“Angels to Devils and Devils to Angels”
Luke 18:9-14, Proper 25 C, 23 October 2016
The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, Pastor
East Rochester & West Walworth: Zion United Methodist Churches
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.”
Our Gospel lesson
comes from a larger section of St. Luke
that gets to the heart of the first Century Church:
"What is appropriate Christian behavior?"
What is appropriate?
What is responsible?
Does being a Christian require one to become a prude?
Jesus addresses this question about behavior
with a simple, straight forward parable:
a direct one-to-one allegory
that speaks directly to his audience,
telling us how we are to lead our lives,
how we are to live as Christians,
how we are to live in relationship with Jesus Christ.
However, we should proceed with caution.
He lays within our Gospel narrative one pitfall
that has been trapping the Church and Christians
since the beginning.
This is not only a story about the virtues of righteous living.
This is a story about were one plants and grows their faith.
The literary technique is a common one for St. Luke:
it's that of role reversal.
of contrasting people
so that the listeners are taken by surprise.
The good man goes away disappointed,
while the bad one leaves forgiven.
The angel is made into a devil,
And the devil is made into an angel.
In a way,
Jesus is painting a picture for us
of what the new age will be like.
The present, evil age will be brought down
and his new kingdom will emerge.
Besides speaking to us,
the audience to which Jesus is speaking is quite interesting. They are described as
"some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous
and regarded others with contempt."
To place your trust in yourself and in your righteousness
is a type of arrogant, self-assured piety.
And to despise others?
it is a form of spiritual condescension.
Together, Jesus describes his audience
as being not much unlike the character of the Pharisee
in his story: people filled with pride and arrogance.
This fictional Pharisee is an interesting guy.
Not all Pharisees were like this fella;
in fact, he was probably an exception.
There are many examples in the Bible and elsewhere
of Pharisees whose first attribute was humility.
Yet, with the emphasis of Jewish legalism upon merit,
there must have always been the danger of spiritual pride.
This Pharisee did have some good attributes.
He attends temple and prays silently.
His prayer follows the Jewish liturgy of the day:
"Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe
who ... has not made me a Gentile ...
has not made me a slave ...
has not made me a woman."
He doubles the requirement for fasting.
Instead of fasting once a week, he fasts twice.
He gives tithes of everything he gets;
not just giving ten percent of his income
from agricultural products
as required by Jewish law.
Yes, he parses the language like a lawyer,
But he does claim to give ten percent of everything.
In his prayer,
the Pharisee recognizes that God is the source of his lot in life;
extending to him blessings of favor and prosperity.
He thanks God in his prayer,
(thanking God is always a good thing)
and he doesn't ask God for anything in return.
There is no doubt about it,
this man was leading a life of exemplary righteousness.
That, nobody could deny.
Then we have the tax collector.
I think that most of us would agree that
A letter from the IRS would send a shiver
up and down your spine.
It might be more desirable to get a call
From your accountant telling you you’re broke
Or a call from your doctor informing you
that you need to come in for a talk.
Tax collectors in biblical times
Were loved even less than modern day IRS agents.
You see, the Roman government
would tell them what the tax rate would be;
often between 80 and 90 percent of people's total income.
Such high taxes were required
to pay for very expensive Roman Legions
expanding the empire
and maintaining newly won territories.
The rule for collecting taxes
was the tax collector’s wage would be earned
on anything that could be collected above and beyond
the government tax.
(And we think that we have it bad today!)
No wonder tax collectors
were often classified in the same category
Furthermore, to be a tax collector meant
they would have to profess their faith and allegiance
solely to Rome.
Besides being thought of as a dishonest extortionist,
the Jewish community
considered tax collectors disloyal to the people.
They were considered traitors.
It goes without saying
That temple authorities would consider
A traitorous tax collector as “unclean”.
It appears that he knew so, too,
because we find him described in the story
"standing far off" away from the altar.
So here we have two people
on the hill of Zion in the temple praying;
two people who were
as different as black and white, oil and vinegar, day and night.
The audience to whom Jesus was speaking
probably began to believe at this point
that they understood what he was teaching:
that Jesus was lifting up the virtues of righteousness.
Perhaps you may have thought of this yourself.
But Jesus turns the tables upside down.
The better characteristics of the Pharisee begin to tarnish.
Jesus knew that
"the proud are always most provoked by pride,"
because like the audience to whom Jesus was speaking,
Jesus paints the picture of this Pharisee
as one who trusts in his own righteousness,
and was proud of who he was.
He lists all those who he is glad he is not like,
then he starts to make the case for himself.
Let’s be honest.
His prayer was never directed to God.
It's focus is solely upon himself: I, I, I, …
look how righteous I am.
