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Pleasing to God

Sermon - 10/24/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 18:10-14

The story that I want to share with you this morning is a very familiar story, so let me just check with the congregation: it's the story of two men praying in the Temple. Now you remember this -- the self-righteous Pharisee, and the remorseful Republican, right?

Maybe it was a bad election year, 2008 or something :). I say that because of the King James translation that says it was a Pharisee and a "Publican", not a Republican. The Publican being a tax collector. And so modern translations use that phrase.

I want to check and see here, a little biblical knowledge test, because there was that test in the paper a few weeks ago from the Pew Research folks, reporting that agnostics and atheists did better than church folk. And this is a closed-book test, no cheating :).

So you have that story in mind, it's multiple choice, two possibilities, so you have a 50/50 chance of getting it right. And don't worry if you get it wrong, your salvation depends on it, but that's OK :).

So it's either "A" or "B":

A) That story of the righteous Pharisee praying in the Temple, and the tax collector (very humble), that is an event that Luke reports in his Gospel as something that Jesus and his disciples observed, and then Jesus comments on it, kind of like the widow with her two pennies that she throws in the treasury.

B) It's a parable told by Jesus.

How many say A? How many say B? Remember, your salvation depends upon it :)

It is, it's "B", it's a parable told by Jesus, and that's important, as we'll see in just a moment, to our understanding of the story.

Before I read it, let me setup the context. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. In Chapter 17, we are told that Jesus and the disciples are somewhere between Samaria and Galilee. And that's up north, it's quite a ways still from Jerusalem, and that is important because it tells us that they're still in a rural area. Jesus is likely in some small town with some travelers, pilgrims, on their way to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem.

And immediately before this, in chapter 18, Jesus tells another parable of the widow who keeps pestering a judge until she gets her case heard. And then immediately after this story, is the blessing of the children brought to Jesus. Those things are important too, because it tells us a little bit about the context. Keep in mind that widows and children are the most vulnerable of any society, and especially ancient agrarian societies.

And so we get a picture of the audience of Jesus, largely rural folk, who identify with the vulnerable and the oppressed -- peasants who have lost their land, farmers who struggle under very heavy taxation of the Roman system, families struggling to survive, widows left without any means of support, pilgrims on their way to the holy city in which we must always remember is occupied by Roman soldiers.

And so then we come to this parable that Jesus tells in chapter 18. I'm going to read from the Contemporary English Version as I think it captures it best, but feel free to follow along in the pew Bible or your own version:

Two men went into the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood over by himself and prayed, "God, I thank you that I am not greedy, dishonest, and unfaithful in marriage like other people. And I am really glad that I am not like that tax collector over there. 12I go without eating for two days a week, and I give you one tenth of all I earn." 13The tax collector stood off at a distance and did not think he was good enough even to look up toward heaven. He was so sorry for what he had done that he pounded his chest and prayed, "God, have pity on me! I am such a sinner."

14Then Jesus said, "When the two men went home, it was the tax collector and not the Pharisee who was pleasing to God."


Now, the first surprise of this text is here we are on the Sunday when we are going to dedicate our estimates of giving, and I have chosen as our text, a story in which the one who tithes -- who gives 10% of his income -- is the villain of the story! Michael Kennedy, who chairs our Administration Ministry, said we might want to take those estimates BEFORE the sermon, rather than after :).

Normally, when celebrating the faithful response of people to the challenge of supporting the mission of God's church, you want to give all deference to those who make it all possible with their contributions. A caller called the church office one day, and asked to speak to the head hog at the feeding trough. The receptionist said "Excuse me?". He said I'd like to speak to the head hog at the feeding trough. She said "Are you referring to our Pastor?". And he said yeah, that's right, the head hog at the feeding trough. She said "Sir, we refer to our Pastor as the Reverend, or Doctor, or Pastor, but not head hog". And he said, well, I just wanted to call and discuss making a $100,000 contribution to the church. She said "Wait a moment, the big fat pig just came in" :)

So, you know, you too can call me whatever you like -- for a price :). You haven't made it yet, let me tell ya :).

