August 11, 2013 Eleventh Sunday After Trinity
Holier Than Thou?
Isaiah 26:12-16, 19, Psalm 124, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, St. Luke 18:9-14
Recently I struggled with a vexing spiritual and emotional dilemma. I began to doubt my own holiness. This trial almost laid me low.
The problem was bishops. It occurred to me one day that bishops are holier than I. There’s no avoiding it. Every bishop was a priest. He’s still a priest, of course . . . but the fact remains that he’s a bishop.
How does one become a bishop? He proves himself the holiest among priests. Higher holiness puts on purple. And I’m stuck in a shirt as black as a Pharisee’s heart. I grieved.
But then I had a thought that perked me up like a daisy after the rain. Or rather two thoughts. The first is that bishops have a boss . . . so there is someone holier than they. The bishops’ boss is the presiding bishop. So bishops may be holier than I but they’re not the holiest guys on the block.
The second thought was even more reassuring. It lifted me higher than a space shuttle. It is this: I am holier than thou. It’s not even open to discussion. A priest is holier than a layman. Case closed.
And this, I suppose, is something like the rationale of the Pharisee who swaggers onto the scene today in St. Luke’s gospel. How does he know he’s righteous? Why, he is clearly superior to that low-life tax-collector over there on the other side of the temple court.
It’s a case of relative righteousness. As though there were such a thing.
J. C. Ryle, the English commentator of two centuries ago, put the matter succinctly. “We are all naturally self-righteous,” Ryle wrote. “It is the family disease of all the children of Adam.”
From first-century Palestine to 19th-century England, and all the times and places in between, the epidemic raged. And here and now? America is the land of the rugged individualist. We’re pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps guys – and proud of it.
We pull ourselves up so high we’re standing eyeball-to-eyeball with God. Of all the empty, repetitious songs churches sing these days, one in particular grates on me so hard I feel like a hunk of cheddar: “I am a friend of God, He calls me friend.”
You’re what? You may be a daughter or a son of God; an heir, servant, disciple, priest or witness of God . . . but you are not His friend – not in the sense of an equal. The Bible calls Abraham a friend of God – but the stated reason is that he obeyed God. Jesus calls His apostles friends, but they had no delusion of being His homeboys.
Pharaoh, Goliath, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod . . . they rise from the pages of the Bible like Leviathans . . . until God impresses on them in a way that would grab the attention of a mule, or even a teenager, that he who exalts himself will be humbled. Mark the contrast between this haughty cast and St. Paul, whose words from 1 Corinthians we read moments ago:
“I am the least of the apostles . . . not worthy to be called an apostle . . .but by the grace of God I am what I am.”
Damn all your efforts to exalt yourselves. God damns them. Only He can raise you from the muck of your sin. The cure for self-righteousness is self-examination. The Pharisee gazed fondly on his own sin-pocked image through spiritual cataracts and saw an unblemished holy man.
The tax-collector trained the perfect vision of humility on the reflection of a sin-marred face and his head snapped back; he looked away in shame. Had this not been the only proper spirit to bring before our Creator from days of old? Listen to God’s words from Isaiah 57:
“For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.’”
Songs – and sermons – that exalt man express the “meology” of our place and time that tries to drown out the theology of the Scriptures. Do not undervalue the treasure we have in our Book of Common Prayer. Its 17th-century ethic chimes true to the Bible on every note. A few phrases from the confessions:
“We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep . . . And there is no health in us . . . We acknowledge our manifold sins and wickedness . . . Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us . . . And we are heartily sorry for these our misdoings. The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable.”
That’s the kind of sinner I am. My self-examination will countenance no other verdict. But only when I hold my thoughts, words and deeds up against the standard of God’s righteousness do I see myself as I am, a sinner in desperate need of His grace. Yet some revel in their blindness.
I was witnessing to a friend 25 years older than I, a retired city editor, about his need for the Lord. “What are you talking about?” he growled. “I don’t need anybody to take care of me. I came up through the Depression. I looked out for myself. Nobody else was gonna do it.”
He is my Pharisee. A highly literate man, he had read the Bible front to back more than once and considered it great literature – but not the inspired word of God. He once told me he thought Job won his argument with God.
But I have a tax-collector, too. I mentored Brian in prison. A black man in his mid-30s, he was doin’ hard time for the fourth time. Brian was just another street-corner pusher in the ghetto of his birth -- block after block, mile after mile, of crank and pimps, crack and hate, the sounds of gunshots by nighttime and weeping by daytime.
Brian’s mother was an junkie and his father was a phantom.
But in this fourth time behind bars, he took to heart the lessons Prison Fellowship taught him. Brian put away self-exaltation and took up self-examination. He told me over and again in our weekly visits, “Ed, I’ve got a bitter root in me.” He was alluding to Hebrews 12:15, the bitter root that causes one to “fall short of the grace of God.”
Soon after his release, serious problems beset his marriage. One time, I rushed over to his house, a converted tavern, and found Brian with a cut hand and Amelia with a black eye. We got Brian a place of his own. Each Friday, he met Amelia at her bank and turned most of his paycheck over to her. They had two little girls.
A decade later, Brian remains a free man and he and Amelia remain married. He had admitted his bitter root, confessed that he could not extract it by his own power. Eventually, he yanked it out and cast it away . . . by the grace of God.
Back to my Pharisee for a moment. He was fond of saying to clerks and bureaucrats who weren’t attending to his business quickly enough, “Whaddya expect me to do, pray?”
