Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 23, 2022
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Today we hear Jesus tell a little story about a worship service. Among the worshippers at this service was a Pharisee. We have been trained as Christians to automatically view any Pharisees in the Bible as the villains. You can almost hear the Darth Vader theme music in your head when they enter any scene. But let’s remember that the Pharisees were the good, upstanding, pious people in Jesus’ culture. They were the kind of people you would want as neighbors. They were the kind of people that, in many ways, you would want to be like. They are certainly the kind of people you would like to have in church.
As we learn from the Pharisee’s prayer, he is not a thief or a rogue. He’s someone you would trust to count the offering after worship. He is not an adulterer. He values his marriage and is faithful to his wife. He isn’t a philanderer or sexually immoral. He fasts twice a week, going above and beyond the usual spiritual practices that were expected. He’s the kind of guy who would take Lent seriously, giving up things and coming to all the worship services. Best of all, he tithes a tenth of his income! Now we’re talking! Sign this guy up for the new member class, right? Seriously, who doesn’t want someone like this around?
But there’s a fatal flaw in this Pharisee. Two fatal flaws, actually. First, he trusted in himself that he was righteous. Even though he thanks God at the beginning of his prayer, this is clearly just lip service. He shows throughout the rest of the prayer that his ultimate trust is not in God but in himself. “I do this, I do that, I, I, I,” he says. He lists those admittedly admirable qualities as if they were what made him righteous before God.
Now, let’s pause here a minute and talk about righteousness. This word comes up a lot in the Bible, and it can be confusing. To try to help people understand the different ways this word is used, Martin Luther talked about two kinds of righteousness. There is civic righteousness, or active righteousness, which refers to how we act towards other people. In many ways, this Pharisee had this kind of righteousness. He was in right relationship with his neighbors. He didn’t steal or swindle. He was in right relationship with his wife. He was faithful and chaste. And he was at least outwardly in right relationship with God because he was doing all the things that were expected of him: worshipping, praying, fasting, tithing. But we know that even with all this, he was in fact NOT right with God. Jesus says as much!
To be right with God is something different. This kind of righteousness is not based on outward appearances. It is not based on one’s pious practices. It is not based on works. This is a righteousness that comes from outside of ourselves. This is a passive righteousness, a righteousness that is received. This is a righteousness that comes not as a reward, but as a rescue for people who have come to see that no matter how well-behaved we are, we all fall short of the glory of God. There is no right relationship with God without this rescue, without this kind of righteousness. This is the only way we are truly brought into right relationship with God – by being righted by God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s forgiveness. This Pharisee was so sure of himself, so proud of his credentials, that he had closed himself off from this kind of righteousness. It’s hard to open your hands to God’s mercy when you’re too busy showing off your trophies.
The second fatal flaw in this Pharisee was that his self-righteousness had led him into contempt of others. The first words of his prayer were to thank God that he wasn’t like other people! How rude! And then, even worse, he glances across the sanctuary and sees a tax collector in the back and prays, his words dripping with contempt, “For instance, thank goodness I’m not like that guy over there.”
For all this Pharisees’ good qualities – and there are many! – these two fatal flaws, self-righteousness and contempt of others, meant that the Pharisee went home from worship that day still not right with God. In spite of outward appearances, he did not go home “justified,” which can also be translated as “righted” or “made righteous.” They are the same words in Greek. He went home full of something – mostly himself – but he was not full of God!
There was another worshipper there that day, Jesus tells us. This worshipper was a tax collector. As much as many today might resent IRS agents, tax collectors in the ancient world were outright despised, and for good reason. They volunteered to help the Romans gouge their fellow Jews, which made them traitors. They also were notorious for demanding exorbitant “service fees” in order to line their own pockets, and so they were swindlers. This is who came to worship – a tax collector! He stood far off, in the back row of the church. He didn’t even lift his eyes up to God. He was too ashamed. He beat his own breast in anguish and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
The tax collector didn’t bring any trophies to worship, and so his hands were open to take hold of God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s forgiveness. Jesus said that this man and not the Pharisee went home justified. This man and not the Pharisee received the righteousness that comes from outside us, the righteousness that comes as a rescue, not a reward. This tax collector and not the Pharisee was made right with God. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus said, “but all who humble themselves will be exalted,”
Well, here we are at a worship service. I think we’d all like to assume as we gather here for worship that we’re the tax collector in the parable, right? If for no other reason than that we want to go home justified, we’d like to be like him. We may not be outright traitors and swindlers, but like him we’ve confessed our sins. We’ve sung the kyrie, singing the same plea for mercy that the tax collector prayed. Many of you like to sit in the back of the church, like he did.