Second surprise of the text, it's not really a parable about prayer, as we often assume. It's not an illustration of how to pray or how not to pray, though one certainly can draw some lessons from that accordingly. But that's not the point of the story. Luke gives us a clue, pretty much tells us the point of the story in his introduction in verse nine, Luke says that Jesus told this parable for those who think they are better than others, who look down on others, because of their religious credentials. You know, this Pharisee gives a tithe, and fasts twice a week (which was more than what was expected in that time), and so he looks down on others. So it's really not about prayer at all, but it is more of an illustration of character.

And once we realize the parable is not about prayer but about character, we can discover the biggest surprise of all, one which is largely missed by contemporary readers, but to the audience of Jesus it would have been as subtle as a Sumo wrestler in a bikini contest (only more shocking). And one of the reasons we miss it here is that we bring to this story a negative image of Pharisees. An image formed in part by our misreading of this very text. And as I've noted, and this is why it's important to keep in mind--it's a parable. It's not an historical description of Pharisees. It's not even an historical description of a single Pharisee, but a parable.

But when we do that, when we make this into a historical description, we commit one of the biggest sins of the Church, namely anti-Semitism. So it's important that we remove that and keep in mind the audience of Jesus had no such negative image of Pharisees. Pharisees were the pastors of rural synagogues. They were the religious leaders that the common folk most looked up to. They were admired.

Whereas, tax collectors were despised. John Dominic Crossan says we would better understand this parable if we read it as: "The Pope and a Pimp went up to St. Peter's to pray". Or if you're a Democrat, you might say the President and Sarah Palin went into a church to pray". Or if you're a member of the Tea Party, you might say the President and Sarah Palin went into a church to pray". Sort of the reverse :)

But let's take politics out of it, because it's an election year, we don't want to get mixed up in that. So let's say Glenn Beck and a terrorist went into a church to pray :).

And I use that, actually quite seriously, because a tax collector was worse than a terrorist. A tax collector was a collaborator with the terrorists of that day, which is how those folks would have viewed the Roman occupiers -- state-sponsored terrorism.

Thus, when the Pharisee prays "Thank God I am not like that tax collector", everyone would say "Yeah, that's right, thank God you're not". And when the tax collector prays "Oh God, forgive me, I'm a sinner", they'd all say "Yeah, that's right, you sure are, you got that right".

Thus, you see, when Jesus comes to the conclusion of the story, and says when they went home, the tax collector was the one, not the Pharisee that was pleasing to God, you would have heard an audible gasp in the audience. "Say what? Are you serious Jesus, the tax collector, you've got to be kidding me! That Wall-Street banker? That multi-billionaire CEO of the hedge fund that robbed me of my pension?! That's the one who is pleasing to God?"

So do you catch the surprise here in the text?

Now, we can change the characters with something more clearly identified with good and evil to make it more obvious, say a Duck and a Beaver :). I was going to say a Duck and a Bruin, but after Thursday night's game, it's like, the hapless Bruins, you have to feel sorry for them, so I didn't want to beat up on someone who is already down :).

The point is, how you view the character in the story depends on your own particular ideology, you're loyalty, your affiliation. And sociologists call this social mapping, in which we all have his metaphorical map which defines our relationship to others according to the location on the map, whether we're "in" or "out", or whether they are "in" or "out". Brandon Scott, who was my sister's favorite professor in seminary in Phillips in Oklahoma (pity Oklahoma, they lost too, so sorry for their football team :), makes the point in his book on the parables of Jesus, that in the audience of Jesus, the Pharisee would be on the inside, whereas the tax collector would be on the outside on that social map. And Scott says the point of the parable is not that we follow the example of the tax collector (beat ourselves up, you know, what a sinner am I, what a worm am I), but rather the point is that the social map is all wrong. You can't use that kind of map in God's kingdom. The ones we assumed who are in are out, and the ones who are out are in.

And this is one of the most consistent themes of Jesus. The first shall be last, the last shall be first. Whoever would be great must be a servant. Woe to the rich, blessed are the poor. Remember poor Lazarus, in the bosom of Abraham while the rich man who suffers in Hades.

Only here it is not rich versus poor, but rather the religious insider versus the religious outsider. And to put it differently, it's not about how religious you are, it's about how connected to God you are. Those are two different things, aren't they?

