Monday, October 18, 2010

Lectionary Notebook: Luke 18:9-14

Thoughts on the Gospel Reading
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time C
Luke 18:9-14 (see TEXT below)

Who is justified before the LORD, and before the Almighty who stands vindicated? Apparently, one's resume of spiritual accomplishments do not carry the final call. Jesus' warning to us through the parable of the tax-collector and the pharisee reminds us that the final justification of the person before GOD may not be as simple as we assume.

[NOTE: I am closely following Andre Louf’s powerful little book, The Way Of Humility, for portions of this essay.]


GOD'S View of the Heart is Not Our View of the Heart.  By outward appearances the pharisee has his act together, and it is important to note that the things he had accomplished are not insignificant! His achievements -- the tithe, the fast, the temple attendance -- denoted spiritual growth and discipline. The pharisee is a poster-child for a savory post-modern church member. Yet, with all his success, his heart is not pure, and the GOD who sees knows his secret, even if it is hidden from pharisee’s own heart.

By contrast, of course, the tax collector is by all accounts a living-color scoundrel. This comes to us by way of the social decree from his own time about those in his profession, and by his own self-confession -- "God, be merciful to me a sinner."

What is interesting is the realization that actually both men are sinners -- a surprise to the pharisee. What is also interesting (an understatement?) is that only the tax collector is justified before GOD -- again, a surprise to the pharisee and to Jesus’ original hearers as well. How is it that the one who stands far-off from GOD and speaks his prayer from an isolated and doubting heart gains a hearing and goes home vindicated, while the Torah-faithful religious man is found wanting? Had we never heard of this parable we would truly be astounded at this outcome, and, even now, after hearing it preached we often live the way of the pharisee anyway without knowing it. GOD's view and GOD’s ways are foreign to us. Or, as St. Bernard once remarked: "God prefers a repentant sinner to a self-righteous virgin."

What Makes One Acceptable Is The Question Of Humility. The tax collector is humble; the pharisee is not, this is the distinction that separates them before GOD. Humility, which means of humis or of the earth, in this context means that one has the ability to recognize the reality of sin that resides deeply within oneself. In contrast to the sinner-pharisee, the sinner tax collector has a severe sorrow for his sin. We see in his words a broken self-reliance and a steep loss of self-satisfaction that the sinner-pharisee does not share.

Interestingly, what is commended in the TEXT -- humility, brokenness, and a short-circuiting of self --  are the very things psychology tells us are needed for a healthy self concept. This offers us a difficult choice.

Said another way, to find humility we must pass through the crucible of humiliation. Humility is born out of true, actual sin and failure (even moral failure), and if you've sinned, then you will no doubt understand this statement.  It is succumbing to temptation, then, that moves us to the path of humility, and once it crashes onto us we are forever marked by its scares and sorrows. In contrast to popular thought about GOD, we find that the Almighty never once winked or ignored our sinful ways, but instead when honestly asked was ready to apply the balm of mercy found in the grace of the Christ, which finally brings us forgiveness and relief, but never amnesia.

The Pharisee Used the Wrong Metric. He measured himself against the waywardness of the world and the sinfulness of the tax collector, but this is not the true standard. No, the genuine standard of righteousness is the Almighty! "Be ye Holy as I Am Holy."

Psalm 15 is instructive here:
1  O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?  2  Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart;  3  who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;  4  in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt;  5  who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved. (NRSV)

Clearly, the only response to this standard is the one given by Isaiah in his vision of the LORD: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" (Is.6:5)

Success in spirituality and religious practice is the greatest danger of all. This by all accounts is most counter-intuitive, but it stands as the greatest warning of all. Practicing good works opens to one the temptation of self-satisfaction, and once this viral thought has been introduced into the spirit one has opened the soul to the infection of pride that soon brings one down. Or, as St. Paul reminds us:"him who stands take heed lest he fall."

Church leaders are especially open to this tragedy. We who serve the body Christ by presiding over her worship, by preaching her sacred TEXTS  or by comforting her members are often seen as special and especially spiritual because of the work. This means we must constantly keep before our eyes our own brokenness and lostness, lest after we have preached to others we ourselves become castaways.  If, however, the sin of self has already penetrated the heart, and we have thus been confronted with the stench of pride, then the sting and the sorrow of sin will be found to be ever present to the heart, and will offer the conscience the constant reminder that we are, after all, only made of clay, which is but wet dirt, which is of the earth from whence we shall soon return.

Luke 18:9-14
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." (NRSV)