Joel 2:23-29; Luke 18:9-14
A grocery store checkout clerk once wrote to an advice-columnist to complain that she had seen people buy "luxury" food items--like birthday cakes and bags of shrimp--with their food stamps. The writer went on to say that she thought all those people on welfare who treated themselves to such non-necessities were "lazy and wasteful." A few weeks later the columnist's column was devoted entirely to people who had responded to the grocery clerk.
One woman wrote: I didn’t buy a cake, but I did buy a big bag of shrimp with food stamps. So what? My husband was a low wage worker at a plant for 15 years when it was shut down. The shrimp casserole I made was for our anniversary dinner and it lasted three days. Another woman wrote: I’m the woman who bought the $17 cake and paid for it with food stamps. I thought the checkout woman in the store would burn a hole through me with her eyes. What she didn’t know is the cake was for my little girl’s birthday. It will be her last. She has bone cancer and will probably be gone in six to eight months. Whether these responses were true or not, have we ever rushed to judgment about another person all the while thinking that we’ve cornered the market on righteous living?
In our gospel lesson today, Jesus compares the praying styles of two men; a Pharisee and the tax collector. On the one hand there was the Pharisee who was a truly righteous man according to the law. But he was self-absorbed and arrogant. On the other hand we had the tax collector, who was an obvious sinner. But he was humble, and asked for mercy.
Now many people will hear this story and say to themselves, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee.” But it’s people like that Pharisee who pay the bills at church and hold the community together. Most Pharisees were not villains. Most Pharisees were probably decent, generous and committed persons. The Pharisee not only kept the law, but he did more than was required. For example, the Pharisees kept the required yearly fasts. But on top of that they also fasted not once, but twice a week. This was a tremendous spiritual accomplishment.
Another example. The Pharisee also thanked God that he was able to give a tithe of his income. How many people do you know who tithe, and are thankful that they can? Tithing is a real act of dedication and faith, a physical reminder that everything we have belongs to God. The Pharisee went beyond what was required of him. He gave ten percent, not just of his grain and the other required items the Bible required, but of he gave 10 percent of everything he had. This was someone who went up beyond the call of duty. We could use more people like that in the world.
But the Pharisee did have a problem. He was too satisfied and sure of himself. For all his accomplishments he was not humble.
Have you ever heard the story of the man who came to the gates of heaven and was greeted by St. Peter? Peter asked the man to give a brief history of his life with an emphasis on the good deeds he had done. Peter told the man, “You will need 1,000 points to get in.”
“That will be easy,” the man thought. “I’ve been involved in church since I was a child.” Then he began to list his activities. He was an officer in his youth group, and then he served as a deacon, then an elder. He had served on endless committees, even when he didn’t feel like it. He pledged ten percent of his income and paid it on time. He attended Bible studies, served as an usher, and volunteered in a homeless shelter.
“Very impressive,” Peter said. An angel standing with them smiled and nodded as he tallied the points and then whispered in Peter’s ear. St. Peter told the man, “This is quite striking. We seldom see men of your very good works. You will be pleased to know that you have 327 points! Is there anything else you can think of?”
The poor man broke into a cold sweat and began to reach deep for every single act of kindness he could think of, every good cause he supported. He listed them as the angel scratched furiously on his angelic clip board and nodded his head in admiration. Peter looked at the clip board and said, “This is quite exceptional! You now have a total of 402 points. Can you think of anything else?”
The distressed man tried to remember every good deed, like the times he drove a church member to the doctor, and when he shoveled the snow off his neighbor’s steps. He finally arrived at a grand total of 431 points and cried out… “I’m sunk! There is no hope for me! What more could I have done? O Lord, all I can do is beg for your mercy!”
“THAT,” said Peter, “Is worth a thousand points!” *
The story of the Pharisee and the tax collector is not about who is good and who is bad. The Pharisee truly was a good man, by any human standards. He might have scored close to 500 points on the entrance exam to heaven. And the tax collector was bad, at least by the moral standards of the time. He had made a living by cheating people out of their money. Note that he doesn’t show any evidence that he went home and changed his ways. So this story is not about a bad person who becomes good, or a seemingly good person who turns out to be bad. It’s about grace and mercy, and how we approach God. It’s about, in the end, we must all be humble before God.
Even though the Pharisee was good, he didn’t understand his need for grace. In doing this he separated himself from others. He contrasted himself to thieves, rogues, adulterers and the tax-collector, and believed he came out looking so much the better. And when he prayed, it wasn’t really a prayer at all. It was more like patting himself on the back- kind of speech, than a prayer that was open to God’s presence and mercy. So, for all the good he did he failed to know God’s mercy – which only a humble heart can comprehend.
the tax collector, though probably bad, understood his need for mercy. There was no way he could count himself better than others. Only through God’s mercy could he be made right with God. As Jesus said, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Being humble does not come when we compare ourselves to others for better or worse. It comes by knowing how God how sees us. The Pharisee compared himself and thought he came out on top. In God’s eyes, he missed the point. There’s nothing wrong with feeling proud of our accomplishments, as long as it doesn’t lead us to feel arrogant or self-sufficient, as though we don’t need other people or God. On the other hand, No one’s sins are too great to be forgiven. One can have too low a self esteem that has nothing to do with being humble. Whether rich or poor, knowing and acting on our need for God is the first step toward being humble.
God wants to give us good things whether we are a Pharisee or a tax collector. If we open our hearts and stand humble before God, God will bless us. But God is always eager to forgive and bless us with mercy and grace.
So when we pray, may we not peek at others shopping chart -- because -- ultimately our “relationship to God has nothing to do with how terrible or better other people are.”* Our relationship to God has everything to do with honesty and humility. And when we realize our own need for mercy, rather than judging others, we will have compassion on them, because we know that we are all God’s creatures, in need of God’s grace. And God hears every prayer that is spoken with a humble heart.
May that be so with us. Amen.