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Sunday, October 23, 2016 | 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m.

A Startling Beginning

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 65
Joel 2:23–32
Luke 18:9–14

If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable
in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness
at all. . . . How can I possibly serve another person in unfeigned humility if
I seriously regard his sinfulness as worse than my own?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer


I want to tell you a story. It begins like this: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton walk into a bar . . .

Just kidding. I’m not really going to tell you a story like that, because for one thing, it would never even happen these days. As we have all observed, both campaigns have frequently made their case by employing harsh and antagonistic statements about the other one. Regardless of whom you are voting for, no one is innocent in the inhospitable rhetorical war that has been raging for more than a year, and it is due to our experience of living amidst such take-no-prisoners verbal warfare that we are startled to hear a story begin with “Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton walk into a bar.” We just know it would never happen. Furthermore, if it did happen, we would assume something had gone very astray or that something completely unexpected was about to take place.

According to Jewish New Testament scholar AJ Levine, that sentiment of surprise and suspicion is exactly how Jesus’ first-century Jewish listeners would have felt as they heard the beginning of this parable (Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus): “Two people went up to the temple to pray, this one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” Now even for us, Christians in 2016, that particular beginning to Jesus’ parable sounds rather inauspicious.

Pharisees, religious leaders of that time, did not hang out with tax collectors, folks always on the take. And tax collectors, people not known for their moral living, did not hang out in the temple, the place the faithful came to rest in God’s presence. So for Jesus’ original audience, his opening statement would have immediately struck them as startling and, for many, completely offensive. It was a pairing that made no sense. Something must have gone terribly astray or something completely unexpected was about to take place. For the majority of Jesus’ audience, the Pharisees were seen as respected teachers, spiritual leaders, people of faith who were appropriately pious and diligent in the ways they lived out that faith. The Pharisees translated faith into action, because that is what they understood God expected of them. Most Pharisees simply desired to faithfully uphold their end of the covenant (Levine, Short Stories by Jesus).

Now we have to push pause for just a moment, because the history of our Christian interpretive tradition has done the Pharisees and their Jewish tradition a great disservice. Many of us have been taught to hear the word Pharisee and to immediately think “self-righteous hypocrite.” That is, after all, what the adjective pharisaical has come to mean. Yet our stereotype of a Pharisee would not have been the way Jesus’ followers thought of them. That is important for us to remember. There is nothing unseemly about this Pharisee until we get to the middle part of his prayer.

Before we get to his prayer, though, let’s also think anew about the tax collector. Now, just as Pharisees have gotten a bad rap in our Christian interpretive history, tax collectors have almost taken on a holy sheen. They are often spoken about in sermons and in Sunday school lessons as if they were always our repentant heroes. But again, that is the exact opposite of how first-century Jews would have felt about them. The tax collector was an agent of Rome, not an agent of God. He was typically presumed to be corrupt, always looking out only for himself. He would never have been considered any kind of hero. Rather, he was likely dishonest, someone who overcharged and exploited others in order to build up riches for himself (Levine, Short Stories of Jesus). So for Jesus’ first listeners, the fact that this tax collector was in the temple was unexpected, to say the least. And yet, “a Pharisee and a tax collector go up to the temple to pray.” Something had gone terribly astray or something completely unexpected was about to unfold.

As I said earlier, the Pharisee’s prayer started and ended just fine. He thanked God in the beginning of it, and then at the end he lifted up the spiritual practices that helped him live out his faith—fasting and tithing. But it was the middle part of his prayer that raised the crowd’s eyebrows in surprise: “God, I thank you,” he begins, but then it goes off the rails: “I thank you that I am not like the rest of people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like that tax collector standing over there.”

When the Pharisee passed judgment on the “whole person of the tax collector and with scorn dismisses him and his whole life as worthless” that is when he stopped acting faithfully (Roberta C. Bondi, “Sin of Scorn,” Christian Century, 19 October 2004). Those listening to Jesus’ story would have been surprised by his judgmental attitude, by the fact he chose to act dismissively of someone else in the community. That was not who they were supposed to be. It is not who we are supposed to be—people trying to stand as judge over each other. They would have been disappointed in him.

As their disappointment with that Pharisee grew, Jesus then described how the tax collector prayed. Knowing that many of the faithful did not want him there, the tax collector prayed while standing far off. As if he had already passed judgment on himself, he prayed with his head bowed, and as a demonstrative sign of grief and anguish, he prayed while beating his breast: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Like they were with the Pharisee’s prayer, Jesus’ listeners would have been scandalized by the tax collector’s prayer, too. Tax collectors were not known for their moral character or for their willingness to repent.

As a matter of fact, if we stop and think about it, no one in Jesus’ story is behaving in the ways we would expect for them to behave. The Pharisee, the spiritual leader of his community, ends up a spiritual disappointment due to his judgmentalism. And a tax collector, someone who typically took pride in his ability to get whatever he wanted, ends up possessing a moral compass. Neither of them acted normally in this strange story that Jesus told. “A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray.” Indeed, something has gone radically astray.

