Confession of a sort

Sermon on Luke 18:9-18

(Keystone UCC [Seattle], October 27th, 2019)

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man 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.”

Today’s parable and lesson doesn’t stand by itself.  It’s a part of a whole series of stories and lessons aggregated by the writer of Luke. We don’t know, for sure, why these particular parables were put in this order but today’s text is preceded in Luke by another text that, in some ways, is similar. This week’s lectionary text puts together what might seem like the unlikely pairing of a Pharisee and a tax collector. The previous parable told the story of a widow, one of the weakest in Jesus’ society, using persistence to get a judge, one of the strongest, to do her will. Jesus then took that story one step deeper; making it clear that, all too often, people think about God as this kind of judge instead of a God who wants a relationship with us through faith. Jesus concludes the parable wondering if humanity wants this relationship.

Today’s story talks about our practice of faith from another angle. Even though these stories came one right after another in Luke, it’s unlikely that Jesus stood up and just told these stories one after another. They were likely quotes from a much larger teaching or intended as conversation starters of some sort. They might have been early small group exercises. We’re going to try that in a moment. I’m going to ask you if there was a time you felt like the Pharisee or the tax collector and, then, to share a word or two about that. However, before I do, let me say a little more about what those hearing this parable understood about the folks in the story.

There were four primary Jewish groups during Jesus’ time that we know of ; there were probably more and we know we know more about some than others. This was in a time when the lines between religion, politics, family and social status had not yet been clearly drawn so these grouping had goals and ideas that were all a mix of those of these things. I’m going to describe them briefly and, honestly, incompletely.

The Essenes aren’t mentioned in the New Testament but there’s probably a reason for that. They believed that Judaism in its practiced form had become so corrupted that they were a desert community that disavowed and separated themselves from the religious structures of time – even the calendar. Some think John the Baptist could have been part of this community but no one knows for sure. The Essenes established a new community with very strict religious practices. 

The Zealots were an armed resistance group – strongest in Galilee – that opposed the occupation of the Romans and believed that political freedom was a religious imperative. They used whatever means necessary – including violence – to try and overthrow their oppressors.

The Sadducees were a conservative group of, primarily, upper class folks who believed in a strict adherence to the Torah as it was written without interpretation (or, at least, an interpretation different than the one that had already been established). They were willing to work with those who were in political power – like the Romans – as a way to preserve and protect the current, dominant practices of Judaism. They were powerful, yet small.  

The Pharisees were probably the largest of these four groups and there’s even a good argument to made that this was a group that Jesus was a part of and critiquing from the inside. They were a group that included a broad swath of people and were frequently in direct conflict with the Sadducees. As I mentioned, the Sadducees believed the only religious guidance that mattered was that which was written in the written Torah and in established tradition. The Sadducees also believed that it was the Sadducees right to protect and uphold this kind of belief and practice. The Pharisees believed that the Torah included oral interpretation of the past and current, recent and new interpretations. As opposed to a fairly narrow membership, the Pharisees inclusion of folks was comparatively broad. The Pharisees also opposed the Roman occupation and seemed to favor passive resistance to it as well as all those who collaborated with it.

So, when those hearing today’s parable heard Jesus first talk about the Pharisee and then a tax collector, they knew there was going to be trouble. The tax collectors were very intentional collaborators with the Romans who had worked out a pretty clear business deal. The Romans would tell the tax collectors what tax they wanted to charge. The tax collectors would go out and collect those taxes plus a fee that would enrich them. So, they weren’t just collaborating with the Romans but making money off the occupation and backed up by military force, if needed. They got rich while making other people poor.

So, I want you to try something. Assuming the best intent of the Pharisee, what do you think it felt like to be a Pharisee? Assuming that you were good with being a tax collector, how might it feel to be a tax collector?

In today’s parable, Jesus set these two up in what, at the time, would have been an uncomfortable contrast with a surprising outcome. Many of those hearing this story might have seen themselves as part of the Pharisee movement and probably wouldn’t have heard the Pharisee’s words as wholly unreasonable. It might have been a bit too oversimplified but not too far off. There would have probably been several hearing this story who would have been able to identify these thoughts as their own.

It would have been the prayer of the tax collector that would have surprised them a bit. A tax collector who was questioning what he was doing? A tax collector asking God for mercy? A humanized tax collector? Those listening to Jesus would have had to get their minds around this idea. It would have been uncomfortable. I can say that, for me, it was uncomfortable.

As I said before, the Pharisees believed that the Torah included oral interpretation of the past and current interpretation. As opposed to a fairly narrow membership, the Pharisees inclusion of folks was comparatively broad. The Pharisees also opposed the Roman occupation and seemed to favor passive resistance to it as well as all those who collaborated with it.

I’m part of a denomination that has found itself in conflict with those who believe in a strict interpretation of what words are holy – as written – and what aren’t. The UCC, generally, has plenty of room for biblical interpretation and changing traditions. This idea that “God is Still Speaking” is deeply ingrained in who we are. Many of our churches say, at the beginning of worship, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here” as almost a litany of sorts. And, well, some of the things I’ve said about the current presidential administration and those who collaborate with it – particularly those making money from it – have been pretty direct and spoken to the idea that I believe they are wrong, sinful and anti-human. I have advocated for and participated in acts of resistance against this administration. And, well, I really don’t feel bad about it. Basically, I think I’m right. I even can say I feel called by God to say these words and do these actions. And, well, I’m also a minister in this sect of ours. Not only that but the bishop-y type of thing we call a Conference Minister. So, I guess I’m kind of a Pharisee; not nearly as different than the Pharisee mentioned in today’s parable that I might try and rationalize. Maybe some of you can relate.

It’s hard not to. We’re in a time when, in this country at least, sectarianism is rising. I looked for a good concise definition of what I was talking about and, actually, wikipedia had a good one. There sectarianism is defined as (quote) “a form of prejudice, discrimination, or hatred arising from attaching relations of inferiority and superiority to differences between subdivisions within a group.” (unquote) It’s not at all unusual that sectarianism is empowered by religious or cultural ideologies and – in this and other European colonies – race and racism. We are at the early stages of what looks like a civil war and the various sects and alliances are becoming clearer. People are being killed, beaten up, fired, displaced and oppressed in increasingly violent ways because of who they are or what they symbolize. 

I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons Jesus’ words became so powerful in the time after Jesus was because of the wars and revolutions against Roman rule that came later. In the 150 years after Jesus, Judea – the region we now know as Israel-Palestine – was rocked by revolutions and wars that killed somewhere in the realm of three hundred fifty thousand to two million people; mainly those who were Jewish at the hands of the Romans. The four religious movements that I mentioned all ceased to exist in the same sort or organized way.

As a people who are on a similar – although not identical – precipice, there has to be something to learn in this time and place. I don’t know if there’s ever been a time in human history when so many existential threats were present at the same time. There are many causes for which we may both feel called or pressured into taking a side for or against on a wide variety of issues. I don’t see this changing any time soon. And yet…

And yet there is something about Jesus’ call to humility and the celebration of this confession that rings true. I’m not someone who believes that our entire inner house has to be in order before we act but, at the very least, the suggestion that starting from a place of humility and confession strikes a chord and, for this Pharisee, is something I’ll be thinking and praying about quite a bit this week. 

Maybe, this week, what I really have to face is that this Pharisee has more in common with the tax collector than I’d like to admit.