28 November 2010

Proper 30 C 2010

Sermon 24 October 2010

Luke 18: 9-14

By Sharyn Hall

Sometimes a simple image or phrase is so significant that it stays in our minds and we mention it often. In a previous sermon, I have referred to a billboard that I saw several years ago. The picture on the billboard was a beautiful, luxury car. I don’t remember the name of the car company, which may indicate that its advertising purpose was not very effective, but I do remember the single sentence underneath the picture. It read: ‘THE MEEK WILL NOT INHERIT THE EARTH’.

First of all, this advertisement assumes that the general public is familiar with Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, and in today’s society, that is a big assumption. Jesus says in his famous sermon that the meek will inherit the earth. The billboard contradicts the words of Jesus and tells us that Jesus was wrong. In other words, if you want to inherit the earth, be wealthy and successful, don’t be meek, be ambitious, competitive and proud of what you have gained. This billboard sums up the attitude of our society by preaching against the teaching of Jesus. In general, people view meekness as weakness and a lack of character to ‘get ahead’, whatever ‘get ahead’ means. I want to ask, ‘Get ahead of whom?’

We are no different from our ancestors in the time of Jesus. In the Greek and Roman world, meekness was equated with humility, and humility was regarded as a character flaw, associated with the lowly, poor and servant classes. However, in the Hebrew scriptures, humility and meekness are praised as the proper approach to God. In psalm 51, God desires a humble spirit and a contrite heart. The prophet Micah urges the people to walk humbly with God.

In the New Testament, humility is associated with Christ, and therefore, is regarded as a virtue by his disciples and followers of his ministry. This was contrary to the cultural values of the time. The most striking example of the humility of Jesus is his act of washing the feet of the disciples. The disciples were astonished because foot-washing was a task for the lowest servant of the household. By this act, Jesus demonstrated the attitude he wanted his disciples to adopt. The humility of servant-hood was to be the standard of their relationship with God and with their neighbours.

When I read today’s gospel, immediately I was reminded of the billboard with the luxury car because of the contrast between the teaching of Jesus and the common attitude of people. In our gospel parable, each man describes himself in relation to God and as a person in society.

The Pharisee is an educated, religious pillar of society. He approaches God with pride in his righteous behaviour. He believes he has earned God’s favour, perhaps even is entitled to God’s praise for his strict adherence to the laws. To emphasize his superiority, he compares himself to the tax-collector, who is undoubtedly inferior in every way. The Pharisee is locked in himself. He leaves no room for the possibility that God might have a different opinion, or that God’s grace may have enabled him to overcome any flaws in his character.

The tax-collector, who is condemned by most people for being an agent of the oppressive government, approaches God with humility and repentance. He is fully aware of his sins and failures. He prays for God’s mercy and forgiveness. Jesus says that the tax-collector is ‘justified’, that through God’s grace, his sins are forgiven. The tax-collector is praised by Jesus because he has approached God with a humble soul open to God’s judgment. These two men give us two contrasting views of God. The Pharisee views God as a law-maker, a rigid judge who demands perfect obedience. The tax-collector sees God as merciful and forgiving.

The message of this parable is stated clearly in the introduction. “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Jesus is telling his audience to beware of believing themselves righteous and others contemptuous in the eyes of God, because God’s opinion may be very different. This would be shocking news to those listening to this parable. Why would God accept the prayer of a sinful tax-collector and not accept the prayer of a righteous Pharisee? The answer is sincere humility. The tax-collector approaches God with humility and a prayer for mercy. The Pharisee is so sure of his superiority that his arrogance blinds him to his own sins and need for repentance.

Perhaps most disconcerting for the people hearing this parable was that it is a story about secret thoughts. The two men in the parable are talking only to God. They are not announcing their opinions to others. They are praying silently and privately. They are revealing what is in their hearts. Outwardly, in society, the Pharisee may appear to be a man of God, but God knows his true nature. The tax-collector is condemned by people as unworthy of God’s mercy, but God knows his heart.

With this parable, Jesus is challenging those around him, and any of us who would listen, to open our hearts to God, to pray with sincerity, and to walk humbly with God day by day. In that way, we can truly aspire to being God’s people. Amen.

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