The Rev. Josephine Robertson
All Saints, Bellevue
Oct 27 2019, Proper 25C
Well you all know me. This passage has led to enough bad theology and preaching that we’re going to tackle it. And right off the bat I’m going to retell this little bit of Luke without the anti-semitic baggage, ready?
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pastor and the other the owner of a Payday Loan Company. The Pastor, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, gays, unchurched people, or even like that loan shark. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the Payday Loan owner, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 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.”
In case we weren’t sure what the moral of Jesus’ parable is Luke gives us the cliff notes in the very first sentence: someone who trusted in themselves and regarded others with contempt.
And how wickedly ironic that during “Stewardship” season someone doing what Christians all over are being told is their duty (that 10% tithe) gets the finger wag from Jesus.
But here’s where this parable falls down: even the tax collector/prostitute/Payday Loan shark misses the mark. I mean sure, at least he’s not a stuck up snob treating other people with contempt and God as a holy vending machine, but in Jesus’ version of this parable he’s still fleecing his neighbors for his own good and that of their Imperial oppressors. He’s still a down right crappy person.
On the one had this parable has been used to tut-tut those rule following Jews, and make we “sinners” feel justified. But on the other hand it has done a lot to keep “sinners” from doing anything about their sinning. And both of these are crappy takes. And I think the root of the problem is a lack of good teaching about what actually constitutes repentance and justification (also called forgiveness). Without that understanding we fall way too easily into the “cheap grace” that so many theologians have warned us against.
In Jewish practice the process of getting right with God and your fellow humans has very specific steps. First, somehow we are made aware of our sin, the way we have missed the mark. We might be called out by others, we might realize it ourselves. But what comes next is key, because the person who has sinned then needs to go to the one they sinned against and admit their mistake, and ask how they can make things right.
If you’ve sinned against God you’d obviously go to God in prayer, but if you sinned against other people they are the ones you need to seek reconciliation with. How you make things right (if that’s even possible) is up to the person you harmed. But the assumption is: you must act to heal the harm you have done before you are forgiven (or justified.)
And that’s missing from Jesus’ parable. Maybe because Jesus’ audience would have just known. It is even a little implied in the parable. The Pastor we are straight up told, has contempt for his fellow human beings. If you hold other people in contempt you aren’t likely to do the real work of reconciliation, you probably won’t even be able to see the ways in which you’ve harmed them.
And that owner of the Payday Loan stores, well he’s made a start. He’s taken the first step, acknowledging that he’s fallen short.
The danger is when we stop there. When we don’t pick up the thread of repentance and reconciliation. If the tax collector, or payday loan shark doesn’t change his behavior then his words are empty flattery and he is no better than the Pastor who couldn’t even see his need to strike off down the road.
It is the work of a lifetime and you don’t have to be extorting taxes from your neighbors for a powerful empire, or be preying on the poor in a financial emergency to need God’s mercy, and our fellow humans. That’s all of us.
When I’m too distracted by my phone to listen to my poor husband, I need his mercy.
When I make decisions that are great for me but harm my neighbors, I need their mercy.
When I do and say things that hurt other people, I need their mercy.
When I ignore my responsibility to be a steward of the world God made for all beings: I need God’s mercy.
This is the path to spiritual maturity, to being Christ like, to building the kingdom. To become people who can see our need for mercy, and who do the work to fix what we have broken. And in the end: to be the sort of people who can accept mercy, and give mercy. This is what it means to be justified.