Jesus used a parable to teach us about our most common sin, self-righteousness.
October 23, 2016 Year C Proper 25
In our Old Testament reading from Joel it is obvious that Joel has a knack for using everyday situations—a locust plague and drought—to illustrate his message of hope in the midst of devastation. No matter how bad things might seem, God does not abandon the people.
After the severe drought that that has devastated the land, God’s gift of rain changes the scarcity into abundance, hunger into satisfaction, shame into honor. God then promises to pour out the divine spirit upon us to ensure that we survive the terrors of the day of the lord’s judgment.
In our second reading we hear Paul's final farewell. He speaks of himself as one whose life is ebbing away, "poured out as a libation" (v. 6). Like a boxer or runner, he has completed his event victoriously. Wreaths and crowns were worn by Jews as a sign of honor and joy at feasts and weddings – like our party hats at children’s birthday parties. The crown of laurel leaves for Greeks were a sign of a victorious athlete as we see in the Olympics.
In 2nd Timothy the phrase, “the lion's mouth" is a common Old Testament metaphor for violent death. It said, “So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.” In the next verse it seems to echo the lord's Prayer when it says “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever.” Paul acknowledges that his work is finished, and he looks forward both to God's reward and Jesus' return.
Certainly we have a surprise here in the parable in Luke’s gospel – the most outcast of persons, as far as religion is concerned, is accepted; the most likely candidate for Heaven, and as far as religion is concerned, that man is condemned. All this is because of our most common sin – self-righteousness. It would be like in modern times a gangster being the hero and the priest is the rascal! In the gospel the Pharisee seems truly thankful. According to the beliefs of the times, he shows an honest desire to contribute to the coming of the kingdom by fulfilling the law. Indeed, he even exceeds the demands of the law. Fasting was required only once a year on the Day of Atonement. The Pharisees, however, fasted twice weekly, on Mondays and Thursdays. Likewise, the law required a tithe of all produce of grain, fruit and herd. The Pharisee extended his tithe to include all of his income.
The tax collector, whose occupation branded him as an extortioner and traitor, knows he has no merits of his own. Using the language of Psalm 51, he throws himself on God's mercy. It is he who is "justified,” accepted and made right with God.
There is a story about a mountaineer who established a great reputation for himself as a marksman. Whoever followed him around found target rings on trees and fences, with a bullet hole in the very center. When he was asked to explain the secret of his skill, he answered, “It is easy. I just shoot and THEN I draw a circle around the hole.” That’s the method of the Pharisee. The Pharisees make themselves look more saintly than they really are, and that’s why the Greek word used for sin in the New Testament means literally, “to miss the mark.” Jesus is telling us that only those who are humble enough to admit that they have missed the target are going to get into the Kingdom.
The ultimate warning of this parable is that self-righteousness separates us from God. You may remember that Jesus told a sister parable to this one, recorded in Luke 11—a parable about humility and pride and self-righteousness. It’s the parable of the seat we take at the banquet table. In that parable Jesus said when you are invited to a wedding feast, don’t sit at the place of honor. It may be that a more important person than you has been invited—though your host has invited you both, he might have to come to you and say, “Give your place to this man.” If that happened, then you would have to take the lower place in shame. Save yourself from that he said. Go and sit in the lowest place, so that when the host comes, he can invite you to come up higher and that will bring honor to you rather than shame.
Jesus was not giving us an Emily Post lesson in etiquette. He was teaching about the Kingdom, and the Pharisees could not miss the point. He was telling them as plainly as possible that there is no place for their pride and status -- their assumption of honor -- in the Kingdom of God. In God’s Kingdom, God is the host. He is going to seat people as He thinks they deserve, and the humble person is going to be far better off than the proud one.
So Jesus closed that earlier parable with these words: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Self-righteousness separates us from God. The story is told that during World War I, the emperor of Austria died after ruling for more than 60 years. He was carried as was the custom, to the crypt of the Church of the Capuchins in Vienna. When the escort knocked at the gate, a voice from inside offered the traditional challenge, “Who is there?” The reply came, “His supreme Majesty, the Emperor of Austria.”
The graveside liturgist responded, “I know him not. Who is there?” Again, the answer came, “the apostolic king of Hungary.” Once more the voice inside responded, “I know him not. Who is there?” The escort this time declared: “Our brother, Frans-Joseph, a sinner.” At those words, the gates opened.
And so it always is—not the self-righteous, not those who go around putting the circle around the shot they’ve made to prove it was a bull’s-eye—but those who know that they’ve missed the mark, those who know that they’re sinners and are willing to confess and seek mercy. For them the gates are opened, and they go away from God’s presence justified. So that’s the parable—revealing our most common sin, the sin of self-righteousness and pride.
It’s a tough story, but we must deal with it honestly. If we face these lessons, it teaches us, and will ultimately drive us to our knees (except on these kneelers if you have bad knees). That’s the necessary position for us—heads bowed in prayer and on our knees. We must work on humility if we expect to enter the Kingdom of God.
This week we want to take a good look in the mirror. Where have you missed the mark? Examine those parts carefully which are separating us from God. Then, with a humble heart, ask God’s forgiveness and start anew. It will do wonders for you. It will do wonders for your family, friends and colleagues. But the best of all is that it will do wonders with your relationship with our Lord! AMEN.