The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 25C (October 24, 2010)

Two Worlds

Lessons: Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 or Sirach 35:12-17 Psalm 84:1-7 (5) 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 St. Luke 18:9-14

Semicontinuous Series: Joel 2:23-32 Psalm 65 (11)

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, our righteous judge, daily your mercy suprises us with everlasting forgiveness.  Strengthen our hope in you, and grant that all the peoples of the earth may find their glory in you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Text

18:9 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.”

St. Luke 18:9-14. New Revised Version Bible ©1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way… [the opening lines from “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens]

With these words, Dickens sets the scene: England and France, in 1775; two dramatically different worlds; worlds that clash as the story in this novel plays itself out.

In the 18th chapter of St. Luke, the reader becomes aware of two worlds – worlds as different from one another as the two that Dickens describes. The first of these two worlds finds expression in the Pharisee of Jesus’ parable. He is righteous. He fasts not once a week (as the law requires), but twice. He gives a tenth of his income to support ministry – and not just on the types of income designated for tithing by the law, but on all of his income. He is an accomplished religious leader – one who is very much in the public eye, and one who is admired by other believers. Dedication to the religious conventions of his time has earned him a place in society that was the envy of many.

However, as Luke’s introduction makes clear, this Pharisee’s righteousness is based on what he has accomplished. He is one who has come to “trust in himself” and regard others with contempt. His is a religious world based on law, where insiders are honored and outsiders are shamed. He leaves the temple that day, convinced that his own efforts have left him in good stead with God. (But as Jesus points out in verse 14, he is wrong.)

The second world evident in the 18th chapter of St. Luke finds expression in the Tax Collector of Jesus’ parable, who also was praying in the temple that day. He is an unrighteous man. Tax Collectors were widely perceived as unscrupulous, making themselves wealthy by overcharging citizens. Not only is that the public perception – he sees himself in the same way. He acts like an outcast: he doesn’t dare make his way to the center of the temple, but stands off to the side by himself. He doesn’t dare look up towards heaven, but hangs his head and beats his breast. He his seen as a sinner. He understands himself as a sinner. Confessing his sinfulness, he begs God for forgiveness.

It is this man, of course, who goes home justified. He didn’t hide behind a façade of respectability. He didn’t presume to be more than he was. He approached God with humility, owned up to the brokenness of his own life, and asked for the one gift he needed most: the gift of mercy. He leaves the temple that day having received that gift – not based on his own efforts, but based on God’s gracious nature.

In making this assertion, Jesus announces that the world of honor and shame has now come to an end. A new world – a world grounded in mercy – has come to be. Nothing will ever again be the same.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to proclaim this reality. It is only in confessing our need for God’s grace that we receive it. It is only in giving up on our own vain attempts at honor that we receive the highest honor: knowing the grace and mercy that comes as a gift from our God. May this understanding shape our lives, and allow us to return home as did the Tax Collector: forgiven and renewed.

Amen.

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. How does Jesus describe the Pharisee’s relationship with God?
  2. How does Jesus describe the Tax Collector’s relationship with God?
  3. What does this tell us about the life of faith?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. As I think about my own spirituality, do I seem more like the Pharisee (impressed with my faithfulness) or more like the Tax Collector (impressed with my need for mercy)?
  2. When have I experienced the power of God’s forgiveness?
  3. How might I be more aware of my need for God’s mercy, and of God’s desire to share it with me?