But Jesus was not finished. He had an even more scandalizing conclusion, one that resounds loudly in our own world, here and now. I am going to use the translation by Levine: Jesus concludes, “To you, I say, descending to his house, this one (meaning the tax collector) is justified, alongside that one (meaning the Pharisee)” (Levine, Short Stories of Jesus). Now that is different from the translation in our pew Bibles, which states that the tax collector was justified rather than the Pharisee. But that is only one way to translate the pesky Greek preposition para. While para can mean “rather than,” or “instead of,” it can also mean “alongside.” And when we make that interpretive decision, then all of the sudden we are able to see even more clearly Jesus’ most offensive challenge. According to Jesus’ story, after they prayed in the temple, both the Pharisee and the tax collector were justified, receivers of mercy and forgiveness, made right in relationship with God.

But that makes about as much sense as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton choosing to share a meal together. It doesn’t. After all, isn’t Jesus telling us this parable in order to once again illustrate God’s great reversal: those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted? So shouldn’t, then, that self-satisfied, smug Pharisee get what is coming to him, which is nothing—no mercy, no grace, no justification?

Shouldn’t the tax collector, the one who decided to act unexpectedly repentant, be the only one to receive God’s mercy, the grace, the justification that he deserves? How can it be that both of them are justified? How can it be that both of them receive God’s mercy and grace? God’s behavior, as shown by Jesus, does not meet our definition of fairness. But what if Jesus told the whole story not to illustrate the character of either the Pharisee or the tax collector but rather to illustrate the character of God? To demonstrate the way God chooses to behave, even in a world like ours: a world full of rigidity and judgment, where there is understood to be a limited supply of grace and mercy?

As we just said, neither the Pharisee nor the tax collector behaved in ways we expect. So why, then, would it to be any different when it comes to God? Why would we assume God would behave in a way that made sense to us? For what makes sense to us is for God to choose one rather than the other, instead of the other, to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. But that is not what God does. God chooses to bestow mercy and forgiveness on both Pharisee and tax collector, saint and sinner, religious leader and scoundrel, one alongside the other, completely ignoring our rules of what is fair or expected or even logical. God chooses to act for both with an unlimited generosity of grace, claiming and saving both—regardless of whether they deserved it or not.

If this were not just a story Jesus told, we’d wonder if that realization of God’s unlimited generosity of grace changed the way those two characters saw themselves and transformed the way they saw each other. After that experience of offering prayer in the Temple alongside each other and receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness as they left the temple alongside each other, did the phrase “A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray” sound less startling and offensive to them? Did it indicate that finally something was going right rather than terribly astray?

Now, since we started the sermon by referencing the election, let’s end it the same way. We do indeed have a little more than two weeks left before election day arrives. But I, probably like many of you, have already started to find myself wondering what will happen the day after, the week after, the year after the vote is said and done. I wonder how much damage has been done to the emotional and spiritual fabric of our country. I wonder how many casualties we will discover once the inhospitable rhetorical war stops—or at least pauses before the mid-terms.

How many friendships will have ended? Any in your life? How many Thanksgiving meals will feature broken family relationships served along with the pumpkin pie? Any of yours? Will we wake up the day after to realize we have all dug into our own positions with such rigidity and force that we can no longer summon the energy or the will to even be open to hearing a different perspective, a challenging perspective, ever again? Will difference and challenge now be understood solely as threat?

Just this morning, on Krista Tippet’s On Being radio show, columnists E.J. Dionne and David Brooks were talking about the intersections of their faith and our politics. Dr. Dionne made this statement:

I wish that religion could play a role in bringing us together. There used to be a time when people who disagreed went to the same churches or congregations. They had an instinctive trust in each other. They could argue from respect, and they didn’t assume bad faith. Is there any way in which religious institutions could try to play that role again? I came from a very argumentative extended family, and we always argued about politics, and we never doubted that we loved each other. You cannot do that very much in our politics now outside the family, and I think our religious institutions might struggle to be venues for that. And I’m not talking about bringing people together artificially. The hardest thing to reach is authentic disagreement but not disagreement among people who then leave and hate each other forever but disagreement among people who respect each other and know they have to live with each other the next morning. (David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, “Sinfulness, Hopefulness, and the Possibility of Politics,” On Being)

Is that kind of space for authentic disagreement based on love and respect possible anymore? Or will we choose to see God’s unlimited generosity of grace—a grace that loves and chooses people alongside each other rather than instead of each other—as just too problematic and too ambiguous to be true? I guess I just wonder if there will ever be a day when a story can open with “Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton walk into a bar” and we won’t feel scandalized or startled by that presupposition. When it won’t feel like something must have gone terribly astray, but rather that something is finally going right.

I suppose many of the answers to these questions, the possibility of doing what Dr. Dionne lifted up, depend on how we let parables like this one work on us. Will we, ourselves, choose to soften our own armor around those with whom we have vehemently disagreed or, frankly, just plain judged as terribly wrong? Will we, as people of faith, choose to not pray prayers that dismiss our biggest foes with scorn and determine their whole lives are just worthless, even though that is honestly not our place to decide?

My hope is that we will start to behave with each other in ways that are unexpected. Unexpected by others, unexpected in our world, because we find ourselves full of the promise of God’s unlimited generosity of grace, not just for us but for all. If we can move in that direction, in a direction that mirrors God’s “alongside of” kind of grace instead of our world’s preference for “rather than and instead of,” then I do believe we will receive God’s healing and be able to embody it. And a story about two previous enemies choosing to spend time together will become a nonstartling occurrence. To some, that might sound naïve, but to those of us who trust more in God’s mercy than we do in our own sin, it is called God’s reign. And frankly we never know how God might behave if we are open to it. Amen.