Sermon Proper 25 C The Rev. Margaret Holt Sammons
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.”
Being Honest with God
From another translation of the Gospel we just heard: He told this story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves, and looked down on others.
Have you ever been pleased with yourself? Or, better, have you felt that God is pleased with you? I hope so. I hope you’ve had that kind of day when something you were responsible for turned out well. And people thanked you, and you went home with a little glow in your heart.You were pleased with yourself, of course you were; and God was pleased with you.
But if we’re pleased with ourselves all the time, if we think everything we do or say is always right, always better than what other people do or say, well, that’s when trouble begins. And that’s what’s going on in our Gospel.
Two men climbed up the Temple steps to pray, Jesus said, and they couldn’t have been more different. One was a Pharisee, and that means he was a very decent guy. Responsible, law-abiding, hard-working – the kind of person you’d love your child to marry.
The other man was a criminal. He collected taxes for the occupying Roman government, and the way it worked, he was allowed to collect a commission for himself, as well – any amount he wanted! You can see the temptation! And if people complained, if they resented the fact that he had a four-donkey garage, while their children went hungry – well, he told himself, that’s their problem.
So this very good man and this very bad man came to talk to God, and you’d think the rest of the story would be obvious. God is going to pat the Pharisee on the back, and send the tax collector to the woodshed, right? – it’s only fair.
But in every story Jesus tells there is a surprise, a plot twist. And in this story it comes when the two men pray. The Pharisee marched right up to the front of the Temple; he stood up straight and proud, and said, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people. (!) And especially that I’m not like that weasly tax collector I saw on the way in. I mean, I fast twice a week – who else does that for you? I tithe. I serve on Vestry, and as you well know, I’m the only one who has never missed a meeting.”
Is this a prayer — or is it a speech of self-congratulations? All he’s done is pat himself on the back! And if I were God, listening to this, I’d be pretty bored.
But the tax collector, by contrast, – he didn’t dare come up front. He stood way back in the corner with his head down, and he whispered just 7 words: “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
And Jesus said, God was thrilled! Because it showed that something new was happening in that thug’s heart. After so many years of greed, so many years of making excuses. -“Everybody does it” – this man was finally facing the truth: that he was doing serious harm to his neighbors. “Lord,” he said, “I’ve sinned. Please, help me.”
That’s the kind of prayer God can do something with. Into this new, open space in that criminal’s heart, God did pour mercy, and healing grace. And — the courage to make amends. To sell off his donkeys, sell the garage, give a whole lot of refunds, make a whole lot of apologies, and in the process find a peace he had never known before.
For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, Jesus said. And all who humble themselves, will be exalted.
That word humble is a tricky thing. It can sound like self-abasement – as if Jesus expects us to always be down on ourselves. But humble, humility, comes from the word for soil – humus. It’s a reminder that we’re made of the earth, of the same stuff that’s in our gardens, and sometimes, like our gardens, we produce beautiful fruit! We bring love, comfort to someone in pain; we fix problems, we ease others’ loads.
But at other times, it’s like when our one and only zucchini plant came down with a fungus this summer, and it couldn’t produce anything good – anything at all, actually. When we’re like that, when we do or say something that we regret 5 minutes later, when we get stuck in habits that hurt us, that hurt others, then we need help. And if we’re wise, we’ll say so. We’ll have the humility to open our hearts to God, and say, ‘Lord, I don’t want to live this way, I don’t want to feel this way.” And God will pour into us as he did that tax collector, mercy, and healing grace. And guidance, as we make a new beginning.
Someone said, the danger of this parable is that we’ll go home saying, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!” But Jesus is inviting us to look deeper — and see that the Pharisee and the tax collector both live in us. We do wonderfully loving things, and then a few minutes later, so often, we mess up.
The great good news of this parable is that when we pray, we can be honest about that with God. I think the Pharisee’s problem wasn’t so much pride as fear. If I let other people know that I’m not perfect, he thought; if they knew how impatient I get with my kids, how often I snap at people at work, what would that do to my reputation? And God will certainly reject me. I can’t take the chance. But think how much he missed!
All God asks, all God desires, is that when we pray, we bring our whole selves. Jesus hopes we’ll give thanks for our high points – for the things God has been able to do through us. And that we will also tell God about our pains, our struggles. Because God is in the healing business. All Christ wants, Christ’s deepest desire, is to give you and me new life.
As you may know, there is a World Series afoot, between the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros. In honor of the occasion, the Washington Cathedral has dressed its statues and gargoyles in red Nationals’ hats, and tweeted pictures of them to Houston, with the hashtag, #Godhasfavorites.
Well, nice try, but no, Washington, God doesn’t. Jesus reaches out arms of love to all of us, whatever state we’re in, and then helps us reach out our arms to others. For that great mercy, thanks be to God.
In the Name of God, Amen.
 The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Eugene H. Peterson