Luke 18: 9 – 14_A Work in Progress_October 13, 2019

A Work in Progress
Luke 18: 9 – 14
(preached October 13, 2019)

As therapists do their work of psychological counseling, they often find that people who come to them are driven by a need to be perfect. These people are mostly from good, law-abiding families. They are motivated by voices deep within them that say, in one way or another, that they are inferior, not worthy of approval. Maybe these voices come from their past, out of their childhood. As children, they were made to feel shame or guilt for doing something that their parents or teachers considered to be wrong. They heard these words of disapproval from authority figures as words of rejection. Rejection by a loved one is a very painful feeling.

Generally, these children grow up to become one of two types of people. The first type is a person who always seeks approval, always tries to do the right thing. This person never wants to make a mistake.

On the other hand, children may not grow up to be someone who constantly seeks approval. A child may instead become a very critical person, someone who continually finds fault, someone who just seems to know what is best for everyone else. They put down mistakes in others. They are impatient with others. They always see their point of view as the superior one.

You know, it’s kind of strange, but sometimes both types of person: the one who seeks approval, and the one who finds fault, can be wrapped up in the same person. A person like this is obsessed with the need for approval on one hand. On the other hand, he or she is convinced of their superiority.

It looks to me as if the Pharisee in our gospel passage for today, from Luke, is an example of that type. The Pharisee is one of two characters in Jesus’ parable. He’s trying really hard to earn God’s approval. At the same time, he’s very critical of others. The Pharisee is praying in the temple. He says, “Oh God, I thank you that I’m not like other people: rogues, thieves, adulterers…” The Pharisee is trying to tell God that he is perfect, so perfect that he deserves God’s approval.

Like most people who constantly seek approval, the Pharisees of Jesus’ time placed a high value on respectability. They were very conscious of who was respectable and who was not. They were fond of putting other people on their lists of the unrespectable. The Pharisees actually had lists: lists that were written down, lists of people with whom they could not associate. For example, Pharisees did not associate with donkey drivers, camel drivers, shepherds, shopkeepers, physicians, and butchers. The reason for shunning these people was that their hands got dirty, or their hands touched blood. Others on the Pharisees’ “do not respect” list were goldsmiths, flax combers, peddlers, tailors, and barbers. All of these people were considered unrespectable because they came into constant contact with women. That was something a devout Pharisee would find intolerable.
The list of the very “least respectable” included people who handled money, such as moneylenders and gamblers. At the very bottom of that list, in a category all to himself, was the tax collector. Next year, as April 15th draws near, you and I may not be too fond of tax collectors. But our tax collectors are nothing compared to tax collectors in Jesus’ time. In Jesus’ time, tax collectors collected money for the Roman rulers who ruled oppressively over the people. Tax collectors collected taxes for Rome, but they were allowed to keep for themselves any money they could extract, above what the Romans required. Some of them used harsh methods that struck terror into people’s hearts. Tax collectors were regarded as traitors who had sold out to the oppressors of Rome.

In Jesus’ parable, we have a righteous Pharisee, a religious man who follows all the rules, and a tax collector. Whom does Jesus praise in the parable? The tax collector. Jesus says, “this man went home right with God.” Why does Jesus single out the despised tax collector for such high praise? Why does he put down the righteous Pharisee, who, he says, does not go home right with God? The Pharisee is a good man. He’s a good man in most of the ways you and I would consider good. He himself says in his prayer, “I fast twice a week, I pay tithes on everything I get.” In his observance of religious law, the Pharisee is letter perfect.

On the other hand, the tax collector can make no such claim. He probably hasn’t darkened the door of a synagogue in years. This may well be his first trip ever to the temple. He has nothing to say except, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
The difference between the two can be summed up very simply. The Pharisee is convinced of his own righteousness. He’s consumed with self-righteousness. The tax collector knows he’s a long way from righteousness. All he can do is come to the temple, humble himself, and ask for God’s mercy.

The tax collector knows that he has sinned. He goes to the temple and sees a need within himself to change. When he says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” he’s not just confessing his sins. He’s accepting the fact that what’s done is done, and he’s opening himself to the new life God wants to bring to him. He’s opening himself to what’s possible in the present and the future: a changed life. What remains to be done makes all the difference. He is a work in progress.

