30th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 2022c
First Lesson - Joel 2:23-32
Second Lesson - Luke 18:9-14
“Thank You Then!”
INTRODUCTION: There’s something about old Western movies that is appealing even today, right?
Yep, whether it’s Roy Rogers in some black and white grainy classic, or John Wayne and one of the 75 plus westerns he appeared in over the years, they seem to endure. Why, even now, most TV providers and streaming services offer a channel dedicated solely to the genre.
Perhaps, as more than one person has suggested over the years, it has something to do with their clarity. After all, in a lot of Westerns there's never any doubt about the world. Things are always cut and dry, and black and white - especially when it comes to people. Yep, one look at the characters in most westerns and it's easy to tell who’s the hero and who’s the villain.
Traditionally, the hero is dressed in that white outfit topped off with that large brimmed hat. The villain, of course, gets decked out in black complete with that five o’clock shadow and his own matching hat as well. White equals good, while black equals bad.
Even more than that, the characters rarely, if ever, deviate from their assigned roles. The hero is always charming, polite, and chivalrous. The villain, on the other hand, is always surly, rude, and unmannerly.
So maybe that's why we like Westerns so much. They're always so neat and tidy. There's never any doubt about who’s the good guy and who’s the bad one.
ONE: Of course, the same kind of formulaic pattern also shows up in Jesus' parable about that tax collector and Pharisee who go to the temple to pray. Just like with a Western, his story too has clearly defined characters. And the hero in Jesus’ story is the Pharisee while the tax collector is the villain.
Granted, we’re prone to think of Pharisees as being overly rigid and judgmental. But that assessment of them is in some ways overblown and, to be frank, a bit anti-Semitic. While Pharisees certainly had their foibles, they were also seen by many as model citizens. For many in ancient Palestine, Pharisees were thought to be upstanding and important members of society. They provided a degree of social stability while also looking after the religious traditions of Judaism.
In today's world, they'd be honest, hard working people dedicated to their families and their communities. They'd give to the needy and they'd tithe to support their places of worship all while running Scout troops and coaching a little league baseball team. So Pharisees, all in all, were good and respectable people.
So at the outset the hero in the story is easy to spot. It’s the God fearin’, upright, and dedicated Pharisee.
TWO: Tax collectors, on the other hand? Well, they were pretty much thought to be lowlifes and parasites.
It was bad enough that the people of Palestine had to live with the Roman Empire, a foreign power, occupying their homeland, but having to pay taxes at every turn to that very same occupying power made the entire experience almost unbearable. Needless to say, tax collectors, as the ones responsible for collecting such funds, weren't well-liked.
Worse yet, tax collectors made their money by skimming funds off the top. The more they could over charge someone on their taxes, the more money they got to pocket. If they were alive today, we'd call them racketeers and they'd have names like Bruno and Tony.
When they showed up at your door, you knew it was time to pay not only the hated Roman Empire, but also its hired guns as well. Tax collectors entered your house or place of business with an empty brown paper bag and left with it stuffed full of your hard-earned cash.
So, it shouldn't be hard to see why they were hated by nearly everyone. They were considered to be sell-outs and traitors. Compared to a Pharisee, a tax collector was scum of the earth.
So the villain in Jesus’ story is also easy to spot. It’s the loathsome and treacherous tax collector.
THREE: So when the two men gather at the temple to pray…well, they both offer prayers consistent with their social roles.
The Pharisee, in other words, prays as we might expect him to pray. He gives thanks to God for not being, among other things, a thief, a rogue, and most importantly of all, a tax collector.
And who can blame the guy for wanting to give thanks for his good fortune in life! His prayer is an easy one to understand and even appreciate. He's a good man giving thanks to God for not being a bad one. The Pharisee’s prayer is sort of an extended version of that old adage, "There but for the grace of God go I.” And who among us hasn’t uttered that line at some point or other?
And so the prayer of the tax collector, likewise, makes perfect sense too. He is, in short, a vile man simply confessing his sin. "Oh God," cries the tax collector, "be merciful to me, a sinner." Well, he prays as he darn well should.
The tax collector is the lowest of the low deserving of God's complete and total judgment. He knows it and so does everyone else. When Jesus told the parable, there were folks no doubt giggling at the notion of a tax collector begging for mercy. After all, everyone there would have known tax collectors were beyond saving. He could never make atoning restitution for his sins. He was both a traitor and a thief to his very own people.
