Drawing the Line

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23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 23, 2016; Year C

Jeremiah 14.7-10, 19-22; Psalm 84.1-7; 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18; Luke 18.9-14

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson


Grace and peace to you from the One who is merciful, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

One of my seminary professors once warned my classmates and I: “If you draw a line between yourself and someone else, Jesus is always on the other side of the line.” He also said to us quoting from Matthew: “Beware, for the judgment you cast upon another is the judgment you cast upon yourself.”

The Pharisee in the story Jesus tells draws a line between himself and the tax collector. He believes God is on his side and he looks upon the tax collector with judgment, judgment that is not his to give.

Before we regard the Pharisee with contempt, and draw a line putting him on the other side, we must look harder into the parable and also take a look at our own selves.

In the parable we have two Jewish men who go into the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee and one a tax collector.

The Pharisee is a spiritual leader in his community, and considered to be a religious man. He finds life in obeying the commandments of God (which isn’t actually a bad thing), and Jesus makes it clear that he’s pretty good at going above and beyond what’s required of him. By most standards he’s the type of person who you might want in the pew—he shows up every week, he gives 10% of everything he earns, and he engages in the disciplines of prayer and fasting.

Original hearers and readers of this parable would think that the Pharisee is the “good guy,” so to speak.

The tax collector in Jesus time, on the other hand, was seen as a corrupt, bad person. Tax collectors worked on behalf of the Romans, people who occupied and militarized the Jewish territory. Tax collectors exploited their own people and generally took money off the top for themselves, often charging their own neighbors more than what they owed. As a result, most tax collectors were quite wealthy, and also despised by their own people. It’s not hard to see why is it?

So the Pharisee glances out of the corner of his eye during his prayer and thanks God that he is not like the corrupt, money-hungry, betrayer of the people tax collector.

In 1711, writer Jonathan Swift said: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” (http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke18x9.htm)

I don’t think the Pharisee of our story was with the group of “religious” leaders who asked Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He answered them, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22.36-39).”

The Pharisee could fast all he wanted, give all his money away, and come to the temple to pray daily and he still would not be justified. He’s so wrapped up in his own self-righteousness to even notice the tax collector, his neighbor, eyes down and filled with shame, beating his chest, admitting his sinfulness, asking God to be merciful to him.

All the Pharisee sees is a sinner, not someone God commands him to love.

Jesus tells us that the tax collector, this betrayer of the people, this extortionist, is the one who goes home justified.

So what it is about the tax collector that he receives mercy?

Let’s turn our attention to our own selves for a moment. Imagine stepping into this sanctuary alone. You have this sacred space all to yourself with God. You move into the isle and walk up to the front right here. What is it that you do? What is it that you say?

If we truly stand in the presence of the One who has made all things, what really is there to say other than what the tax collector cried out: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Now, I want to be careful with this because so many people have been told or believe that they are a horrible, awful, person…a sinner. Yes, it is true that every single one of us in here has sinned and fallen short of who God has created us to be. No question about this. We have not loved God with our whole heart and our neighbor as ourselves.

And yet Scripture tells us that “while we were sinners, Christ died for us.” Not before we get it all right or turn our life around. No … Jesus already loves you and has died for you.

What Jesus tries to communicate to us again and again, is that even though our human condition can make us act selfishly, or make us think that we really have no need for God in our lives, God is always there, ready to be merciful. The heart of God is mercy.

The problem with the Pharisee is that he did not believe he was in need of God’s mercy. He thought that all of the great things he did should merit his own righteousness. He didn’t think he was a sinner and he judged another, playing the role reserved only for God.

We judge others all the time, don’t we? It’s like we aren’t even conscious of it. We make immediate judgments about people by what they wear, how old they are, the color of their skin, the ink tattooed on their body, their hairstyle, the language they speak, their bumper stickers, their political party, the music they listen to.

We are really good at drawing lines in the sand and separating ourselves from one another.

Our world gets in real trouble when a group of people believe they are right or righteous, sinless, or better or more civilized than another. Wars have happened, genocide, slavery … all because of judgment and justification for this, that, or the other. Thank God I’m not like … fill in the blank.

When the Pharisee did that to the tax collector, he made him “other.” He drew the line and Jesus shocks the listeners by declaring the scum of society, the tax collector, right with God.

Maybe we should be offended … or grateful. Grateful that if God can forgive someone like the tax collector, than God could be merciful to me too. The most deeply humbling thing is to simply let yourself be forgiven and loved. You are justified because Jesus says you are.

We begin many of our worship services with confession and forgiveness. This is for a reason. We did something a little unorthodox this morning by reading the Jeremiah text as our confession, but nonetheless, confession is meant to name the fact that we fail every week to love God as we should, and love our neighbor as ourselves.

Right at the beginning of worship we plead to a loving God: “…be merciful to me, a sinner.” And then you hear me or whoever else is leading worship tell you, “Yep, I didn’t get it right either, and yet, God is crazy about us anyway. You are forgiven and loved because that is who God is.”

The tax collector had no ground to stand on before God and he knew it. He was completely dependent upon God’s mercy. The Pharisee brought all his accomplishments and his seemingly lack of need for God, but the tax collector brought a confession and a plea for mercy.

Our story today should redefine what it means to be “religious.” The only lines we should be drawing are vertical and horizontal ones in the shape of a cross.

We are to see one another through the lens of the cross, someone for whom Christ gave up his life. This is also the way we are to see ourselves. Today you go home justified because Jesus says you are.