It’s an option. But as we see in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector, the manner in which we pray speaks volumes about us, our attitude toward God and the response we can expect from Him.
The Pharisee is a religious man. He takes his duties ever so seriously. And if his prayers are acceptable to God, I’m a U. S. Open champion. Yes, preposterous. He cannot tear his adoring eyes away from his own reflection even for a second to cast a glance upward. This Pharisee stops just short of complimenting God on making him so pure.
But in the end, it is the self-abasing tax-collector who goes away justified – which is another way of saying “made pure.”
In telling this parable, our Lord puts a fine point on the jolting news He delivered to the multitude in the Sermon on the Mount: “. . . unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
But you’ll tug on your bootstraps until they snap and you will not lift yourself up out of the spiritual slum in which every sinner dwells. It is only the poor in spirit – those who admit their need for divine rescue – who will join their Lord in His eternal mansion.
Jesus gives us in these few verses a double dose of theology. He teaches on the proper attitude in prayer and on the way of righteousness. And the manner of prayer of our two characters says enough about their thinking on righteousness to fill a library.
If one carries a storehouse of contrition in his heart, it will spill out in prayer. Ryle points out five positive points about the tax-collector’s prayer: First, it contains petition. Second, it is direct and personal. Third, it is humble. Fourth, it puts mercy forward as the chief desire. Fifth, it comes from the heart.
Putting them together, we must ask God in a specific way – not a mouthful of platitudes – in all humility for His mercy and this plea must come from the depths of our being. His mercy might not be the only thing we ask but it should be the thing we always ask. Without His mercy, the Prophet Jeremiah tells us, we would be consumed.
Again, the prayer book shuns “meology” and gives us theology. We have glanced at the confessions. What follows our declaration of our sinfulness? Pleas for mercy follow: “But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those who confess their faults . . . Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake. Forgive us all that is past . . .”
The Pharisee makes no such petition. He needs no divine mercy because he has justified himself in two ways. The first is that relative righteousness we have already noted. He is better than the extortionists and adulterers around him – and especially the reviled tax-collector.
The second is that he fasts twice a week and tithes. Moses had instituted a fast on the Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur – but there was no requirement in the law to fast twice weekly. The Pharisee is practicing what Roman Catholics came to call works of supererogation – those above and beyond what God commands by which they accrue special merit.
The Pharisee should have read St. Luke’s previous chapter. The evangelist quotes these words of Jesus:
". . .when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, `We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.'"
Tax-collectors, servants of the Roman overlords known for pocketing extra loot they extort from their fellow Jews, had a reputation for failing to tithe. The Pharisee is imputing to an individual a failing he may not have.
If he is lumping the tax-collector in with all the others praying in the temple court, he is accusing him of extortion, which he may not have practiced, and adultery, an absurd charge to level against a stranger of whom one knows nothing.
The Pharisee is making a stereotype of this man, the better to hold him out as a low standard against which he can measure his own righteousness. Looking upon the other man’s heartfelt act of piety, he can only demean it. If this tax-collector is righteous, every scribe and Pharisee in Israel has swilled self-delusion until even his whiskers are drunk.
And is that not precisely what Jesus is teaching by this parable?
The Pharisee will not look up because he has no need to call on God. The tax-collector will not look up because he is not worthy to look on God.
With eyes averted from the holy presence above, the tax-collector smites his breast. “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” – all “those things that defile a man.”
In his contrition, the tax-collector is beating down the sin that indwells him like a cancer. He has made his self-examination and named the disease inside him for what it is.
Now comes one of the most exquisite moments in the New Testament. The tax-collector pleads, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
He asks God in a specific way in all humility for mercy and this plea comes from the depths of his being. But his prayer is even richer in its spiritual poverty.
They have come to the temple at the hour of the evening sacrifice. The liturgy begins with the priest slaughtering the sacrificial lamb. He then enters the holy place and burns incense, symbolizing the prayers of the people. As their representative, a priest performs these acts in their name twice each day to affirm their relationship with God.
The people bow to the ground. Cymbals clang, trumpets blare, a reading from the Psalms settles on the worshipers, the choir of Levites fills the air with hymns of praise and petition. And the people bow low again. The smoke of the burnt offering rises, a pleasing aroma to the Lord.
This is the sacrament of Israel. God commanded it just as He did our sacrament of Holy Communion. The sacrifice of the lamb makes atonement for the sins of the people
It makes atonement, but it has no magic quality. Not all present – certainly not a certain Pharisee – will receive the grace God offers in it. Only the poor in spirit who confess their sin and trust in God for that atonement go down to their houses justified.
The tax-collector does not use the usual word for mercy, the one we say in the Kyrie Eleison – Lord, have mercy -- each time we gather to receive the sacrament. The word he chooses speaks of making atonement. When he asks, “God be merciful to me,” he is acknowledging that only God can make atonement for his sin. A wretched man is powerless. Without God’s saving act, each man will be consumed.
The passage ends with that New Testament refrain, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Pharisees make up the audience. The Teller of the parable is Jesus. He wishes all to know that God offers righteousness, something man cannot procure for himself, as a gift through an atoning sacrifice to those who confess their sins in humility with faith in God’s mercy.
In the background, the smoke of the sacrificial lamb ascends. The Teller of the parable is the Lamb of God, who by His sacrifice will take away the sins of the world. The Lamb of God will say, “Take, eat, this is My body which is given for you.”
And now, with the tax-collector, let us receive with thanksgiving that great gift only God can supply. Amen.