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Sermon: Not Like Them

October 24, 2010

Luke 18:9-14

The only reason I watch the local news on TV is to hear about the stupid things that my neighbors do.  There’s always that segment near the end of the broadcast to highlight some bonehead behavior.  I need that.  It makes me feel better about myself.  I can say to myself, “Eric, you may have your faults, but at least you’re not that guy.”  At least I’m not like Andrew Burwitz of Appleton, Wisconsin who attempted a drive-by shooting at the home of his ex-girlfriend, but forgot to roll down the window first.  At least I’m not like former Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who is reported to have said, “If you take out the killings, Washington actually has a very low crime rate.” Or the members of the National Bureau of Investigation in the Philippines who caused a deadly explosion when they decided to go on a smoke break in a room full of TNT.  So thank you, television news, I needed that.  I do enough stupid things in my life that I need to feel better by comparing myself to people who are even dumber than I am.

*     *     *     *     *

A man is in the sanctuary at prayer, standing off by himself, and saying, “Dear God, thank you for not making me like the stupid criminals of this world, the lying politicians, the philanderers and murderers and addicts.  Thank you for making me a responsible citizen, generous to my family and neighbors.  You know how I pray every morning and attend Bible study and give ten-percent of all my income to the church.  Thank you, Lord, that I am not like that tax collector over there.”

And the tax collector over there was also by himself.  His head was down and he clenched his fists in frustration.  He prayed, “Oh God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

We know all about that tax collector.  You’ve heard lots of sermons and Bible studies that describe how the tax collectors were considered scoundrels and cheats by their neighbors.  These guys were Jews who worked for the Romans, collaborated with the occupiers.  They were licensed to collect taxes for the Romans.  They were given authority to collect a certain amount of money that included the money due to the Roman government and their own take, their salary, if you will.  But if they could find a way to collect even more, to put the squeeze on their fellow countrymen, then they could get even more.  Since they worked with gentiles, they were suspect and ritually unclean.  Some, apparently, became rich in their line of work, and everybody assumed that every tax collector was dishonest, used threats to extort more money than was truly owed, and perhaps worst of all, were traitors.  There is no question that this tax collector’s very life was offensive, to God and to neighbor.  There is really nothing we can do to pretend that the tax collector wasn’t so bad.

The Pharisee, as you know, is a pillar in the church.  He would go to great lengths to uphold every last commandment in scripture.  He would be the kind of guy to attend every Administrative Council meeting, every organ concert, every program put on by the Children’s Ministries.  This particular Pharisee fasted twice a week.  He donated a whole ten-percent of his income to the church.  This Pharisee is indeed a generous man.  He is a good guy.  You’d like for your daughter to marry a guy like that.

And Jesus said, “The Pharisee did not go home justified.  The tax collector went home justified in the eyes of God.”  The man who shot out his window because he forgot to roll it down during a drive-by went home justified.  The policeman who crushed out his cigarette in a bucket of TNT went home justified.  The pastor who stayed home watching TV news and changing diapers and helping his daughter with her homework and tucking his wife into bed was not justified.

We should take a moment to discuss that word “justified.”  When we use it in religious circles, it is an important theological word.  But it is really a legal term, and when the writers of the New Testament used the word, they intended for us to think in legal terms.  To be justified is to be made right, to be proclaimed to be in the right, to be free from blame, guiltless, vindicated (Webster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd ed. [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984], 766.).  It is directly related to the word justice.

In its theological sense, God is seen as the judge who has full authority to proclaim the offender vindicated or made right.  Justification is God’s act of setting us back in right relationship first with God, but then to all Creation.  In the parable Jesus told, the Pharisee, who is by all accounts a good man, is not proclaimed by the judge to be in right relationship, but the tax collector, who is clearly not a righteous man, is justified.

John Wesley reminds us that justification does not mean that God pretends that we are other than we are.  God does not pretend that the tax collector is a holy man.  God does not turn away from and refuse to see the good and faithful work of the Pharisee.  Instead, Wesley says, keeping with the legal understanding of the word, “The plain scriptural notion of justification is pardon, the forgiveness of sins” (John Wesley’s Theology, Robert W. Burtner and Robert E. Chiles, eds. [Nashville: Abingdon, 1982], 162-165.).

When we are justified, we are forgiven.  It is a full pardon, so that the punishment that we ought to receive has been forgone.  We have been released.  And because this is pardon, it is grace, a gift, and who can earn a gift?  Likewise, if you were to go before a judge, accused and convicted of a crime, you could not say to the judge, “Listen, your honor, I’m really a good person.  I’m not a murderer.  I’ve never cheated on my spouse.  I tutor children at the center twice a week.  I donate ten-percent of my income to charity.  You should declare me innocent.”

The judge would say, “But you’re not innocent.  For all your prior good deeds, and even if you should do nothing but good in your remaining days, you have still committed a crime.  You are still guilty.”

And let’s be honest.  The Pharisee was not a murderer or an adulterer.  He was a faithful person.  I hope that most of us in this room are not murderers.  You are faithful people.  But we are not innocent, either.  We bungle our relationships and hurt the people we love most.  We don’t think too much about the food and products we buy, about how they came to our tables or the shelves in the store.  We don’t consider that some of them might have come to us from workers who spend long hours in a sweatshop for very little compensation.  Some of us don’t think carefully enough about the political process or how we cast our ballots.  Some of us do not pay careful attention to our relationships with God.  I can accept the idea that there is sin in my life.  I try to be a good husband, father, pastor, friend.  I try, but I am constantly getting it wrong, no matter my best intentions.  Maybe I don’t botch it up badly enough to make it on the 11 o’clock news, but that doesn’t really matter when the people around me are hurting.  Yes, there is sin in my life and I am guilty, even though I do my best to accomplish my share of good deeds.

That is why justification in the eyes of God is not about our good deeds.  It isn’t that I am more worthy than the tax collector because I am relatively good, and it isn’t that the tax collector is more worthy because he has made a terrible mess of his life.  It has nothing to do with our deeds, good or bad.  Neither character in this parable is meant to be a model of perfection.  Our hope is not in what we do or do not do.  Our hope is in the one who told this story (William Willimon, “Righteousness Is in the Eyes of the Beholder,” Pulpit Resource, Oct.-Dec. 2010, pp.17-20.), the one who climbed up on a cross for us so that we do not have to live desperate lives separated from God, broken relationships with our friends and family, aware only of our own sinfulness and failure.  Our hope is in Jesus Christ, who reconciled the world to God in that one, great selfless act of giving himself for that world.  Jesus has done everything that needs to be done for you and for me.  Two people went up to pray.  One of them knew that he was a pretty good human being.  One of them knew absolutely that he could not do this thing we call life without the amazing grace of God.

We have been freed from guilt; we have been pardoned.  You don’t earn a pardon.  It is given.  And you know what you’re supposed to do when you receive a gift…

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