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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Surprising Mercy

God’s love for us and for all people is constant and wide; letting go of our need to declare ourselves righteous, we find God ready to embrace our brokenness and name us truly righteous.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 30 C
   Text: Luke 18:9-14

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

“Jesus also told this parable, to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

It would be lovely if we weren’t among the people to whom Jesus told this parable. But in this time of polarization and hostility in our national conversation, an election season that seems worse than any we’ve experienced, we know we’re those people. Speaking only for myself, if at confession we were told to consider only this, “have we ever trusted in ourselves that we were righteous and regarded others with contempt?”, I would have multiple examples to confess from just the last six months.

In fact, it’s likely just in today’s telling of this parable many of us were thinking contemptuously of some others when we heard about this Pharisee and his braggadocious prayers. The trap in this parable is how easily we say after hearing it, “God, I thank you that I am not like them.” And then we realize we are.

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. But why would Jesus tell us this parable if there was no hope for us or the Pharisee? If Jesus feels the need to tell us a parable, Jesus must intend us to hear it and be changed.

This situation is like another parable Jesus told a few chapters earlier.

It’s the story of a father and two sons, the elder one faithful and hardworking, the younger one less so. The heart of that story is the father’s welcoming home the younger brother after he’d squandered his inheritance and rejected his father and family. But notice: Jesus also told that parable to people who trusted in their own righteousness, and had contempt for those they considered “sinners.”

Our Pharisee is like the elder brother: he’s followed God’s rules and has been faithful, just as the elder followed his father’s rules. He also knows the tax collector hasn’t lived up to God’s law, just as the elder brother knew his younger sibling was worthless. It’s hard to miss the contempt of the elder or the Pharisee, and hard to miss their trust in their own righteousness.

In that other parable, the elder son is angry that he has been taken for granted, that his good hasn’t earned him anything, and that his brother’s sinfulness is rewarded by a feast. But the point of that parable was the unfailing, astonishing, prodigal love of the father for both his boys. The elder soncouldn’t see it; the younger son was overwhelmed by it.

This is key to Jesus’ hopes for today’s parable. The Pharisee’s problem isn’t that God doesn’t love him. God’s love is without limits and embraces him fully, just like the tax collector. The problem is the Pharisee can’t see his need for such mercy and love. And if he can’t see it, will he experience it?

If God’s love is the constant, then it’s this problem that needs our attention.

We know we too often trust in ourselves that we are righteous. We act confident in our own decisions, we justify our own behavior, even if deep down inside we doubt. We play the common human game of compare and compete. As long as we can compare ourselves to others who are worse, as long as we’re doing better than some, we seek no more introspection.

Jesus suggests we’re putting up a false façade when we try to trust in ourselves and what we’ve done. We also know this is true. In the dark of the night all our self-defensiveness and self-assurance can melt away when we realize we aren’t always loving and faithful and well intentioned, as we seem to need to claim.

Jesus told us these parables so that in seeing the Pharisee and the elder brother, we might also realize that God’s love for us is constant and unwavering. Then, rather than trusting in ourselves, we might learn to trust God. Rather than trying to impress God with our list of accomplishments that we secretly fear aren’t enough, we might begin trusting God’s love for us that cannot be taken away.

The tax collector and the younger brother connect us to God’s grace.

They’re not exemplars of faithful living; no attempt is made to say they were good. But both know this, and come asking for mercy. This poor tax collector can’t even lift up his eyes to heaven. But God looks at him and says, “I just want to put my arms around him and love him.”

This is what it is to be declared righteous by God. That’s how the word “justified” should have been translated here, contrasting with our being self-righteous. When the only thing that matters is God’s love for us, the only declaration of “righteous” that matters is God’s declaration, not our own.

Far from having contempt for people who seem to fail and struggle, we should be grateful to them for revealing the depths of God’s love. If tax collectors and delinquents and even Pharisees can be loved by God, then we can, too.

The trap in this parable is a huge gift.

If Jesus had simply rebuked self-righteousness and exhorted us to confession, we might have missed the point. Instead he told a tricky story that was bound to trip us up so we’d realize we are the very ones we are mocking, we’re the ones we’re holding in contempt.

Jesus’ trap helps us see we and the Pharisee belong with the the tax collector, and that’s the best place to be. We have nothing to bring before God except a plea for mercy and grace, and then we’re surprised to learn we’re already surrounded by God’s loving embrace. We don’t need to trust in ourselves that we are righteous because the Triune God who made all things declares us righteous. We don’t need to brag to God in hopes of being loved, because at the cross God made it clear that we are loved beyond anything we could ever imagine.

The center of these parables is the beating heart of God’s surprising mercy and love.

Only such love that is willing to die for us can break through our defensiveness and fears and embrace us, whether we’re hanging our heads in sorrow over our sin or whether we’re trying to put a brave, bragging front before God and declaring our goodness.

The truth Jesus would have us hear, the reason he told us this parable, is that God sees us as beloved children, forgives our wrongdoing, and embraces us with love and grace.

When our eyes are lifted up and we look into the loving face of the Trinity that Jesus has revealed to us, then we are able, with God’s help, to begin to live as the redeemed and loved people of God we really are. Then we’ll know what it is to go home justified, that is, declared righteous, and live that way in God’s love.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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