United Church of Jaffrey
Luke 18:9-14 | Philippians 2:3-8
You know what’s weird?
I think that this is weird… you ready?
Let’s imagine I have a bunch of money, a whole bunch of money. Enough money to fill a swimming pool – that kind of money.
I’m feeling pretty good about my numbers. I’m literally swimming in hundred-dollar bills.
I know this is unrealistic on a minister’s salary – but we are imagining ok?
Ok, so let’s say I take all that dough and decide I can’t keep it in the swimming pool anymore – it’s just not safe – so I put it in the bank.
I know this whole story has been weird, but for me, at least, this is where the really weird part starts.
When the bank takes in all my money, it doesn’t say to itself: “Look at all this money! This guy has plenty of money!”
It seems to me that that would be a reasonable response for the bank to have.
Weirdly, the bank looks at my swimming pool full of money and says: let’s giove this guy more money!
The bank looks at all my money, and thinks that I deserve more money.
I already had a swimming pool full of hundred-dollar bills! Why do you want to give me even more?
I don’t need it!
Why give more to someone who doesn’t need it?
On what planet does that make sense?
I’m sorry, but I think that’s weird.
Now let’s imagine that I’m in the opposite position.
I’m out of work, and Cary’s hours have been cut back.
Our cash flow has dried up, and so I’m sitting in my garage in the middle of the day, wringing my hands.
Our numbers look pretty bad.
There is no swimming pool filled with hundred-dollar bills. There is a mailbox full of bills. Phone bills. Electric bills. Gas bills.
Then again, Cary says it’ll probably be OK – the bank has given us something called “overdraft protection.”
Overdraft protection kicks in if we use more then we have in our checking account.
Of course, it’s not free. It’s a line of credit, so we are charged interest each time we use it.
But we can deal with that.
No big deal.
So I sweep out the garage. If I’m going to be home in the middle of the day, I might was well have a clean garage.
But when I do this, I sweep a nail out into the driveway, which I then drive over. When I replace the tire, the transaction hits my account and pushes us past our overdraft protection and…
My overdraft hits Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Nil. Nix.
That’s when the big fees kick in!
It’s weird! The bank informs me, with the same letter, that: 1) I have no money, and 2) I owe them money.
It’s so weird!
Why charge someone who has no money? If I have no money, how do I pay?
On what planet does that make sense?
I’m sorry, but I think that’s weird!
Let’s go hang out with the Pharisee in today’s parable from the gospel of Luke. The Pharisee feels pretty good about his numbers.
The way Jesus tells this parable, it sounds like this particular Pharisee is a pious man in good social standing. This Pharisee is doing well enough to be able to afford to give away one-tenth of his income!
One-tenth of his income!
That’s pretty generous!
So, just to put it in perspective — if this Pharisee made the equivalent of one hundred grand per year (assuming he’s pretty well-off) – he’d be giving away 10 grand annually!
The Pharisee ought to feel pretty good about that! I’m sure the priests in the temple appreciate the Pharisee’s generosity.
And the Pharisee has some other good stats too. Not only is his generosity beyond reproach – his ritual purity numbers are good too! The Pharisee fasts twice a week! Not once a week, but twice a week! Now that’s dedication!
So its not surprising that when the Pharisee stands up in the temple, he stands up with a great deal of self-assurance.
‘God, I thank you,” the Pharisee prays, “that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’
Yes, the Pharisee is quite sure of himself. The Pharisee is certain that he is justified before God.
“It’s quite obvious” he seems to tell God, “that I’m great! If you don’t believe me, just look at the numbers!”
But the Pharisee is only part of the parable. Jesus tells us that the Pharisee is not the only one praying in the temple. A tax collector is also there.
The Pharisee and the tax collector don’t have very much in common.
Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector doesn’t stand tall in the middle of the sanctuary.
Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector prefers to remain “far off” at the edge of the temple.
