Grace and Peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
St. Francis could quite often be found walking around muttering to himself in prayer, “Who am I? and Who are You?” He knew that he was called by God to rebuild the church, yet as he prayed to find his true self, he also looked deeper to find who God was. For many of us, this is the quintessential question of life. Not only do we want meaning in our lives, we want to fulfill the calling that God places upon us.
Jesus’ parables not only disrupt our lives with uneasiness, they also allow us to discern who we may be within them. For instance, this morning we could find ourselves in a number of different characters. The Pharisee can be found standing by himself. Before his conversion, the apostle Paul was even a Pharisee. He follows the law, gives 10% of his income to the church, and thinks he knows what is right and what is wrong, clearly seeing in black and white. He even gives thanks to God, just like the Samaritan leper a couple of weeks ago. That thanks, however, comes in the form of a condescending prayer in which he gives thanks that he is not like other people. Is he standing by himself because he believes he is too good for others, or do others try to keep their distance?
The tax collector can also be found away from everyone. The tax collector is truly one person that people do not want to see coming to knock on their door. Tax collectors are outcasts of society because they appear to have buddied up with the Roman Empire for the purpose of collecting taxes and in turn making themselves rich in the process.
There is a third group within this lesson as well. It is the group that Jesus is telling the parable. A group whom trusted in themselves, thought of themselves as righteous, and even regarded others with contempt. As we find ourselves in the midst of an election cycle, this does not sound much different than many of the politicians.
Do you see yourself in one of these characters more than another? If we are honest with ourselves, we probably see a little bit of ourselves in all of these characters. All of them are sinners, yet they do not all acknowledge that. Those that Jesus is telling the parable to and the Pharisee can be viewed in the same light. They look upon themselves as righteous and look down on those that are not quite the same. At one point in our lives we all have the habit of doing this. It is part of our brokenness and speaks to the sin in our lives, even if we won’t acknowledge it. Thank goodness I am not like those people over there! Thank goodness I have everything I need and I give where needed.
In the original Greek text, the authors of the books of the Bible use the same root word, dikaiow, in describing the righteous and justified. While they are closely related, the Pharisee and the tax collector cannot be farther apart. The Pharisee standing apart from everyone because he believes he is much better than them. He has no problem giving thanks to God, but does so in a condescending manner in regards to everyone he deems not as worthy. Along with the audience listening to the parable, he most likely considers himself righteous.
The tax collector, on the other hand, separates himself in the temple because he finds himself not worthy of God’s love. He knows that he is a sinner and acknowledges it in the presence of God in the temple. In this confession he is justified. The realization that we too are sinners is a part of our Lutheran teaching. We begin our Liturgy with the Confession and Forgiveness.
Most merciful God, we confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.
In this confession we can relate to the tax collector that stands on the edge beating his breast believing himself not worthy. This confession is not just words to be taken lightly. In this confession we acknowledge that we cannot do it on our own. For it is through grace alone that our sins are redeemed and is not of our own righteous doing.
Jesus’ parable encourages us to lift up our humility over our arrogance and acknowledge that we cannot be redeemed on our own. When we recognize our own guilt and shame then that is when we can stand alongside the tax collector and be justified. Justified by grace alone through the love of Jesus Christ. We may not always discover who we are, but in this grace we will always know whose we are. That truly is Good News!