Sermons That Work

We Say in the Declaration…, Proper 25 (C) – 2004

October 24, 2004

We say in the Declaration of Independence that everyone is created equal. In general, we know better than that. All of us are not equal in most things. We are not equal in height, in intelligence, in ability, in our opportunities in life, in life expectancy, in moral or other virtue. We are not equal in who we are or in what we can and will become.

But there are a few places, not many, but a few, where people are equal—or at least where they ought to be—and where no irrelevant matters can make a difference. One of those is simply the Court House. None of the things that differentiate us are relevant, or should be relevant, in our law courts. That’s an important part of what justice means. Here, at least, all are equal. There are other such places. Inside a voting booth is one, and so is the door of a public school. It is important to keep straight where we are all equal, and where we are not. Confusing these can cause truly terrible messes. We do so at our peril.

That’s what’s going on in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee forgot about one of those places where we really are equal.

This is harder to get clear on than on the voting booth and the courthouse; much harder. There are lots of reasons for that, but probably the greatest reason is that the religion of the Pharisee, as portrayed in today’s parable, is, I suspect, the automatic and natural religion of the human being. If we are not careful, if we do not pay close attention, then our religion, along with virtually every religion in the history of humanity, will become the religion of that Pharisee.

After all, we understand rules and we understand breaking rules and getting punished. And we know full well that we are not perfect—but! But there are certainly others who are worse than we are. What’s more, our circumstances are so very special, and so on. Besides, we know that some of us are more moral than others, (and that just about all of us are more moral than almost any of them—whoever “them” happens to be this week.) We know that keeping score is not all that difficult, and that if we keep score, we will do worse than some, but better than many, and just about as good as the ones left over.

So virtually all religions end up being popularly understood as saying that if we are more or less just about as good as most folks like us, and generally better than the rest who are not like us, if we but do that, then we are O.K. We have handled the religion business, and we can go about the real and vital parts of our lives already in harmony with God and all the people that matter. We sometimes dress that up with a lot of fancy and pious lace, but that’s what it has amounted to for the vast bulk of humanity throughout the ages, and that is what it amounts to for many of us.

For this kind of religion, everyone is far from equal. What makes you good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, saved or damned, has to do with how good a job you have done doing whatever it is you are supposed to do. The better a job you have done, the better a person you are, the more successful you have become religiously.

So the Pharisee, pictured here as the epitome of a religion of good works, has much to brag about. This guy belongs in the temple if anyone does. And I am convinced he’s not a hypocrite, he is not a liar, and there is no reason to believe that he is an unusually proud or self-centered person. He is simply telling the truth. He is a good man. He is just, he is faithful to his vows, he is very conscientious about fulfilling his religious duties: He fasts, he tithes, and, as we see from the parable, he prays.

The tax collector does none of that. Remember, tax collectors (the King James version calls them “Publicans”), tax collectors were not just unpopular civil servants. They were collaborators. They had abandoned the Law of Moses, and were unclean. They robbed their own people for personal gain and to underwrite the hated Roman overlords. They had traded their birthright, their brothers and sisters, and their heritage for a pretty good piece of change. They were rich, but they were hated. A Pharisee could not marry into a family that contained a tax collector; and so on. Meanwhile, the tax collectors cried all the way to the bank.

Now, be honest, remembering that tax collectors didn’t tithe, who would you rather have join the parish, or start dating your kid, or have your child use as a role model? The fact is, everybody is not morally equal, and the Pharisee was a better person, morally, socially, and, no doubt, personally, than the tax collector.

Now, you have to admit that all of this counts for something. To live a morally upright life is better than not to do that. To fast, pray, and give is better than not to do those things. To live as God calls us to live is better than not to live that way. We believe that; and we should never forget that. To live as God calls us to live is to live richer, deeper, and more complete lives. We are not all equal, and it does make a difference. Our lives can be better than they are now.

But there are still some places where we are all absolutely equal; and the ground at the foot of the cross is level. To stand there, which is where we stand when we stand before God, is to stand without difference, and without advantage, and without any prayer but one: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”

The primary reason this is true is not because of who we are; the primary reason we only have that one prayer is because of who God is. When we stand at the foot of the cross, when we stand in the presence of God, we are not visiting Santa at the department store or a genie out of a fairy tale. Instead, we are in the presence of a God who is righteous, who is holy and who is just; a God who demands of us righteousness, holiness, and justice.

We are in the presence of a God who has made for us as great a sacrifice as we can imagine, and who says that we should do the same sort of thing. When we stand before God, we stand before the creator of the universe, the giver of the law, and the judge of all people.

If we but take that reality seriously, it takes the air right out of our self-righteous comparisons and our self-serving compromises. If that Pharisee were standing before anyone of us, his litany of good qualities might, for good reason, impress the heck out of us. But that is not where he was standing. That is not where any of us is standing.

The more honest we are about who God is, and so about who we are in the presence of God, the more that tax collector’s prayer makes sense, the more it becomes our prayer. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that he went down to his house justified. The good news is that being equal in the eyes of God’s justice also reveals us to be equal in the eyes of God’s love. The ground at the foot of the cross is level, dead level. In the same way, the resurrection reaches out to all of creation with a power and a force that is beyond our imagining and beyond our hoping. Our prayer is the prayer of the tax collector, but at its heart it is a shout of joy, a sign, not of our victory, but of the victory of Jesus.

God, be merciful to me a sinner!

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Christopher Sikkema


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