But I have this sneaking suspicion that despite all of this, we are more like the Pharisee than we would like to admit. Because, you see, I hear things. I hear things that sound a bit like, “I thank you God that I am not like other people.” I have heard conversations on the margins of our congregational life that sound a bit like, “I’m so glad that I am so loving and inclusive and right about everything, not like those Republicans over there. I’m so much better than they are.” I also hear things on the margins of our congregational life that sound like, “I’m so glad that I am so much smarter than those crazy liberals. I don’t want anything to do with those people. I’m so much better than they are.”
Now, we are a healthy congregation. Most of us understand that we are what is sometimes called a “purple” congregation, a congregation made up of both Democrats and Republicans, both red and blue political ideologies. Most of the time we navigate this pretty well. Most of the time we show love and respect for one another, coming together as red and blue to make a lovely purple.
But sometimes I hear things that sound like self-righteousness. Sometimes I hear things that sound like contempt for others. Sometimes I hear it in casual conversations where it is just assumed that anyone who believes differently about a political issue is a monster. Sometimes I hear it from people who have come to me hurt by the way they have been treated by other congregation members, people who have been confronted by other church members over politics and have wondered if they have a place here. Sometimes I hear this self-righteousness and contempt in my own head. Because, you see, I am not immune to it either. Just because I’m good at biting my tongue in public doesn’t mean I’m not guilty of it too.
When it comes to civic, worldly righteousness, there are many issues on which you are free to have your own opinion. (As they say in one of my favorite food podcasts, “Opinions are like casseroles.”) God’s law does draw boundaries around many things, but there is also much that is open to debate among Christians. You are free to disagree with other Christians, whether they are beside you in the pew or posting online or are leaders of our synod or our denomination. Heck, you might even be right about certain things! I sure like to think that I am! But no matter how right, no matter how correct we may be, that does not make us righteous before God, and it certainly does not give any of us the right to be contemptuous towards other brothers and sisters in Christ. Again, this isn’t about which convictions you hold or which candidates you support, it is about contempt. It is a heart issue.
Sometimes I’m afraid we manage to smuggle our trophies into worship, thinking that our good behavior or pious attitudes or supposedly correct opinions make us both right with God and better than others. When that happens, we go home from worship full of something – but it isn’t God. It isn’t Christ. It isn’t the Spirit. When that happens, we do not go home from worship justified. Self-righteousness and contempt are fatal flaws. They are spiritual poison.
We might be tempted then to swing hard the other direction and show off about how humble we can be! Garrison Keillor wrote a song about Lutherans with a line that goes: “We are a modest people and we never make a fuss, and it sure would be a better world if they were all as modest as us.” Sinners that we are, we can even turn humility into a work, into something we accomplish – which just throws us back into self-righteousness and contempt.
So how do we go home from this worship service justified? How do we go home today “righted,” in right relationship with God? It isn’t something we do. It is something God does in us.
Today, through his word, God shows us our sin. God humbles us. God takes every last trophy out of our hands, even the humility trophy. God shows us that we are BOTH the Pharisee in the parable, plagued by self-righteousness and contempt, AND the tax collector, with sins that we cannot atone for ourselves and need forgiven. God humbles us through this word so that our hands would be free to take hold of the righteousness only he can provide, the righteousness that is not a reward but a rescue, given through the saving work of his dear Son.
And as God humbles us, he also exalts us, just as Jesus promised. In him we are lifted up. In him we are saved from our fatal flaws through his mercy, his forgiveness. In him we are given the righteousness that cannot be earned or achieved. In him we are made truly and eternally right with God. In him we are raised from the dead to live in right relationship with God, and with a little more humility and grace towards one another.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church