First Reading: Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
Second Reading: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Gospel Reading: Luke 18:9-14
Sermon: “Let’s Be Honest”
As the reading from Jeremiah reminds us – our relationship with God requires us to acknowledge what God already knows – We are all sinners in need of saving grace. But the truth is that simple admission falls too easily from our lips and we sometimes glibly use it to gloss over our stubborn natures and reserve a place of independence from God, seeking to assure ourselves that we are not really all that bad. So lets be honest this morning. Honest with ourselves, Honest with God and Honest with each other: We are gloriously saved by Grace alone. Let’s be Honest and admit that we love to look down at the particular sins of others to feel in some way superior. Lets admit that it feels kind of good to say “At least I don’t do that!”
Let’s admit that this particular parable of Jesus, which we read today, may very well be aimed at us good Christian folks. At first glance, knowing that Pharisees are regularly cast in the gospels as Jesus’ opposition, we might all too easily judge the Pharisee to be a convenient villain, a self-righteous hypocrite and assume that the moral of this story is to be humble. If so, we turn the Pharisee into a caricature and he might as well be singing that old Mac Davis song we used to love to laugh at. Do you remember? It goes like this:
Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble
When you’re perfect in every way
I can’t wait to look in the mirror
‘Cause I get better lookin’ each day
To know me is to love me
I must be a hell of a man
Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble
But I’m doin’ the best that I can!
In order to avoid that kind of self-congratulatory reading of the parable – the kind that would catch us saying – ‘Oh God, I thank thee that I am not like that Pharisee!’ – the very kind that the parable itself would seem condemn. If we miss the point, then we end up leaving here saying, “Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: hypocrites, overly pious, self righteous. We come to church each week, listen attentively to Scripture, and we have learned that we should always be humble.”
The very thought indicates that we have in fact missed the point and we don’t understand humility either!
It may help to note that, actually, everything the Pharisee says about himself is likely true. He has set himself apart from others by his faithful adherence to the law. He is not a thief, an adulterer or an infamous tax collector So before we judge him too quickly, we might reframe his prayer slightly and wonder if we have uttered it ourselves. Maybe, as one commentator puts it: “we haven’t said, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people…”, but what about, on seeing someone down on his luck, “There but for the grace of God go I”? It isn’t that the Pharisee is speaking falsely, but rather that the Pharisee misses the true nature of his blessing. As Luke states in his introduction, the Pharisee has trusted in himself that he was righteous – and if that were not enough, he regarded others with contempt.
If we go on with the reading from where we stopped, we find Jesus taking another opportunity to teach about caring for those whom the society of the time cared very little: (Luke 18:15-17 NRSV)  People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it.  But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
Here we get to see the full measure of radical grace. Particularly in that day, Children had no political or social power, no legal protection, no DHS. Even today they are often overlooked. Particularly if they are not one of ours. They can’t support the church budget except with borrowed coins. They have no theological degree. They are utterly dependent on their parents or guardians – Yet Jesus says that it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs. They simply know what they feel and need. Those that were old enough to navigate on their own are naturally drawn to Jesus. The infants are being carried by parents – hoping for a blessing from Jesus for these little ones to young to even remember it later. They were a nuisance to the disciples and the Pharisees who had important seeming things on their minds. But to Jesus, they were the very substance of the Kingdom.
Lets turn our attention now over to the other side of the temple court, away from the proud Pharisee and notice that other fellow – the tax collector. He knows that he possesses no means by which to claim righteousness. He has done nothing of merit; indeed, he has done much to offend not only the law of Israel but also his countrymen. He is at best collaborator with the Romans and many in his profession were greedy cheats as well, padding the tax bill to enrich their own pocket. This man was hated and despised by the people, but also ashamed of himself. For this reason he stands back, hardly daring to approach the Temple, and throws himself on the mercy of the Lord. And our Lord is merciful indeed. This man goes home justified, Jesus said. He asked for grace and received it.
It’s an interesting picture isn’t it: Two men standing apart from the crowd, one by self congratulatory choice, but the other from exclusion and critical self awareness. The temple was a place of prayer and worship – a place to come and meet with God. One of these men was brought close to God – but it was not he who moved. God met him right where he stood. That’s Grace. The Unmerited favor of God. The Tax collector knew he didn’t deserve it, but he also knew he desperately needed it. And God supplied his need.
Jesus’ Parable is so vivid and true to life that I am lead to think of it as an observation, rather than a parable. I am left to wonder what happened next. Did anything happen for the Pharisee? Did his prayer time change his heart? Did he have any new insights about his relationship with God – Or did he leave that day much as he came? As some have said, when our hands our full of ourselves how can we receive much from God? How about the Tax collector? Having prayed the prayer he did, could he go back to life as usual? Could he honestly pray for mercy from God, being too ashamed to even lift his eyes to heaven and then go and cheat and overcharge people as before? I would rather think that he was a work in progress, that God had been working on him for some time.
Perhaps he had been one of the ones who had heard John the Baptist preaching a year or two before. Maybe he had heard the questions asked of John: Luke 3:12-13 NRSV  Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”  He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” I’d like to think that he was as honest with himself as he was with God. I’d like to think that perhaps we would hear more of him later – Perhaps, just perhaps, his name was Zacchaeus and that he had an opportunity to begin to make things right and develop a deep and abiding relationship with his Lord.
You see, dear Brothers and Sisters. When we are honest and open – in our praying and our living – things change. Our concept of ourself changes – we begin to see things in our life as God sees them. We start to recognize our shortcomings and our need of the power of God in our lives. We might even begin to understand (on our better days, at least) that God needs to be the center of our lives, rather than our own will and self interest. We understand better what a wonderful gift the righteousness of Jesus is and listen more attentively the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit speaking the words of God into our lives. Prayer really does changes things. Understand well that the first thing to change may have to be us!
Once we begin to be honest about our own self, then we can be more sensitive to others around us. Once we understand the overflowing grace in our own life, then we are more able to extend it to others. We understand that the Grace of God is not a limited resource to be doled out sparingly, only to the ones who deserve it the most. That violates the very definition of grace does it not?
In his letters, Paul confidently asserts that there are no distinctions before God. Galatians 3:27-28 NRSV  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
So why do we keep on dividing ourselves – us and them. Standing to the side like that pharisee saying I thank thee God that I am not like that … fill in the blank. – matters of race do not matter with God. Christ died for all. Nationality, race and citizenship do not matter with God, Christ died for all. Rich and poor, Young or Old, educated or not, secure or homeless – Christ died for all. How can we dare treat them any different. We are after all members of Christ’s own body here on earth.
The gifts of God: Grace, Mercy, Forgiveness and Love are given to freely to all who honestly know their need and will but ask. Those gifts are also given to be shared never hoarded or gloated over. From the smallest child to the most senior among us, all stand dependent on the grace of God.