Proper 25C – October 23, 2022
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham – Proper 25C – October 23, 2022
The Rev. Rachel Endicott
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Last week, our Gospel passage centered on the commandment to pray always. Lee Cunningham, our Methodist Ecumenical Minister, preached a nuanced sermon about praying always, without worry – even if you’re inexperienced at prayer, and to keep that as a regular part of our Christian practice. He explored this in light of the woman who comes before the unjust judge in the parable from Luke as she demanded justice. Today, we continue with the next portion of Luke which again refers to prayer, but looks at not how often one prays, but rather how one prays. Today’s parable has contrasting characters who each pray: the Pharisee and the tax collector.
In our 21st century world, the word Pharisee or it’s related word, pharisaic, is almost always used in a negative light, and usually meaning self-righteous or hypocritical. But in Jesus’ day, this wasn’t actually true. Rather, Pharisees were the ones who studied the Scriptures, the ones who were model citizens, prized education, and were observant of the laws of God. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were considered as traitors and collaborators with foreign governments, and even more seen as dishonest as they skimmed off their portion or more from the taxes collected.
And yet Luke notes that Jesus brings them into contrast with one another is not in their ethics or lifestyle, but rather in the focus of their prayers. Jesus doesn’t say anything negative about the accomplishments or practices of the Pharisee or about the accomplishments or practices of the tax collector. Jesus’ comments are expressly about the humility or lack of humility as these two characters come before God.
And, in fact, the things that the Pharisee does or, conversely, doesn’t do is not an issue. Not stealing or not having relationships with other people’s wives is what is asked for in the Torah, in the Ten Commandments. Fasting is a sign of contrition, and a robust prayer practice would be good. And giving ten percent of one’s income, meets the standard biblical tithe. So none of these things are bad; in fact, they are the basics of a life which Jews and actually we are called to follow. But Jesus points out the stumbling block; the unnamed Pharisee in the parable does so with a complete absence of humility as the Pharisee comes before God in prayer.
All this is in contrast with the tax collector, who is, indeed, humble, who comes focused on God, rather than himself. While he might bring before God his shortcomings, we don’t know what he has done or not done…and it actually doesn’t matter. What simply matters is that he – in all humility – comes before God with eyes downcast and self-flagellation asking for God’s mercy.
What might this call mean to us? First and primarily, we are commanded to do all that we do, and particularly engage in prayer, with humility. Did you notice that the beginning and end of the Gospel passage aren’t specifically about prayer. The introductory sentence simply talks about “some who trusted in themselves…and regarded others with contempt”. So, the example is about prayer, but the overarching cautionary words of Jesus applies to more than just prayer. We are to respond and live out our lives, giving thanks, living generously, and even in prayer carrying on with humility.
Secondly, we find in this Gospel passage an emphasis on God’s caring for ALL of God’s people – those seen as a pillar of the community and those not, widows and orphans as well as those who have power in the society. This parallels other places where the well-thought of folks are contrasted with the widows/orphans, Samaritans, “unmarried women”, and more. In last week’s Gospel parable, it is implied that God, by listening to the prayers of the widow, doesn’t actually show partiality, but actually is impartial to all who act in a certain way, in this example from last week, to those who prayer always.
Last, but not least. We can not throw away that which the Pharisee has used to aggrandize himself. And in fact, we are to hold fast to his examples of right living, mainly as he describes it through the Biblical practices of his day: fasting and giving. We always are to give thanks to God in gratitude; we respond back for the generosity shown to us. This Gospel passage reminds us of the biblical tithe from early in our Judeo-Christian tradition, a tenth of our income, 10% of what we receive. The Pharisee points this out in his prayers. And while the way he prays, his pride-filled, contempt-filled way is condemned by Jesus, we must note that Jesus does NOT condemn the Pharisees’ practice of giving. So giving is an expected part of our grateful, faithful witness, along with prayer and right behavior.
As we come to this weekend, with rain to clear out the smoke, we remember God’s promise – which we read in the passages from Joel and the Psalm – a promise of rain to water the earth. We give thanks for that and all else that has been given to us. We respond from a place of gratitude, of thanksgiving, for all that we have been given. And we’re not to give a measly amount, carefully meted out. Although this text doesn’t go there, other Biblical passages that Jesus and others put into play note that we are to give sacrificially. We are to give as generously as we can manage.
Thomas Merton is quoted as saying that “Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.”1 Jesus takes this a little further and basically does his usual turning things upside down and says that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I think today’s passage with its emphasis on humility is part of the reason why it is sometimes hard for people to share personally or in front of a congregation about their generous giving. Kudos to Janna Van Haitsma who last weekend was willing to stand in front of our church family and honestly share why she pledges. For many people, they feel as if they say that they give or even further give generously, they will be seen as prideful and not humble. But I would suggest that there are ways to give generously AND be humble. As I mentioned earlier, it was clear in Jesus’ day that ten percent as a tithe was the minimum, so even if individuals met this, they would have nothing about which to boast. I have been blessed by knowing those who have given more than the tithe, by those who consider a tithe as the basic requirement and it is only that which is above that which is really the part that reflects their thanksgiving.
And yet, for those who have worked hard to reach a tithe – or even more – (maybe that’s you, and – if so – thank you!) these folks should have no more pride than a young person starting out who conscientiously makes their own coffee instead of going to a coffee stand and then gives the difference to support the ministries of the church or the single mom who struggles to work, support her children – and maybe her parents – and yet gives not only of her income, but of her time, taking vacation time to volunteer at her church’s Vacation Bible School which pulls in kids from the neighborhood. So it’s not only about income, but its about what we give of ourselves.
And, in fact, one of the most inspirational preachers I’ve ever heard talk about giving talked about his and his wife’s own generous giving in the most humble way. He talked about their ongoing conversation as a couple about how much to give. He talked about the first year when they made a significant financial commitment to the church and – if they didn’t actually give 10% -- they significantly increased their giving. With humility and honesty, he noted that he was the one dragging his feet in their back-and-forth conversation. He talked with transparency about being stunned at his wife’s suggestion to increase their giving level and at his own lack of thanksgiving for all the wonderful things they had with their family and jobs and opportunities for education and a well-lived life. But – as he shared with those of us who heard him speak – luckily his wife was persistent and had her way. (Haven’t we heard that story before?!) And he claims, as the slower spouse to come to realization for all they had, he eventually fell in line with his wife.
So today’s passage is not only a reminder of what we are to do, but also a reminder to drop the contempt. We rarely can truly step into another’s shoes, know why they do what they do, or accurately gauge their thought processes or feelings behind their actions. BUT we can focus on our own selves, on our humility, on our prayer life, and on being generous givers. We can do what is expected – or more – without being boastful or prideful. We can be thankful for all we have – so thankful for all we have that the only response to this sense of blessings brimming over is to, in all humility, respond with enthusiastic thanksgiving and giving.
1 Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Dessert, Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1994 and reprinted 2004, page unknown.