So, we understand his prayer as well. The tax collector and the Pharisee both pray as they should. The one gives thanks for being a good man; the other, confessing his sin, begs for mercy that's clearly out of his reach.
FOUR: Well, imagine the shock folks would have had upon hearing that the tax collector, and not the Pharisee, went home justified!
By all accounts, the Pharisee is the one that deserves justification. It's the Pharisee who has lived a good life, who has worked hard, who has been a model citizen. Yet, it's the tax collector that goes home justified.
Understandably so, we're a bit miffed. We look at the two men and we're left wondering. Wondering how a low life, degenerate, tax-collector can come out ahead of a good, hard, working man like the Pharisee. How can the villain win and the hero lose?
In a wonderful book by C.S. Lewis, there is a man who refuses to enter heaven all because a murderer, a man he knew in life, gains entrance into heaven before he does. Oh, the man admits he wasn't perfect in life, but, as he notes, at least he wasn't a cold-blooded killer. "I'm a decent man," he bellows at the gates of heaven to the murderer, "and if had my rights, I'd have been here long ago…" And with that, he walks away from heaven’s gates.
We look at the tax collector and the Pharisee and we understand the man's anger. Out of the two of them, it's the Pharisee, not the tax collector, who deserves to go home justified.
FIVE: Well, perhaps, just like with so many of his other odd and funny stories, Jesus is simply trying to remind us that grace is never something that can be earned or deserved. Instead, it’s just given.
Yep, maybe Jesus is trying to tell us yet one more time that if we're saved, it's always by God's free grace alone. When it comes to salvation, there's no such thing as cowboys dressed in white and villains in black.
Forgiveness is never based on our behavior, but instead, always on God's mercy. It’s God’s character that plays the central role when it comes to forgiveness and not ours. Think of a God who doesn’t just simply possess mercy and grace, but rather is mercy and grace.
In his memoir Forty Acres and a Goat, Will Campbell tells of his daughter asking him to baptize her three- year-old son Harlen around Christmas time one year. Well, being a baptist minister, Campbell had some reservations. After all, as far as he was concerned, baptism needed to be done by immersion and Harlan needed to have also reached “the age of accountability.” It was way too cold for the first one to happen, and Harlen wasn’t old enough to meet the second requirement.
But after being informed by his daughter that Harlen was going to be baptized, and that he could either do it or she would, Campbell decided to put his baptist doctrine on hold for a bit: “No, no, no!” said Campbell. “If it’s going to be done, I’m going to be the one to do it.”
And so after baptizing Harlen in his kitchen by pouring some water on his head one Christmas morning, the young lad was full of questions as they ate breakfast. In particular, why had “Papa” poured water on his head.
Campbell, using language Harlen could understand, proceeded to explain: “Well, you know that big lump you get in your throat when you're mean to your mother? Well, you don’t have to have that. Being mean to your mother was your sin. And the lump is feeling guilty about it. And the water was put on your head because Jesus has already forgiven you for your meanness.”
Seeming to comprehend what his grandfather had said to him, Harlen simply said back, “Well, well, papa. Thank you then!” And with that, he ran off to play.
Well, that sounds about right, doesn’t it? Out of the mouths of babes, out of the mouths of babes. For no matter what our age, given that God in Jesus Christ has already forgiven all of us for our meanness, perhaps the best reply is just what Harlen says: “Well, well…Thank you then!”
CONCLUSION: So Jesus sure does invite us to think about God in some strange ways, right?
After all, in our world nearly everything has to be bought and paid for and earned. “There’s no free lunch!” The early bird gets the worm.” “The one who dies with the most toys wins.”
And yet, when it comes to God such adages seem strangely out of place. For when it comes to God everything, apparently, is grace. Yep, turns out God’s love can’t be bought, bargained for, or earned.
Because in Jesus Christ we’ve already been forgiven for our meanness. And so what else is there to do but to say “Thank you!” and then get busy living that life of grace just like God has with us.
And now to our God, to the Holy One that has freely redeemed us and saved us through Christ Jesus, be our words of thanksgiving and praise this day and forevermore. Amen!