The worst part about the Pharisee
is that his idolatry is revealed.
He steps in for God;
tries to take God's place as the judge of other people's soul:
"thank you that I am not like other people
- thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like
THAT tax collector."
And oh, how easy this is to do!
“America is adrift.”
“We need to turn back to God.”
“Those people are what’s wrong with our country.”
"What's wrong with all those people
who don't come to church?"
It is so easy to yield to the temptation
to use a broad paint brush to blame others,
to judge others:
or economic status.
This is the pride
which makes us a fallen angel,
St. Augustine proclaimed.
Judging others puts us in the position of arrogance,
of thinking that we are superior to someone else.
But arrogance and thinking more of oneself than of others
is completely contrary to the grace of God.
or more righteous,
or leading a more clean life
doesn't make us more acceptable to God.
Only a life of faith does.
Only a life of faith makes us more acceptable to God.
A life of faith gives God pleasure;
A life of faith like the sinful tax collector was leading.
He, on the other hand,
recognizes his own sinfulness
and throws himself upon the mercy of the Lord.
Both the tax collector and the Pharisee
are perceptive enough to confront the issue of righteousness,
or the lack thereof.
But it was only the tax collector
who moved beyond the issue of righteousness
to that of faith.
It takes faith and a whole lot of courage
to present yourself wholly and submissively
at the feet of Jesus.
Whereas the Pharisee trusted in himself
for his righteousness to save him,
the tax collector rightly recognized
that it was not righteousness that provides salvation.
He trusted not in who he was but in who God is.
God is merciful.
He hoped not in what he had
but in what he might receive:
mercy and forgiveness.
It is when one can extend faith and trust beyond the self,
to call upon the mercy of the Lord,
that one can expect to be justified,
to be made whole and perfect,
indeed, offered salvation
by Jesus Christ, our Savior.
This passage is the core of our Wesleyan / Methodist ethos:
We are justified, or made complete with God,
by our faith, not by what we say or do.
This is the stumbling point that I mentioned earlier.
Too many times down through the centuries,
Christians have failed to see this parable
as one whose purpose was little more
than to address the issue of doing good works
and humbly seeking forgiveness.
Rather, this is a parable that addresses
the deeper issue of what it means
to place one's faith and trust in the Lord;
how to enter into relationship with Jesus Christ,
and how to grow that relationship
through life long discipleship.
The first step is to put everything behind,
fall at the feet of Jesus,
and make a confession of sins by saying,
"God be merciful to me, a sinner!"
When I’m swimming laps
I often time my stroke to the Jesus prayer:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
This is true faith:
to trust in God,
and in God's mercy,
instead of trusting in yourself.
When the Jews in the crowd
Comprehended the deeper meaning of this parable
They were outraged.
They lived, breath, and died by the Law.
It was the Law that saved you,
or so the Jewish mind thought.
Jesus's teachings, therefore, were revolutionary:
that, what is important is faith,
not the actions of an individual.
Likewise, Jesus’s actions were revolutionary:
Justification comes at the foot of the cross
and salvation is a gift
left at the door of the empty tomb.
Jesus embodied a new covenant,
a new covenant that we celebrate with Eucharist,
that we remember by breaking, pouring and sharing
the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
This is not to say
that Jesus was unconcerned with people's behavior.
Not at all!
Rather, Jesus' focus is elsewhere.
Jesus is frying other fish.
Jesus was and is primarily concerned with faithfulness;
fidelity and trust in the mercy of the Lord.
While good works and righteous living
are always the evidence of faithfulness
it is possible to lead a good and moral life
outside of faith.
"What does this imply for us today?" you may ask.
"How is God speaking to me through our Gospel?"
This is my best attempt at a one point sermon!
We are all sinful.
Given this fact
Don't try to fix problems of sinfulness by yourself.
Begin by seeking the mercy of God.
Go to the feet of Jesus and ask for his assistance.
Peter says it quite plainly,
"God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."
At first you may feel empty;
as if it is silly to ask for God's help,
to ask God to be merciful to "me a sinner."
But after time and with practice,
faith in God begins to bloom and grow.
Faith will steamroll!
Suddenly, you'll find yourself
seeking to lead a righteous life
because of this brand new relationship
that is growing between yourself and God.
This is the type of relationship
that Jesus Christ is begging
to have with each of us.
All we have to do is to take the first step,
like the tax collector did,
to initiate the spark,
that will ignite the flame of the Holy Spirit
within our hearts.
"Pride changed angels into devils,"
St. Augustine proclaimed,
and "Humility makes one an angel."
The Pharisee was made into devil.
And the tax collector?
"I tell you,
this man went down to his home justified ...
for all who exalt themselves will be humbled,
but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
Go, and do likewise.