Text: Luke 18:9-14
I grew up with one sister who is two years older than me. Unlike now, growing up we were not very close. We could not have been more different as children and as teenagers. As a child, Allyson loved baby dolls and all things girly. I, on the other hand, loved playing in the dirt, riding motorcycles and throwing a ball. Allyson loved clothes, make-up and dressing up. I loved blue jeans, tee shirts and baseball uniforms. As we got older, our differences became more striking. Allyson liked rock-n-roll music and I loved listening to John Denver. (I still do!) She liked black lights, posters of the band KISS plastered all over her bedroom walls and going out with boys. I liked the sky nightlights, posters of Jesus and going out with girls. While she was out on Saturday nights cruising the local strip with her friends, I was at the church with my father preparing our small rural church for Sunday morning services. While I was reading my Sunday school lesson, she was reading the 1970s equivalent of Teen Vogue. Allyson was always getting into trouble, breaking the rules and living life her way. I was the pleaser child, always following the rules and living life the way I thought every one else expected me to live. I can remember many nights lying in my bed hearing my sister plead with my parents to forgive her for something that she had done that she shouldn’t have.
I can’t explain it but when I read the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, I thought of growing up with my sister. And I realized, I was the Pharisee in this story. Here’s how I heard the story in my head:
The youngest sister, standing by herself, was praying, “God, I thank you that I am not like my sister always getting into trouble, listening to that sinful music and disappointing my parents.” But the older sister, standing at a distance with her face buried in her hands crying, would not even look up, but was pleading with her parents for another chance, begging for forgiveness.”
Now here’s the thing: the Pharisee was not doing anything wrong in this story. He was doing exactly what was expected of him and even more. While the law prescribed only one annual fast, namely, that on the Day of Atonement, this Pharisee fasted voluntarily twice a week. He gave tithes of everything he bought, insuring that he used nothing that had not been tithed. He followed the rules—he fasted, he prayed, he tithed. He leads a life blameless according to the law. He is very different in his obedience to the law from the unsavory characters with which he compares himself. So what, then, is his problem? It narrows down to one thing: while he is right about the kind of life he should live, he is confused about the source of that life. For while he prays to God, his prayer finally is about himself, and because he misses the source of his blessing, he despises those people God loves. For this reason, he leaves the Temple as righteous according to the law as when he entered, but he is not justified; that is, he is not accounted and called righteous by God. For it would never occur to him to ask.
In contrast to this Pharisee is the tax collector. While the taxes, such as poll-tax and land-tax, were collected by state-officials, the customs of a district were farmed out, apparently to the highest bidder. Hence the collectors of customs made private profit out of the transaction. Tariffs were, no doubt, fixed by the state, but the tax collectors had no lack of devices for defrauding the public. In the general estimation they stood on a level with robbers; they possessed no civic rights, and were shunned by all respectable persons. Because of this status, in contrast to the Pharisee, the tax collector remained standing at a distance to offer his prayers, beating his breast, or more accurately, his heart. There is no note of repentance in his speech, no pledge to leave his employment or render restitution to those he has cheated, no promises of a new and better life. Nothing, except the simple acknowledgment that he is utterly and entirely dependent on God’s mercy. The tax collector knows the one thing the Pharisee does not: he is entirely dependent on God’s grace and mercy.
Maybe even at a young age, my sister knew something that I had not learned. Maybe something inside of her soul knew that life is not about “getting it right”—checking off a list of things that we think are expected of us and that make us look good before others. Maybe she knew that there was something bigger than herself that would offer her grace and mercy and forgiveness when she messed up. Maybe that is what she learned each time my father extended love rather than judgment.
It is convenient to make the moral of this story be: Don’t think too highly of yourself like the self-affirming Pharisee; rather, be like the self-abasing tax collector. Or, to make it even simpler, boil the point of this parable down to two words: “be humble.” However, in doing so, I think we miss the deeper meaning of this story.
I wonder if Jesus told this parable as a way to shift our attention from ourselves—our piety or our passions, our faith or our failure, our glory or our shame—to God, the God who delights in justifying the ungodly, welcoming the outcast, and healing all who are in need. I wonder if the real moral of this story is to remind us of a God who creates light from darkness, raises the dead to life, and pulls us all—Pharisee and tax collectors, righteous and sinful, disciples and ne’er-do-wells alike—into the realm of unimaginable and unexpected grace, mercy and joy.
All the gospel parables are a defense of the good news—that in God there is forgiveness, an invitation for the wayward to taste God’s hospitality, a call to follow the way of justice and mercy. But it is not to sinners that Jesus addresses the gospel parables, it is to his critics: to those who rejected him because he gathered the despised around him. His opponents were disappointed because they were expecting a “day of wrath”; they had closed their hearts to the “good news” because they had made up their minds to walk in God’s way, to serve God with unfaltering piety, and in so doing had shut God out of the equation. Again and again they ask Jesus: “Why do you associate with this riff-raff, shunned by all respectable people?” And he replies over and over again: Because they need me, because they are truly repentant, and because they feel the gratitude of being forgiven. But, above all, because I know what God is like, so good to the poor and the outcast, so glad when the lost are found, so overflowing with love for the returning child, so welcoming of the stranger, so merciful to the despairing, the helpless and the needy. That is why!
Recently, I attended some fifteen home gatherings and listened to many of you respond to the question, “How did you get to Pullen and why do you stay?” And over and over again, your stories told the gospel story—the good news of love and mercy. It seems that most of us are at Pullen because this church is a church in defense of the good news. Here we are reminded of God’s forgiveness for all, not God’s judgment on some. Here there is an invitation to taste God’s hospitality, to follow the call of justice and mercy. Here at Pullen we, the lost, have been found. We have experienced the overflowing of God’s love as we have returned home. Here at Pullen, we are not judged based on some arbitrary set of rules or a list of dos and don’ts. Rather, we are challenged to be our most authentic selves while trusting God’s mercy to lead us to wholeness.
Twenty-one years ago, I was someone who needed to hear Pullen’s understanding of the “good news.” I needed to know that God loved me because of who I am, not instead of who I am. I needed to hear someone tell me that a life of faith is not about having all the right answers or checking off a list of do’s and don’ts but rather asking the important and hard questions of life and faith. I needed a community that would share my joys and sorrows, my accomplishments and failures with me. I needed friends who would love me, not judge me. I needed a faith community that would challenge me to live as Jesus taught. I needed a community to show me that the goal is not to be a Pharisee and get it “right” but to be myself and trust in God’s mercy.
On this pledge Sunday I want you to know why I pledge my money to Pullen. I pledge to Pullen not because I have to or feel I am expected to but because I want to be a part of a community that works together to make sure that the people who will walk through our church doors today and tomorrow and for the next 130 years will hear the gospel story of God’s love and mercy—the good news that sets us free—and in turn will take that story out into the world and make it real.