Pentecost XX Proper XXV
October 27, 2019
The Rev’d Charles Everson, SCP
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
There are some general stereotypes about birth order that tend to be true across the board. The first-born child tends to be a responsible overachiever, while the second-born is often rebellious, seeking attention in colorful ways. In my own house, growing up, these stereotypes were certainly true. I was the eldest child: very responsible and studious, always wanting to be seen doing what is right. My younger sister Carri always got in trouble and had a hard time finding her place in life. I was the goodie two shoes who went to church every Sunday and participated in religious clubs at school and of course abstained from alcohol and anything else that might be naughty. One incident sort of sums my sister’s relationship with the church at the time. She had my mom drop her and her best friend off at the church for an all-night lock in with the youth group. Later, it was discovered that my mom dropped them off just in time for her boyfriend to pick them up and scurry away from the church before the doors got locked. I, on the other hand, was well-known in our high school for being a spiritual leader, leading bible studies and Christian rallies for all the world to see.
When I read through today’s gospel reading, I couldn’t help but self-identify with the Pharisee. The Pharisees were Jewish religious leaders of the day who emphasized the importance of obeying the law of Moses. They paid careful attention to things like rituals for cleansing one’s body and one’s cookware that were done as an attempt to encounter God in the everyday doldrums of life. The Pharisees were very concerned about how others perceived them and made every attempt to look pious and righteous before others. On the other hand, the tax collectors in the Roman Empire were part of a corrupt system full of dishonesty and greed. They weren’t the accounting-types that work at the IRS, but were rather the scum of the earth, lining their own pockets with whatever they could collect above and beyond their contractual obligation with the government.
My senior year in high school, I had a side job in the afternoon in the school office. My duties included answering the phone and helping with attendance records. My sister didn’t always adhere to the school’s attendance policies. When she skipped class, you can guess what happened: I caught wind the same day, and before she got home, my parents already knew. Yeah, I was that guy: I was the tattle tale. I’ll always remember the time my sister got so frustrated with me that she yelled, “Chuck, why do you have to be so darned good!” I wish I could say that I tattled on her to keep her safe or for the wider good, but deep down, I was self-righteous and cared far too much about how other people perceived me.
In this parable, when the Pharisee prays, he thanks God that he isn’t like the other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like the tax-collector. In his prayer, the Pharisee reminds the Lord that he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all his income. In short, he thanks God that he’s so amazing. The tax-collector beats his breast and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The Pharisee doesn’t ask God for anything because he trusted in himself that he was righteous, while the tax-collector begged for God’s mercy for he knows who he is: a horrible human being who can’t possibly be good enough on his own.
Everyone thinks that the Kingdom of God includes the Pharisees but excludes the tax-collectors, but today, Jesus is saying, “No, let me tell you what the Kingdom of God is really like.” In God’s kingdom, the tax-collector is in and the Pharisee is out. In the last verse, he tells us that the tax-collector went home justified – unburdened – vindicated – in a restored relationship with God. For the tax-collector knows who he is: he knows that he has no righteousness on which to stand except for the righteousness given to him by God.
Jesus isn’t telling us to shed our arrogance and be as humble as we can be, and that if we do that, all will be well, and we’ll inherit eternal life. The point is that the tax-collector acknowledges that he really a horrible human being. And thanks be to God, God loves horrible human beings! Jesus is telling you and me today that, despite what I thought in high school, thinking that we are holy and studious and righteous means that we are deceived and don’t acknowledge who and what we are: horrible, awful people in need of God’s grace!
My sister’s life took a different turn after high school. She’s married to a lawyer and works as a pharmacist, and they have 3 beautiful girls (all about to hit the teenage years…God help her.). And she and her family are members of Grace Episcopal Church in Ottawa and her husband serves on the vestry. For my part, I’ve loosened up quite a bit after having been put in my place multiple times throughout my adult life. My fault in high school was that like the Pharisee had written off the tax-collector, I had labeled my sister as a heathen, when in fact, she was thoroughly and completely loved by God. Rather than focusing on others’ faults and sins, and trying to decide who is in God’s Kingdom and who is out, God is calling us to speak only of our own brokenness, and to rely solely on His unconditional mercy and grace to make us whole again, as when the world was new.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!