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