A sermon at the Church of the Holy Nativity, Bronx, NY. October 27, 2013
“Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (Luke 18:9)
The Gospel of Luke makes it pretty plain what this parable is about. You have two people—one is a tax gatherer and the other is an active and devout religious person. This religious person is very serious, perhaps he’s even a member of the vestry, certainly goes to all the Bible classes that are offered, never misses mass, and maybe even is up-to-date on his pledge.
So when he sets up to pray in the temple, he thanks God because he is so religious. “I thank you that I am not like other people”, he says. These others, hoi loipoi in Greek, that’s the key here. He’s not even referring to a specific group of other people: it’s him… and everybody else. Perhaps there are some that are his kind of people, who also fast twice a week, tithe everything they have and are confidently prominent and public in their prayer— but the others, they are all lumped in to the category that includes everything bad.
It’s possible that this Pharisee could not even figure out why so few people were joining his group. They were so good, and of course they were on the inside with God, so why weren’t more people seeing the light?
Jesus’ point is that there are a lot of these “others” in the world, and God loves them all, even the tax collector. Then, as now, a tax collector was usually about as welcome as an Obamacare representative in a Tea Party convention. This tax collector made no defense, he simply prayed, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Of course it’s possible to jump on the band wagon, and say—“ok that’s the prayer that Jesus wants—I thank you God that I’m not like those others who don’t pray: ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner,’ and I also tithe and make it to mass more or less on time.” But that would miss the point, wouldn’t it? Contrition and humility are good, but the main thing is, this publican does not separate himself off from those “others.” The largest share of his humility is in recognizing how much he has in common with all the rest of humanity—his need of mercy.
And Jesus was famous for feasting with tax-gatherers and other known sinners, perhaps even with you and me. Christianity is a way of life and that life might indeed include tithing—I would never want to undermine the stewardship committee—but that way of life is to live and to share Christ’s mercy out there with all those “others,” the people who Jesus loves even when they aren’t here doing what we think people ought to be doing.
Like the Pharisee, we do stand here in this temple and pray in thanksgiving to God. But listen a minute to our Great Thanksgiving prayer:
Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself; and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.
We are all, all of us, those “others” who are reconciled by the mercy of God to Jesus. We gather each week for Eucharist (Greek word: means thanksgiving), because our way of life is to live in thanksgiving and share with others that mercy and love of God in Christ Jesus. You are all loved, and all special in God’s sight, not because you are different from other people, but because you share with that great multitude for whom, in God’s love, Jesus gave himself on the Cross.