed at all.
Who is the hero of the story? It’s not the Pharisee, and it’s not even the Publican with the heart of gold — it’s God. This God saves not because we keep the law or even because know we can’t. This God saves for one reason: He loves us.
And that, my friends, is the power of this parable. Power to change.
Take out your bulletins — See the collect? It prays “that we may obtain that which thou dost promise, help us to love that which thou dost command.” Now tell me — How do you do that? How do you love dying to self every single day? It takes real heart transformation, and that only comes from one thing: From understanding that God knows us completely, but he loves us completely. God knows us — he knows how much we want to buy him off, how lots of times pride lies underneath our religion — he knows us to our depths, but he loves us to the skies. And that changes hearts.
My favorite illustration — maybe you’ve heard it, but I haven’t used it in a sermon here in about four years — it’s from the movie The Fisher King. Remember that? Go find it on Netflix or wherever tonight — in the movie Lydia, who’s played by Amanda Plummer, is shy, introverted, kind of mousy, has low self-esteem, and she’s sure anyone who really gets to know her will reject her. Parry, played by Robin Williams, has been following Lydia around New York, afraid to actually introduce himself, and he’s fallen in love just by watching her. It occurs to me that sounds pretty creepy, but try to ignore the stalkiness and focus on the romantic bits.
Parry and Lydia finally do have a date, and at the end of the evening they’re walking to her apartment, and she basically says “I had a great time; now can I just never see you again?” The conversation goes like this:
Lydia: “You’ll sleep over, and in the morning you’ll awake — and you’ll be distant, and you won’t be able to stay for breakfast . . . . We’ll exchange phone numbers, and you’ll leave, and I’ll go to work and I’ll feel so good . . . for the first hour. And then ever so slowly I’ll turn into a piece of dirt. I don’t know why I’m putting myself through this. It was really nice to meet you. Night.” And she runs to her apartment steps and starts to go inside.
Parry yells “Excuse me, wait, please wait, one minute — I have a confession I have to make to you.”
“You’re married?” she asks. “No.”
“You’re divorced?” “No.”
“You have a disease””
“No — please stop. I’m in love with you, and not just from tonight. I’ve known you for a long time . . . . I walk with you to lunch and I know if it’s a good day if you stop and get that romance novel at that bookstall. I know what you order, and I know on Wednesdays you go to that Dim Sum parlor, and I know that you get a jawbreaker before you go back in to work. And I know you hate your job and you don’t have many friends, and I know sometimes you feel a little uncoordinated and you don’t feel as wonderful as everybody else, and feeling as alone and separate as you feel you are and — I love you. I love you. And I think you’re the greatest thing since spice racks. And I would be knocked out several times if I could just have that first kiss. And I won’t, I won’t be distant. I’ll come back in the morning. And I’ll call you — if you’ll let me.”
Then Lydia touches his face, puts her forehead to his and says “You’re real, aren’t you?” And she’s transformed.
Who are you? What is your identity?
You are not your resume.
You are not your Instagram.
You are not the rules you keep or what other people think of you.
You are not your sexuality.
You are not your brokenness.
You are, quite simply, God’s beloved. See God already knows all about you — your failures, how sometimes you’re unhappy, how you feel awkward or out of place or alone. And he loves you. Love like that changes us — in fact, it’s the only thing that ever does. That’s the gospel — a God who won’t be distant, and he’ll always call. Who knows us to our depths, but loves us to the skies — and he’ll send us home justified, if we’ll let him.
Consider that an invitation.
☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Go Deeper //
- Wesley Morris, “Who Do You Think You Are” in the New York Times Magazine, 11 October 2015: p. MM48 (available online as “The Year We Obsessed Over Identity,” http://nyti.ms/1j2L3uC (last visited 20 October 2016).
- “Pharisees,” in The Oxford Dict. of the Christian Church, 3d ed., F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone eds. (Oxford: University Press, 2005): 1280.
- View the scene from The Fisher King on YouTube at https://youtu.be/Vza5Io4AKf8 (last visited 20 October 2016).