The prophet Amos reminds us of that, in lamenting the injustices of the society in his day, writes (speaking for God): "I hate, I despise your festivals. I take no delight in your solemn assemblies". I don't think anyone can accuse us of that, especially not after last week with all of the laughing going on here :) "Take away from me the noise of your songs, I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream".

John Dominic Crossan says "God rejects worship for lack of justice, but never rejects justice for lack of worship". It should make us stop and think.

Ultimately, we are called to give, not in order to fulfill a religious duty, but in order to live a faithful life that reflects the justice of God which turns the world upside down and reverses the status quo.

People often send me articles because they think it'll interest me, or because the think it'll straighten me out :). It's usually more of the latter than the former. Jerry Lindville sent me one this last week, an editorial in the Oregonian, by William Laudbell, who's written a book "Losing My Religion -- how I lost my faith reporting on religion in America and found unexpected peace". And the editorial was about the decline of religion and loyalty to churches in the United States today. He quotes Christian pollster George Barna, who has found that those who call themselves born-again Christian (and Barna has that particular interest because he includes himself in that group and thinks that born-again Christians, of any group of Christians, should be the ones that are most faithful to the text), that they have a higher rate of divorce than Atheist and Agnostics, and are more likely to be racist that the rest of Americans. And so Barna concludes: "Every day, the church is becoming more like the world it allegedly seeks to change".

And Laudbell came to the reluctant conclusion himself from his work that many who call themselves Christians (and I assume he would include us) don't really believe the tenets of their faith. Their actions reveal their true beliefs. And he concludes "Judging by the behavior of most Christians, they have become secularists. And the sea of hypocrisy between Christian beliefs and actions is driving Americans away from the institutional church in record numbers".

In other words, in the eyes of most Americans, we are the Pharisee described by Jesus. Or to paraphrase the immortal words of Pogo, we have met the Pharisee, and he is us.

If we are to change that perception we have to practice what we preach. We have to live what we believe. As April said last Sunday, you can give without loving but you cannot love without giving.

And so the dedication that we make today, of our estimates of giving, is but the beginning to that end.

I'm reading a book for a conference that I'll be attending this week, on transformational churches. Our regional office asked me to attend because they consider our congregation to be one of the transformational churches of our region. And the book is entitled "Missional Renaissance" by Reggie McNeal. And he says in it that to be effective in today's environment, we have to change our mindset of church as something we come to on Sunday morning to something we are throughout the week.

And ministry that is something that is done not by paid professionals, but something that is done by every single person in the church out of there in the community. That's our ministry. And thus, the focus of the missional church is not what happens for us in this building, but for what we do for others outside these walls.

He says you can tell churches that are focused on themselves, that are inward focused, by the scorecard they keep. If that scorecard only reports the numbers who attend worship and how much is given to that institution, it is not part of God's missional movement. Oooops. Take a look at our scorecard, and if you look inside the bulletin, we have a new one, when I read that I said we need to change that. So you'll see in there a different set of numbers, and about the people we serve in Good Samaritan and Helping Hand ministries, and our Sunday soup kitchen and the like. All of that. It's not about us doing great things, it's about keeping that mission in front of us, that focus in front of us.

McNeil's point is that we measure what is important. And if you only measure attendance and offering, that says to everyone who sees those numbers what you value most. And it's not them.

So part of the challenge is to find ways to measure what we consider to be important, to adequately reflect the value that we place on the mission that God has given to us.

Our estimates of giving that we will receive this morning is one of the ways we do that as individuals, measuring in concrete terms how living our faith translates into our support for the mission of the Church, to transform lives, to transform Christianity, to transform the world.

In this parable, Jesus doesn't tell us how this particular tax collector changed his way of living. But in the next story that opens chapter 19, there's another tax collector -- and I don't think that's just a coincidence, I think that's very intentional that Luke calls our attention to this -- this tax collector we know my name, you know who he is, Zacchaeus. And you remember that story, and how when he meets Jesus, he gives away half of his wealth, and he commits to refunding four-fold to anyone anything he has defrauded them.

In his editorial, Laudbell concludes with the example of St. Francis, who responded to the corruption of wealth on the institutional church in his day by taking a vow of poverty and devoting his life to serving the poor. And so Laudbell writes that he has a hunch, that American Christians are not ready for that kind of reformation that will realign their actions with Biblical mandates.

Is he right? Time will tell. And for us, that time begins today.


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