Righteousness is Knowing We Need God: Luke 18:9-14
23rd Sunday After Pentecost: Oct. 23, 2016
Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 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!’ 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.”
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
I would like to invite you to experience the scene of this parable. To not just attend with your ears, and with your mind, but in a way with your body as well. Jesus has given us a scene with some important physical markers. So let’s look at them: Two men are praying at the temple. It is a busy scene, and yet they are described as isolating themselves in different ways – we are asked to pay attention to their positions.
The Pharisees posture is not noted, except that he is standing by himself, but we can guess how that looked from the standard posture of prayer in the time, and from his attitude: standing tall, arms upraised: a picture of confidence. Can you feel that assurance in your body? That sense of inviolability?
This stance can be a posture of rejoicing in God’s provision, but that’s not quite what the Pharisee’s words convey. His initial thanks is undermined by the focus of the words that follow. Words that draw a distinction between himself and others. Words that show how far above he finds himself.
The tax collector’s position, in words and posture, could not be more different. The parable describes that “he would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast.” Can you feel that inward turning shame? That horrible belief that you somehow deserve to be hit?
If we look at the tax collector, not just listen, but look, what we see is a picture of pain. Pain so intense that it has to be expressed physically. Words aren’t enough. They do not capture the depth of his shame and his need. His own hands must rise up to abuse him.
It is a jarring contrast! On the one side is confidence and assurance of righteousness. On the other is cringing and assurance of sinfulness. It is also a disturbing contrast, because It seems obvious that we are being asked to choose the posture of cringing and pain: there are two ways of approaching God, self-righteous or humble, and only the humble will be justified.
That seems like the obvious interpretation…but wait. Dividing people up into self-righteous vs. humble is actually really problematic, for at least two reasons.
First, this kind of division into moral categories mirrors what the self-righteous Pharisee is doing – and he is the one who DOES NOT go home justified.
According to the Pharisee’s worldview, those who break the law (thieves, rogues, and adulterers) are BAD; whereas those who keep the law (himself, even if no one else) are good. Law-breakers=bad; "the righteous”=good. It is a simple, easy formula that makes him feel secure.
But, then, if we read this as an exemplary parable that tells us to “be like the tax collector and not like the Pharisee” all we are doing is reversing the categories, not the basic formula. With such a reframing, the humble, those who say “I am a sinner,” are good; whereas the self-righteous, who stand in judgment over others, are bad.
That formula is very satisfying for anyone who has ever felt judged by someone who set themselves up as “holier than thou”, but there’s a catch. By calling out the self-righteous we immediately become the Pharisee – judging the holier-than-thou person for their self-righteousness, and ironically becoming “self-righteous” about our own humility.
The problem with thinking the solution to our problem is our attitude, is that we then try to adopt the “right” attitude and place our confidence in that. Just like the Pharisee, we are depending on works righteousness.
One of my professors likes to tell the story of a pastor who preached a rousing sermon on this parable calling his congregation to reject self-righteousness. And then closed in a prayer in which he prayed:
“Lord, we thank you that we are not like that Pharisee…”
And there it is. It’s just so easy to slip into comparisons, and a formula that sets up two opposing camps just begs us to go there, to start dividing people up and trying to get on the right side.
But even if we avoid the self-righteousness side, we can be left with self-hatred.
2. Because the second problem with dividing people into two camps is perhaps even more dangerous: it brings the danger of elevating self-rejection, and even tolerance of abuse, as a “good work.”
In developing this message, I hesitated to ask you to enter the physical experience of the tax collector because of the violence involved. When we hear the phrase “beating his breast” we might be able to just move on past the metaphor…but if we imagine that pain in our own body, if we imagine the psychic pain that would drive someone to physically beat themselves, we can’t just pretty that image up with the label “humility.”
But sadly that is exactly what the Christian church has tried to do far too many times. Our heritage tragically includes messages that elevate forbearance and patience as the proper, humble, faithful response to abuse.
It happened when slaves were told to be obedient to their masters as good Christians;
It still happens when battered women and men are told to stay with their abusers because God sanctifies them through their suffering;
It happens far too often as a consequence of skewed theology that equates sin with worthlessness (whether that theology be conscious or inherited from the Puritan roots of our American culture). Because a theology that connects worth to sin inevitably tells people they are worthless – and that can drive people to hurt themselves, whether that be with razor blades, or alcohol, or purging, or overwork, or any of the thousand ways that we abuse ourselves because we think we deserve no better.
That is the horrifying danger of elevating the tax collector as our model to follow. Because he is the one cringing, and beating himself, and so consumed by his own unworthiness that he can’t even turn his eyes toward God.
If we turn this parable into a formula, and we make “humility” the solution, then our salvation depends on our ability to reject, maybe even to hate, ourselves. And we are still trying to earn God’s approval, but now that task has become impossible, because we are hopeless sinners.
That’s the result of looking for the LAW in this parable – looking for the formula. The “what do I have to do to be righteous.” The answer is that there is nothing you can do.
But that is also the GOSPEL in this parable.
The gospel in this parable does not call us to join the right camp so that we can earn God’s approval – the parable shows us that there are no camps. We all fail;
We can fail in the obvious ways – in the openly sinful life that drives the tax collector to despair;
Or we can fail in the subtle way – by following the rules, but getting trapped in self-satisfaction.
Either way – we cannot save ourselves. Our attempts at righteousness will fail.
which means that we all need the one thing the tax collector actually prays for out of the desperation of his failure.
“Lord, have mercy on me.”
There is a simple freedom in praying “only you, Oh Lord, can save me.” It is a prayer that the tax collector or the Pharisee can pray, regardless of their works. We can claim no right to justification - only our dependence on God’s mercy. This is the foolishness of the cross, the revelation that we come to God NOT through achievement but through need.
There is no formula; what we have is a prayer – a prayer that depends not on our works, or even our attitude, but rather on God’s promises.
That’s why we start each worship service at the font – confessing our need and reclaiming the promise of our baptism. This practice reminds us where our righteousness comes from – not from ourselves, but from God. In fact, that is what the parable means when it says the tax collector went home “justified.” In the Greek, the word for justified comes from dikaioo, which means “made righteous.” Despite the truth of the man’s sinfulness, he was made righteous by God.
And that is also why the Pauline author of 2 Timothy can BOAST, and yet not contradict the teachings of this parable:
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness.”
At first glance his words sound a lot more like the Pharisee than the tax collector, but that interpretation resurrects the idea of two camps. Whereas the 2nd Timothy text also is really a picture of dependence on God. When the author rejoices in the fruits of his faith he does not claim this righteousness as his own work, or present it as his justification before God. Rather, he recognizes his dependence on God.
“The Lord stood by me and gave me strength...”
“The Lord will rescue me from every evil and save me for his heavenly kingdom.”
“To (God) be the glory forever and ever”
He knows where both his righteousness and his hope come from: They don’t come from his own perfection; Nor do they come from self-rejection. His righteousness and his hope, his life and his life after death, are not about him at all. They are about God.
And that same God offers us the same promise. The promise to justify us – not through our good works or through our humility – but through God’s grace through faith.
Thanks be to God. AMEN