The tax collector wants to worship, but unlike the Pharisee he doesn’t want to be seen doing it. The tax collector is unsure of himself. He knows that most people hate him, and he’s convinced that God hates him too.
Jesus tells us that the tax collector is so full of remorse that he “would not even look up to heaven.”
But as different as the Pharisee and the tax collector are, in one important way they are quite similar.
Both the Pharisee and the tax collector have figured out exactly how God judges them.
The Pharisee is certain that God approves of him, and he is certain that God does not approve of the tax collector.
The tax collector, on the other hand, is certain that he has fallen short of God. The tax collector fears that his sins are so great, that he may be beyond forgiveness.
And this, in turn, reveals another way in which the Pharisee and the Tax Collector are similar.
They are both wrong.
They are both wrong about God.
It’s surprising! In the end of the parable, Jesus tells us that God humbles the pious, generous, and observant Pharisee, and the sinning tax collector leaves the temple justified.
Did something go wrong with the numbers?
The Pharisee’s mistake, I think, is his assumption that God functions according to human logic. The Pharisee’s approach to piety is very exacting –
he presumes to know precisely how much money he needs to give in order to be favored in the sight of God.
He presumes to know exactly how much fasting he needs to do to prove to God that he is pious.
So when he prays, the Pharisee does not encounter eternal mystery or awful power – when he prays, the Pharisee is making an annual report.
The Pharisee is “praying by numbers.”
As far as he can tell, his numbers are good, so he’s good. The prayer is merely a formality.
But prayer, brothers and sisters in Christ — Prayer is not an exact science!
Prayer is not an annual staff evaluation.
God does not ask you to rate your piety on a scale from one to ten.
Numbers are the language of exactness, but prayer is the language of humility.
As sinful as the tax collector may have been, he understood, in his heart that we cannot know, with any degree of exactness, what God is, or what God wants.
No matter how exact our calculations, we do not know what this human life has in store for us. God is a mysterious and powerful other, and we cannot presume to calculate our relationship with such a one as this.
Human society is built on the elegance and the dependability of the equation one plus one equals two. And yet even within this framework of dependability, uncertainty exists. The knowledge of this uncertainty – the knowledge that ultimately, no matter how good our numbers are, we cannot predict what will happen – this knowledge is called humility.
Prayer speaks this language. The language of humility.
This uncertainty has a poetic beauty, because our deepest pain and the most earnest hopes and desires of our humanity are wrapped up in it.
This is what the tax collector knew.
This is what the person in recovery from opioid addiction knows.
This is what the parents of the children who were killed in Sandy Hook know.
This is what loved ones of Matthew Shepard, Trayvon Martin know…
That the most painful realities of human life remain untouched by the rules that govern everyday life.
The percentage rates of interest-bearing checking accounts. The fees levied against bounced checks. The premium on your auto insurance. The deductible on your health plan. These numbers that seem to control humans — are utterly meaningless to God.
We can predict how much interest will accrue annually, but we cannot predict whether or not we will be alive tomorrow to enjoy it.
This is what the tax collector knew.
He knew that uncertainty lies at the core of human existence, and that learning to live with this uncertainty requires the practice of humility.
And this is also what we, as a church should know too.
One of the reasons why there are not more people in church these days, is because, whether it is true or not, many people see church, as the kind of place where the Pharisee, in this parable, would feel right at home….
A place to come so that we can prop up our feelings of self-righteousness…
A place where we can report all of our good numbers to God.
A place where we can come to be recognized by our neighbors as being “proper.”
And for this reason, a lot of people who are really suffering, avoid church.
When this happens, dear brothers and sisters in Christ…
When people who are really suffering avoid church…
Then, I submit to you, we have lost our core purpose.
Jesus himself – the son of God, around whom this church was built — did not stand in the middle of the church and proclaim his own righteousness.
Indeed, as Saint Paul wrote, in his letter to the Philippians, Christ…
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Is where we learn the practice of humility… which, if you think about it, is another name for prayer.