|October 25, 1998|
|Rev. Virnette Hamilton|
|First Congregational Church, New Milford, CT 06776|
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Scripture: Luke 18:9-14
Text - Gospel Paradox
Whenever I read this passage I am reminded of a soap opera. I never watch
them now, but I did when my children were young. A young woman would be
kneeling at the alter of the chapel in the hospital - tearfully begging for
God to spare the life of her loved one. "Please God", she would beg "let him
live - I will do anything - I will be faithful, I will be a changed woman,
just let him live - dont punish him for my sins. "
She bargained with God and it seemed like God must have accepted her
proposition because only minutes later it would be obvious that there was
cause for rejoicing. Wouldnt it be nice if it actually worked that way.
We all have a tendency to try this "manipulation of God" approach - why even
the Pharisee in our scripture lesson thought that it was worth a shot. Of
course, he thought ahead and hedged his bets. He did even more than was
expected of him by the Temple - he fasted twice a week and gave a full 10% of
his income to the temple - and he was rather proud of his efforts and wanted
to make sure that God hadnt missed his hard work.
Jesus has helped us to see the Pharisees in a rather negative light -
however, they were, in their day, thought of as good Jewish men, Temple
leaders - both in rural villages and in the cities. They were usually
respected, well educated laymen, who were relied upon to bring fresh insight
into the interpretation of Jewish law.
In contrast, the Tax collector wasnt considered socially acceptable. Tax
collectors were seen as collaborators with the Romans and therefore,
considered traitors to the Jews. They made their living by prepaying the
taxes and then collecting what they thought they could extort from tax payers.
They used this power to coerces and bribe and gouge. They were considered
pretty low. Here was the model of sinfulness. And it is evident that the tax
collector knew who he was and what he had done. He stood to the side, and
beat his breast, confessing his sin.
And it is easy to see which found favor in Gods eyes. Surprisingly - not the
Pharisee, who did all that was expected of him - but rather the sinful tax
Jesus says, "The route to justification is through following the example of
the tax collector - who was not aiming to manipulate God - but simply and
humbly sought Gods forgiveness."
Have you realized the problem here? If justification is our goal then we are
sunk. As soon as we recognize what the Pharisee was doing wrong and therefore
follow the tax collectors example we have again become manipulative. This
seems to be a trap. Gospel Paradox.
But of course it isnt - so lets look beneath the obvious.
Who is the Pharisee trusting? Certainly not God. The text says that "he
stood and was praying thus to himself". His prayers probably never made it
to heaven. All of his hard work, every effort fasting and tithing that he
made was an effort to control what would happen. In his mind, God would
perceive him just as the community did. He trusted himself and not God.
How about the tax collector - who did he trust? He wouldnt even look up to
heaven, he threw himself on the mercy of God. It is obvious in his
confession of sin that he came with a genuinely contrite heart. he had to
rely on God to forgive him, because he knew that the community wasnt going to
grant him mercy.
Who are we - gathered here this morning? Are we like the Pharisee,
manipulators who really trust ourselves instead of God? Or are we like the
tax collector, sinners who have no choice but to throw ourselves on the mercy
of the Lord?
The answer to that question is "yes" We are both of those.
We have said the prayers of the Tax collector: Lord have mercy, Your grace
is sufficient for me. Thank you God, I know I am not worthy of your love. I
am so grateful for all that you have given me.
But we are also the Pharisee... - we get life on earth and life in the
Kingdom of God confused. There is a big difference between safety and
salvation. We know that to some degree we can manipulate our life on earth.
We take vitamins every day and eat plenty of vegetables, exercise, wear our
seat belts, dont drink or smoke, bring our kids to Sunday School, send them
to the right schools. We know that those efforts will reduce the chances of
certain suffering and pain. We even hear a lot about people who attend church
and pray live longer and healthier lives.
But - it is easy to get that kind of prevention mixed up with salvation and
God. We begin to believe that through all of our efforts we can protect our
lives from pain, sorrow, injury, tragedy - suffering. If our lives are going
well, then God must be happy with us. "We are doing something right" We
go to church, we join committees, why, we even support the church budget.
But, the reality is - we know that there is no magic way to protect ourselves.
We all know good church-going people who have died too young - We all know in
our hearts that good kids, from good parents and good homes can make big
mistakes, We all know that disease and accidents can strike anywhere. And if
you asked any one of us, none of us really believes that God gives us sorrow
and grief as a punishment for our sins...
But sometimes when we are faced with suffering and heavy hearts, we do try to
manipulate God. We plead and bargain just like the soap opera characters. We
make promises and offer deals and pray that God will accept our propositions.
Jesus has one important message for us in this passage. If you are focused on
controlling your own destiny you are probably headed in the wrong direction.
How can you focus on your relationship with God, if all you are thinking about
is doing what you need to do to achieve your goals. Will you even remember
to lift your prayers to God, or will they really be prayers said to yourself
just confirming in your own mind your efforts.
Jesus says - from God you need to seek salvation - come with empty hands,
fall on your knees, open your heart to God, Let God see who you really are,
a person who trusts in Gods mercy and compassion - a person who recognizes
and relies on Gods grace - to comfort you and console you - to sustain you
and nurture you - receive the holy spirit, receive all that God has for you
and in that moment be put in right relationship with God... Find that peace of
Jesus Christ just waiting for you - The peace that passes all understanding -
it is there - for you - for all who humble themselves. Amen.