The Pharisee wants to be on God’s side. He thinks he is on God’s side. He thinks he has it made. But, when we really think about it, for us humans, being on God’s side is always a work in progress. We never fully have it made. It’s always a goal. It’s never fully realized. No one of us has the full truth. No one of us can be perfectly right. As individuals, and as a church, we never completely grasp the truth of the Good News of Christ. It’s not something we get once, and have forever. We’re always in the position of the humble, repentant sinner.

If you think you have it made, that you have the full truth, you’re on the wrong track. This is true whether we’re talking about an individual, or a community like Millbury, or an entire country like the United States. It’s true about an institution, like the church. As a church we know we don’t have the full truth of God. We’re continually trying to be open to what God wants to do, and to change when we need to.

For example, take the way the church has changed its approach to missionary work. Christ calls us to go forth and share the Good News, and we respond, but we do it differently than we used to. Years ago, missionaries, full of zeal, went to the far-flung corners of the world. They described their work as “bringing salvation to the heathen.” But those days are past. We’ve made changes in the way we do missionary work.

The time is past when missionaries went out trying to impose their own cultural standards on others. The time is past when missionaries said, “Your conversion to Christ depends on your ability to be just like me: to dress like me, to sing my hymns, to pray like me, to speak my language, to adopt my customs.”

Today’s missionaries don’t do that. They’re much more apt to live among the people they serve. They minister to people according to local customs. They speak the language of the local people, sing their songs, try to meet their needs. Sometimes the needs are physical, such as medicine, or methods for farming that will yield better crops. The missionaries still bring a Christian message. But the message is expressed in the way they live their lives.

The change in the way we do mission today does not diminish the good that was done by countless missionaries in the past. But the fact is we learned from them. We built on their experience. No doubt there was some self-righteousness. No doubt some of the missionaries acted like Pharisees at times. But we can admit past mistakes and move forward into God’s future.

Admitting past mistakes is something we can do as a church, and as individuals. To return to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, I’ve noticed something about myself when I hear this parable. I’ve noticed that every time I hear this parable, I catch myself thinking, “I’m glad I’m not like that Pharisee.” Maybe you caught yourself thinking the same thing. And, as soon as I do that, I’m not all that different from the Pharisee. Like him, I’m finding myself superior. Like him, I’m being self-righteous.

We’re in the season of fall now; the daylight hours are shorter, the nights are colder. The darker days of fall and winter can be a good time for us to reflect, to grow spiritually, by looking within. This season can be a good time for us to take a closer look at the way we’re thinking. You might try doing this. Ask yourself, are you trying to be perfect to gain someone’s approval? Are you constantly in need of approval: some other person’s approval, or God’s approval? Is there any part of you that’s the least bit self-righteous?

Some time this week, take a moment – it may take more than a moment – to sit down and make a list of all the people – it could be individuals or groups of people, or classes, races, or religions – make a list of all the people to whom you feel superior. People you observe and think, if you were living their life, you could do it better than they are doing it. You could do a better job of living their life than they are doing.

Maybe one of these people would be the harried mother in front of you in the checkout line, whose baby won’t stop crying, paying for her groceries with government assistance. Maybe it would be the twenty-year-old with tattoos up and down his arms, who sits across from you in the doctor’s crowded waiting room, hunched over his smart phone. Or maybe it would be the overweight person squeezed into the airplane seat beside you.

Make a list of people you think are unworthy of your full approval and be honest, don’t spare anyone. When the list is complete, and it may take longer than you think, try to put yourself in that other person’s shoes, one by one. Take each person on the list and try to imagine yourself in their lives as they are trying to live them. How they are doing, given the opportunities they’ve had? And then, maybe with each one as you come to it, you could say, with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Every time you say this, cross off one name or one group of people till everyone is crossed off.

My friends, for us humans, getting right with God is always a work in progress. We never fully have it made. No one of us can be perfectly right. As individuals, and as a church, we never fully grasp the truth of the Good News of Christ. It’s not something we get once, and have forever. We’re always in the position of the humble, repentant sinner.

Rev. Elva Merry Pawle
Pentecost 18