[I found this image here.]
This sermon was preached at Northbrook Presbyterian Church in Beverly Hills, Michigan and was focused upon Luke 18:9-14. The audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
As Jesus and his disciples were traveling throughout the region of Galilee and preaching to the people, the Pharisees once asked him when the Kingdom of God was coming. As Jesus answered them, he shared several parables, including this parable we’re pondering this morning.
In fact, it’s framed in this way: “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
In his parable, Jesus sets up a scene. Two men are present in the temple. This is not the synagogue, the place of frequent, local worship. This is the temple in Jerusalem, considered to be the holiest place in all of Judaism. In this scene, we encounter a Pharisee and a tax collector. In their words, we hear a comparison taking place. We see contempt taking place. We see two people in the presence of God – one who boasts of his righteousness yet is ultimately inauthentic, and one who is deeply honest, struggling as he recognizes his own shortcomings.
The Pharisee thinks that he is the one making the comparison. He has gone to the temple to pray, and before God – standing by himself – he prays: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even this tax collector.” He prays not only in the direction of God, but toward this tax collector whom he views with contempt. I wonder if the tax collector could hear his words.
He continues to boast about his own actions: “I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of all my income.” In saying these things, I wonder if the Pharisee believed he was buying the favor of God.
Meanwhile, the tax collector is also standing by himself, but instead, he is standing far off, ashamed in the presence of God. Jesus says that he would not even look up to heaven. He was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” In the presence of God, he was devastated about the ways he had fallen short of God’s vision.
In the temple, the Pharisee believes he is making the comparison, but of course, in Jesus’ own words, Jesus makes the comparison. He says, “I tell you, this man” – that is, the tax collector – “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.”
We may have grown up hearing this story, so perhaps this parable has become somewhat familiar to us. But maybe we need to remember how shocking it would have been to hear Jesus speak in this way. First of all, he was likely telling this parable in the presence of Pharisees. That was bold. He was also telling this parable in the presence of his own disciples – people who had been pushed by the religious establishment. They were marginalized, sometimes, because of their actions, and sometimes, because of their identities. They were viewed as “the Other.” “I thank you that I am not like other people,” the Pharisee prays.
It must have been encouraging for the disciples and followers of Jesus to hear him say that God sees them, values them, and hears their prayers of repentance. They are not pushed away by God, but instead, they are welcomed as beloved children – loved as the people they are, even in the recognition that they may have hurt others through their actions. God welcomes them and sends them in a new direction, regardless of how they are viewed by the religious establishment or the institutional religious community.
And make no mistake, these words would have been shocking and likely offensive to some. Tax collectors were no paragons of virtue. The Jews were living under the oppression of Rome in an occupied state, and tax collectors – Jewish people – had partnered with Rome to exact taxes while gaining a cut for themselves from their own people. In this parable, Jesus is saying that God welcomes a repentant sinner, even one who is despised by the people. It is shocking. Perhaps it makes us uncomfortable too.
I’m sure that it enraged the Pharisees. After all, some of them believed they were paragons of virtue, right with God in all circumstances because they were keeping the law perfectly, or at least, seeking to do so. Self-righteousness may have clouded their vision. They could not view themselves as oppressors, though some of the Pharisees were pushing people out of the religious community. Some of these Pharisees were marginalizing others, including people who were now following Jesus. . . Mere fishermen, prostitutes, people with stigmatizing illnesses, and yes, even tax collectors.
This parable was shocking, and Jesus’ commitment to include others was often shocking.
I’ve been pondering this parable all week, and in my thinking, I’ve been trying to make connections between these words and the realities we face today as the Church, a community that is seeking to follow Jesus Christ in the world.
These days, I have a new role. I am a Community Chaplain for Nones and Dones. What an interesting title that is! Recently, the Presbytery of Detroit commissioned me to serve as a regional chaplain for people beyond the walls of churches. I am a minister and friend to people who do not attend congregational churches for a variety of reasons.
So who are Nones and Dones? When I say Nones, you may hear Nuns and think I’m talking about monastic Catholics. But I’m actually talking about N-o-n-e-s, people who are religiously unaffiliated. If asked, “What is your religious tradition or affiliation?” some people might answer, “None.” Sociologists are using this term to describe a demographic subset of the population that is growing.
Sociologists of religion are also using the term “Done” to describe another population of people. These individuals – many of them Christian – have left traditional, institutional churches behind. At times, some of these Dones feel that the Church has left them behind. They no longer feel welcome or comfortable in congregational life.
To be honest, some Dones feel that churches have become remarkably insular. Congregations can easily become inward-focused, obsessed with strategies to gain members, and through larger membership, gain revenue in order to sustain their own needs. When church cultures begin to serve themselves exclusively to the point that they stop doing ministry in and among the wider community, some Dones get frustrated and leave. Some believe that they can engage mission, serve neighbors, and follow Jesus more faithfully apart from the institutional Church.
I can certainly understand why congregations get into these kinds of ruts. In part, this is because religious demographics are indeed changing. Fewer people are walking through the doors to worship and fewer are affiliating with membership. Sometimes in response, church communities want to project a particular image in order to attract people back into the doors. They become ‘shiny church.’ They give sales pitches to people who visit. “Our church is so great. We do this. We do that. Please join us.”
In my role as a Community Chaplain, I’ve been forming a community of Nones and Dones in Southeast Michigan. I’ve been doing this for the last year. We meet in coffee shops and restaurants to talk about spirituality and our life experiences. And I want to be honest with you about something I’m learning. A particular theme has emerged so frequently in these conversations. It’s this: Some people feel remarkably manipulated by Christians. “They’re always trying to sell you something,” someone said recently in one of our discussions.
There is a perception that Christians are not often real with their neighbors. Instead, sometimes, we project an image. Sometimes, we work really hard to sell our churches. Again, we try to entice people by saying, “Come here. Come inside our sanctuary. Our church is so great. We do this. We do that.” Of course, there is nothing wrong with being enthusiastic about our community when it means so much to us. But are we trying to be ‘shiny church’? Are we trying to project an image? If so, in those cases, are we not a bit like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable today?
Perhaps, people beyond the walls of our sanctuaries would like to see the Church be real, that is, to see Christians be. . .
. . . people in relationship with God, welcomed, though they have sinned and hurt others,
. . . people who are honest that the Church has often failed to live out the vision to which God has called us,
. . . people who will embrace neighbors – including those who will never walk into the sanctuary – because those neighbors are loved and valued by God,
. . . people who will allow our neighbors to express their authentic forms of pain, including pain that has been caused by the Church.
Perhaps we need to be less like the Pharisee and more like the tax collector.
And I recognize that I say all of this today in the midst of Stewardship Season at Northbrook Presbyterian Church. This is the season when we prayerfully consider how we will give our resources to support the life and ministry of this congregation.
Throughout this season, people will invite you to consider what to give and how to give.
Today, I would like to be one voice which invites you to consider why you give. Yes, the building needs to be maintained, and yes, and the ministry programs of the church need to be supported. Absolutely. But how can these resources be used in order to be real with our neighbors and meet them where they are? How can they inspire and empower us to move beyond this sanctuary into the neighborhood around us? How can they serve God by serving neighbors?
Let’s continue to ponder those questions this week and in this season. I will close with Jesus’ closing words: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
May that be true in life-giving ways.