Luke 18:9-14, "Two men went to the temple to pray . . . "
Joel 2:23-32, ". . . he has given the early rain . . ."
The stories in the Bible have a way of cutting right through us, they have a way of taking away any pretension we might have had, any thoughts about what kind of good person that we are.
The gospel lesson that we have listed above is one of those stories, one of those parables that Jesus told, one of those that removes any pretense that those who are listening might have . . . and this morning, we are the ones who are listening.
But I’ll tell you how I like to read this parable. Because that is one of the great things about stories, right?! Sometimes they just lend themselves to being read in more than one way, or being able to see more than one thing as you turn that story from side to side, like some object that you have in your hands as you turn it this way and that, seeing it from different angles.
Now, if we were in politics, we would call this spinning a story one way or another, hearing it positively from one person, negatively from the other . . . and usually hearing that story, not necessarily in a truthful way, but the way we want to hear it. Well, in that spirit, I’m afraid that I’m going to tell you the way that I’ve always enjoyed hearing this story.
Some of you may have gotten an inkling of this by now, but I have not always been the most traditional person in my life so far. If you had seen me in college, you would have seen a fellow with long hair who didn’t always hang out with or talk with the folks that I was “supposed to”. I never really forgot or left the values that I had been raised with . . . don’t misunderstand me, but I didn’t always do them in the way that I had been taught.
Back in college at the University of Georgia, I decided that in order to write a news story for the student newspaper about being homeless. And to write that story I thought that what I needed to do was to be homeless for even one night, that is to spend a night in a homeless shelter, and not as a reporter, but as someone off the street. And that’s what I did.
I still went to both the Baptist Student Union and the University of Georgia Wesley Foundation, but I also spent time in some places that a lot of those folks didn’t go, with some people that weren’t clean-cut, that didn’t believe the things that I believed.
I read things that challenged my faith, not just those things that confirmed what I already believed. I listened to music that many considered anti-Christian . . . and listened to why they criticized the church . . . and sometimes . . . I absolutely agreed with those criticisms.
Because sometimes we need to be critical about what the church does, and how the church acts. Sure we do a lot of wonderful things, but we’ve done some awful things in the name of Christ too.
And part of that, is why when I hear this parable, I hear a story that seems to have Jesus absolutely indicting, poking fun, and criticizing the religious establishment, that is the good church folks of that day, the ones who always dress just so, the ones that you cannot imagine ever doing anything wrong, the ones who seem to have it all together.
We love to do this sometimes, to see that chink in the armor, that Achilles heel, that failing of those that seem foolproof. And then we love to call them hypocrites. And that is how I just love to read this story . . . a story about how the religious leaders of that day thought that they had it right.
And so when I read this passage, I imagine that Jesus . . . is on my side . . . that Jesus is too sitting there in judgment, not really caring for those who have it all together, those folks who believe that they have done everything right, the ones that know without a shadow of a doubt that they know God in the way that God is supposed to be known.
And so I imagine these perfect folks as the one’s that Jesus was talking about. “God, I just want to thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector,” is what this Pharisee, one who would have done everything right, this is what this Pharisee said.
You see, that’s how I want to read this parable, because it puts me on God’s side. And it keeps me from being the target. It lets me point the finger! It tells me that the way I believe must be right and the way that someone else believes must be wrong. It tells me that God is on my side, that what I’m doing must be right! And what they are doing is ABSOLUTELY AND THOROUGHLY wrong!
It makes me just want to stand here and thank God, just thank God . . . that . . . well, thank God that . . .that . . . I am not like they are . . . that I am not like that other person . . . not like that tax collector . . .
. . . and that’s where I have to stop.
That is where prayer becomes listening, not talking. And that is where this story, this parable that Jesus told becomes humbling to all of us.
Because we can all be in the place of that Pharisee, looking at someone else and thanking God that we are not like them, pointing the finger, believing that they are wrong and we are right.
The Pharisee was a good person; we can’t caricature, make him out to be anything but, it is hard to hear that the prayer of this good person was not heard. But the prayer of this one, this one who beat his chest, the one who knew that he was sinner, knew that he was wrong and had done wrong, and was not worthy, this one’s prayer is the prayer that God heard.
And that is not easy for us to hear . . . and it is not necessarily the way I most like to hear this parable . . . but sometimes the parable reads you; you don’t read it.
I was reading a meditation written by a fellow named Tom Ehrich this week, as he wrote about this parable. He tells about being in a Presbyterian church one Sunday and this pastor of that church told his congregation that anytime that read the word Pharisee, that they should instead read Presbyterian . . . or maybe Methodist or Baptist or Episcopalian or Lutheran or Catholic. Ehrich writes about his reflections on that Sunday; he writes that these Pharisees (or Presbyterians or . . .) “were decent people, solid citizens, a bit smug perhaps, but not villains. Even so, how did [this pastor] dare say this? How [could he say], ‘We tend to be the ones who undermine the ministry of Jesus’? ‘It is we, the prosperous and satisfied, who turn away when Jesus strays from our path. It is the orderly and solid who tend to feel threatened by the radical disturbance of what Jesus actually said.’”
Ehrich writes that this pastor’s “comment had no demonstrable impact. Soon, we were singing [the final hymn] and heading out to our minivans and [cars]." But this “gentle pinprick stayed with me. Any who declare themselves better than others, more possessed of truth and virtue, run the risk of gliding from decency to smugness, from satisfaction to self-serving, from conviction to cruelty. We tend to forget that Jesus spoke primarily to his own, and it was his own who betrayed him.”
One of the first motions of prayer should be our own acknowledgment of God’s greatness, our smallness, and how we have done nothing, absolutely nothing to merit God’s favor. God just loves us. Not because of who we are, not because of what political party we belong to, or what we have done in service to others. God just loves us.
We read about God’s love for the people in the Old Testament passage from Joel as well.
It is a word from God through the prophet Joel that comes at the end of a time of devastation for the people . . . and it was not because they had been taken over by another country or into exile, it was a very natural thing . . . an extraordinary plauge of locust had eaten almost all of their crop that year. And for this people, it had meant a very hard time of it.
Imagine if everything you had worked for that past year just disappeared . . . or worse yet . . . you watched it be eaten away by these bugs and there just wasn’t a thing you could do about it. You would know just how small and dependent on God you really were, how much your effort mattered in the end.
I remember at the church that I served an older couple named Jim and Martha. It was a rural community. And on more than one occasion I heard them say that an old farmer is closer to God than any of us in that whether they make a crop or not depends on when that rain comes . . . or when it doesn’t.
And Joel tells the people, points out to the people that that first rain, that important first rain of the year has come early . . . that God has sent it . . . that God knows what they need and is providing it. God knows what the locusts did, how small and powerless they feel, and God is sending help, so that there will be an amazing harvest this year to make up for the last, that the “threshing floors will be full of grain, and the vats shall overflow with wine and oil,” the scripture reads.
You see, we acknowledge who we are, that we are all miserable sinners, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Lutherans, and Pharisees, and that in the end we are all dependent and small . . . that God is great and good, and that everything that we have comes from this God who loves us all. We must remember this . . . no matter who we think is wrong or right.
Because in the end, we are all wrong . . . and God is right.