Grace and Religion

28 10 2007

Text: Luke 18:9-14

Earlier this year, my landlord changed the doors and the locks on my apartment building. When my roommate and I got our new keys, we found that while the keys, of course, worked, sometimes they were difficult. What we have learned to do when the locking mechanism sticks is to take out the key, reinsert it into the lock and turn it without really trying or thinking about it, and wonder of wonders, we’re inside. It’s as if the door more or less lets us into the building instead of us trying our darnedest to get in on our own. This is something similar to how Grace works.

This week’s passage in the Gospel of Luke is a familiar one. Two men, a pharisee and a publican (sometimes translated as tax collector) go to the temple to pray. The pharisee boasts of how wonderful a man of God he is, and the publican humbles himself before God and asks for mercy. Jesus tells us that, in the end, it is the publican, the riff-raff, the unclean which goes away from the temple justified by God. This is an easy lesson in the need for humility, but there’s more to it than that. Like many things Jesus says, there is another level, a deeper point than what might be on the surface. At the risk of shooting myself in the foot, I will dare to say that one of the things Jesus is talking about is the futility of religion.

Consider, if you will the Pharisee. He is a teacher of the Law, and follows it to the utmost letter. He is most likely well off and comfortable in means. He does all the right things, he is very ethical, he is well-respected, and he even has a fierce religious discipline which includes tithing and regular fasting. He even goes out of his way to thank God for everything that he has and has done. In many ways, he is a perfect candidate for the vestry of most congregations and every parish in this nation would be proud to have his pledge card.

Now consider the Publican. He is a tax collector, so he is probably just as well off as the Pharisee. After all, he sells out his own people and skims an extra “commission” for himself off the top of the tally. He works for the occupying powers of Rome. Out of these two, which do you think would be welcomed with open arms or invited to tea with the bishop, or if we were in England, the Queen?

Now consider, if you will, God, the other character in the parable. He doesn’t say anything, but he is an active participant for he justifies one of the characters. Picture God on his throne in heaven, speaking Creation into existence and listening for what Creation’s answer is. He desperately wants the high-class call girls in Los Angeles to believe that they are more than pieces of flesh for someone else’s pleasure. He desperately want the bums on the streets of New York to know they matter to him … and then in walks these two guys, the Pharisee and the Publican. Based on what God has been up to, who do you think he would be more inclined to listen to? Who do you think is justified and made righteous in the sight of God?

The answer Jesus gives is the publican (since Jesus is God incarnate, we can assume he knows what he’s talking about). It is the one we instinctively turn our nose up to. It is the one who does nothing more than admit that he needs mercy and clings to God.

The problem with the Pharisee is that he does nothing more than give a self-righteous eulogy. He is not thanking God for what God has done in his life but for what the Pharisee has been able to accomplish (notice all the I did this, and I did that in the text). It is a list of self-affirmations and achievements. In short, God should be considered fortunate to have such a religious, upstanding man around the temple! What a great example! The Pharisee thought he had a lot to show for his accomplishments and that he had a lot to brag about. The Publican, on the other hand, knew he had nothing at all. He had nothing to brag about before God or his fellows. All he could do was fall on God’s mercy and grace, and that is why he went away in right standing with God.

The scandal of this parable is that while we honor the publican for his humility and chide the Pharisee for his pride, the fact of the matter is we are closer to the Pharisee than we want to let on. In fact, on many levels we wish were this upstanding citizen of the state and a member of the temple! We all want to do all the right things, even the religious ones so that we can gain recognition from God and from our fellows. But, by doing so we miss the point. By being in church every Sunday, by saying the Daily Office every day, by doing all the right things in the hope to gain God’s favor, we miss the entire point and the answer we get for all of our striving for approval is the words of the prophet Isaiah “our righteousness is like a filthy cloth (Isa. 64.4)” Our faith is about a lot of things, but let me be perfectly clear .. our faith is not about doing the right thing, living a good life and it is certainly not about getting into heaven.

Our faith is about spending eternity with the One who made us, who raises us from the dead, and who calls us his own. There is nothing we can do to earn our justification from God. It is given to us freely. Scripture and Tradition are perfectly clear … we are all on an equal, inclusive playing field because we are all spiritually dead, every man woman and child. Because of the work of Christ, his own death, resurrection and ascension, I believe that eventually, we will all live with him in the Resurrection and in the presence of God … every man, woman and child. The only difference between the two men in our parable is that it was the riff-raff, the unorthodox publican who recognized it … and all of a sudden, eternity doesn’t seem like such a bad place at all, especially with this God of Resurrection and Grace who reaches out of eternity and scoops us up into his arms.

In clinging to all his good works and his religious observance as a means for his justification, the Pharisee only winds up balking at the grace given by God … just like we do every day. And so we continue to balk until we just give up and realize we really have nothing to brag about at all. We step out of the world of fiction we create for ourselves and into the reality that is eternity. So you see, eternity isn’t a bad place to be at all … in fact, it’s the mother of all parties! We don’t even have to try and get there.

Eternity, you see, comes to us.




3 responses

29 10 2007
Steven Craig Miller

You write: The answer Jesus gives is the publican (since Jesus is God incarnate, we can assume he knows what he’s talking about).

Can we really? It seems to me that Jesus as storyteller has created a conundrum for us to ponder. But as we ponder it, why should we assume that he knows what he is talking about? This story seems to me to be similar to the parable of the (so-called) prodigal son. In both stories the seemingly good person is bad, and the seemingly bad person is forgiven. They are wonderful stories, but should we necessarily trust the story teller? I have my reservations, I doubt we should trust a storyteller who is so sneaky.

29 10 2007
Reverend boy

Hi Steve,

Thanks for stopping by!

Many of Jesus’ parables have a theme of what is sometimes called the “Great Reversal” the humble shall be exalted and the mighty shall be humbled, etc … that is the case both here and in the case of the Prodigal Son. It also shows how God’s grace is greater than anything we might do to try and “earn” justification. Earning justification is impossible anyway, because it’s given to us freely.


30 10 2007
Grandmère Mimi

I will dare to say that one of the things Jesus is talking about is the futility of religion.

And you want to be a priest? Do you realize where talk like that will get you, Rev Boy? Nevertheless, my friend, I agree with you. We don’t need more religious folks; we need more followers of Jesus Christ and the Way he laid out for us in the Gospels.

Religion can be quite dry, empty, and sterile. Jesus came to give us the fullness of life. He tells us that his love for us is without bounds. And yet, and yet…paradoxically, having given us the fullness of life, Jesus, calls us to think of ourselves as lower than the least among us. He calls us to practice humility. He calls us to be the servants of all.

Well, I did not mean to preach a sermon, but there it is.

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