Disclaimer: First of all, I need to make a disclaimer:
If you spend time talking with God before the worship service and you tell Him you are truly sorry for sinning against Him; please rest your eyes or read a book. This Sermon is not about you.
When I first looked at the Gospel for today, I was excited: It is very short selection– only FIVE verses; it is probably the shortest Parable Jesus told and there are only two characters: a Good guy, and a Bad guy.
This looked to be an easy Sermon topic. All I had to do was tell you which one is the Good guy, and help you determine which one you are? Easy, right? Boy, was I in for a surprise!
My first draft talked about us: our problems, our pains, our ailments and our sins.
I talked about how, regardless of how bad we think our situation is, there is always someone who has it worse than us
If you don’t know, our son, Tony, has Asperger’s syndrome. It’s a condition on the high functioning branch of the autism tree. While Tony was in elementary school, we went through a stretch of Wednesday evenings at the Kennedy-Kreiger Children’s Institute in downtown Baltimore: testing, counseling, evaluating – him and us. It was a stressful time – for all of us.
Friends and family would say things like: It’s too bad for Tony to have to go through all that; this must be so hard on you and poor Tony / poor us. Then I would tell them there were kids at Kennedy-Kreiger in wheelchairs with bigger motors than my Volkswagen Beetle.
There is always someone who has it worse than you – like the Tax Collector.
And regardless of the good light we sometimes see ourselves in, there is always someone who looks like they have it better than us. Parents with “normal,” well-behaved children. People comfortable in their religious shoes – like the Pharisee.
But the Parable isn’t about degrees of sinfulness. The Parable is about you and me. The Parable is about your sin and my sin. The Parable is about you and I being aware of the pain our sins cause God. The Parable is not about sin . The Parable is about the sinner.
Jesus is aware of the history of how the Jews atone for their sins – they offer an animal or harvest sacrifice to God, usually with the help of a Priest or Rabbi.
So what happened. Unless the Jewish people really messed up (read Genesis and Exodus for examples), they performed their sacrifice duties routinely. They provided the sacrifice, often only on special holy days. The Priest did the sacrificing and the praying. Whammo – Sacrifice over – sins forgiven. They became complacent. They did the Sacrifice and expected their sins to be forgiven.
But Jesus doesn’t want us to become complacent. He doesn’t want us to assume our sins will be forgiven simply because we go through the motions.
The Pharisee is convinced he is on the top step overlooking the more sinful Jews. His sins, if he has any, are minor and he thinks God probably just brushes them off. He looks down and sees the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the rest of us.
God has told him to turn around, but he doesn’t see anyone higher than himself. His eyes don’t see beyond the spiritual shadow he thinks he casts.
The Tax Collector, on the other hand, knows himself well. He knows there are people less sinful than him – he doesn’t care. He knows there are people more sinful than him – he doesn’t care. He knows exactly where he is among the sinners in God’s world – And he doesn’t want to be there!
But Jesus wants us to see both are wrong! Our sins are between us and God. Period. We don’t stand before God in relation to other sinners. We stand alone.
Like a child who has done wrong – she broke an expensive toy. She slowly walks to her father. Her eyes are glued to the floor. And she softly says: “Daddy, I am sorry I broke the toy.” She asks for his forgiveness.
Note: It doesn’t matter to God how far up or down the stairway of sinfulness we think we are. He only cares that we are truly sorry and that we ask His forgiveness.
If I do something to hurt my wife, I am not going to walk to her as I normally do and casually tell her I am sorry for whatever it was I have done. I am going to walk slowly – shaking in my boots. I will stop in front of her. And I’m going to contritely apologize for what I have done: I’m sorry, dear. It was a stupid thing to do and I know it hurt you. And I will ask for her to forgive me.
The Tax Collector is fully aware that his sins, regardless of how serious or petty they may seem to others, are his sins and they are a direct affront to his God. Period.
In this parable, Jesus wants us to see ourselves in the Tax Collector. And sometimes we do. He wants us to be truly contrite for our sins against God.
But we are not the Tax collector.
Let me give you two Hints. One: we are in the Parable. Two: We are not the Tax Collector.
What is wrong with being the Pharisee? Look again at what the Parable says about him: He obeys the Law by fasting twice a week –- more than called for; He gives one-tenth of his income (we presume to either the Temple or directly to the poor). But something is missing? He makes no mention of his sins. He expresses no remorse for his sins. Like the Jews performing traditional sacrifices for their sins, he has become complacent –- unconcerned with the effect his sins have on God.
Some of you come to worship early so you can have some quiet time with yourself and with God. And I commend you for being able to do that. The rest of us socialize or read the Bulletin.
Our Worship service makes it easy for us to get complacent about our prayers and about our sins. We have learned our responses well: At the beginning of the Service – in the Confession of sins; in the middle, when we say the Lord’s Prayer – quickly and by memory – we don’t pray it and during the Words of Institution.
Well, that was easy. We think that, since we did our part, God will do His. We become like the Pharisee.
BUT, the Parable doesn’t end there. Jesus goes on to say the Tax Collector goes home justified – because he knows he has confessed and he has been forgiven! The Pharisee doesn’t go home justified. He just goes home.
But, we are not the Pharisee, either.
Jesus wants us to have a closer relationship with God. He wants us to be sincere in our confession and more worthy of God’s forgiveness.
So, 2,000 years after Jesus told us this parable, what should we take away from it? We are not the Tax Collector – not because we are better than him, but because our sins have been cleansed through the grace of the blood of Jesus on the cross.
We are not the Pharisee – not because we are better than him, but because we acknowledge our sins and we are sorry for them
So, if we are not the Tax Collector and we are not the Pharisee. Who are we? You are you and I am me. And on any given Sunday each of us is somewhere on the Pharisee – Tax Collector continuum.
Remember these two things: It doesn’t matter to God how far up or down the stairway of sinfulness we think we are. He only cares that we are truly sorry and that we ask His forgiveness. And every sin, every sin, is an affront to our God. How truly sorry we are for offending our Father will determine whether we go home justified or we just go home.
Preached on October 23rd by Len Docimo of Saint Michael Lutheran.