Creekside Church
Sermon of October 27, 2019

"After You "
Luke 18:9-14

Rosanna McFadden


Good morning! There was a holy man who lived in seclusion on a mountaintop above a small town. Once every five years, the village would elect a citizen who could go and visit the holy man and receive a blessing and words of instruction to share. That townsperson could bring one guest with him or her to climb the mountain to visit the holy man, in hopes that the guest would also receive a blessing. When the five-year date arrived, the town elected its mayor: and long-time resident and upstanding citizen who was known for his giving to city projects. The mayor surprised everyone -- especially his wife -- when he did not choose his wife to accompany him. Instead, the major chose the town drunk, a man who had a bad reputation and little respect from the rest of the town. The mayor thought this hike and a meeting with holy man would do this citizen some good -- maybe encourage him to change his ways and straighten up.

The morning they set off the drunk was quiet and subdued. They didn’t speak for most of the way up the mountain. When they arrived at the hut at the top, the holy man was waiting for them outside. The mayor greeted the holy man and said, “Good day, sir. I am the mayor of the town below, and I have been chosen by my fellow citizens to represent them because I am a man of impeccable character who commands the respect of everyone that knows me; they all recognize my ability, authority and generosity. I brought this man” -- he gestured to his companion -- “along with me because he is a disreputable, no-good loser, and I hope that talking to you might convince him to change his ways.” At which point the drunk broke his silence and proceeded to tell a raunchy joke. The mayor was horrified. The holy man sat in silence for a moment or two then motioned the man forward. The mayor started to go closer, apologizing for the other guys behavior, but the holy man stopped him and beckoned to the drunk. When he approached the holy man, the holy man leaned over and said, “Have you heard the one about . . .”

Most of us have heard this parable from Luke 18 enough that it fails to shock, or even surprise us. This would have been different for Jesus disciples when Jesus first told this story to them. We who have been exposed to parables like this one and other stories from the gospels are aware that Jesus had a pretty rough relationship with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were part of a Jewish separatist movement -- the name Pharisee means “to be separated from.” They came to be separated from a lot of things; contact with non-Jews, or Gentiles, being an important part of their platform. They would not eat with or touch food or serving dishes which had been handles by non-Jews. Pharisees were ferocious supporters of Jewish law, not only respecting it, but making sure that they went above and beyond what the law required. In this parable, the Pharisee tells anyone within earshot at the Temple that he fasts twice a week -- the law required only once a week -- and that he gave a tenth of all his income. Then, as now, there was some discussion about net income vs. gross income, and what all fell under those requirements. This Pharisee is making sure that people know he is following the strictest interpretation of the law.

The thing is, none of this is wrong, or even misguided. You will never hear me preach a sermon about the evils of supporting the church with ten percent of your income. There are folks who think I should preach about tithing more often. It is a biblical commandment and a spiritual discipline, as well as a way to affirm the value of the ministries of the church. On a personal level, a part of your tithes go to support my family. There’s no way I’m saying that’s a bad thing, nor is holding ourselves to higher standard s of ethics and behavior. Pharisees were respected members of society: not beloved perhaps, because nobody really loves that voice of conscience saying “I don’t think you ought to do that . . .” or “You ought to be doing more . . .” but most Jews held them in respect. The problem was, one of the things this particular Pharisee had separated himself from was ordinary people. More importantly, he had separated himself from any kind of awareness about himself and his own behavior.

Nobody liked tax collectors. No one loves to pay taxes, even in a country like ours where we get direct benefit from tax money, and get to vote to elect the leaders who decide where that money goes. Tax collectors are unpopular., even when they’re honest. In Israel, where tax collectors were Jews who were collecting money for a brutal occupying power which spent a lot of its money training soldiers to put down Jewish uprisings, very few tax collectors were honest. They could skim off some of the money for themselves and get rich taking advantage of their fellow Jews while working for the enemy. Tax collectors were hated and reviled. When the Pharisee is going through the list of people whom he is better than, he is working his way down an increasingly dire description of behavior: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or (gasp) even a tax collector -- like that piece of scum over there.

None of this would have been shocking to Jesus’ disciples, although it may have been uncomfortable for Matthew, who had been a tax collector himself until Jesus called him as a disciple. At the beginning of the next chapter, Luke 19, Jesus will have an encounter with another tax collector: a short man who is up in a tree. Tax collectors were emblematic of sinners; not just garden variety sinners like you and me, but really bad sinners -- the kind everybody looked at with disgust. It would have been clear to any Jewish audience -- any audience really -- which of these men would be justified by God: the guy who follows the law and then some, or the guy who gets rich at the expense of his neighbors? Until the tax collector does a surprising thing: he prays a private and heartfelt prayer, acknowledging that he is a sinner and asking God for mercy. And Jesus tells his disciples, “the tax collector went to his home justified, and not the Pharisee. For those who humble themselves will be exalted, and those who exalt themselves will be humbled.” Wait. What?

The Pharisee was doing everything he was supposed to and more, and the tax collector only has to confess and ask for mercy and it’s all OK? Is that fair? No it isn’t. This had to have shocked Jesus’ disciples. I think Jesus wanted to make a dramatic illustration that the kingdom of God is not about being judged on how good we are at doing everything right, because if that were the case, we’d all be in trouble. Because here’s a truth which Jesus knew and that most of us only find out the hard way: the more honest we are about ourselves and our own flaws, the harder it is to condemn other people. A recent poll showed that 6 out of ten people admit that they are imperfect, and the other 40% are liars. I just made that up; that isn’t a real statistic.

Here’s the thing: society was just as divided in Jesus’ day as it is in ours. The battle lines were drawn differently, about things which may not seem important to us, like whether the center of worship was Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim . Frankly, this is not a hot button issue for me, but it created hostility between Jews and Samaritans for generations. So I want to try an exercise with you this morning. I’m going to show you series of slides depicting groups of people on various sides of contemporary issues. Of course, you can’t tell what people believe or what political party they identify with simply by looking at them (you can make some disastrous assumptions, though) But you can get a pretty good idea from these photos, because folks are holding signs with slogans. I think the issues involved will be familiar -- you probably already have your own opinions about these issues. I doubt that any of you will agree with all these groups of people or disagree with every group of people. But I want you to take a moment with each photo to see what your gut reaction is, and to take a moment to figure out where that comes from, if you’re able.

[Slides 1-4]
I’m not trying to suggest that these aren’t important issues: they are, and people of good faith may view them differently. But what I believe this parable is saying is that before we make judgements about other people, and especially before we decide that God is on our side, there is something we need to remember: no matter what other people believe or say or do, we are sinners and need God’s mercy. Other people being wrong does not justify us: it doesn’t make our opinion the correct one, and it doesn’t justify treating other people with disdain. The only thing that justifies us is acknowledging who we are and confessing that we need God’s mercy. When we acknowledge that truth about ourselves, it changes our attitude toward other people.

A funny thing happened on the way to the end of this sermon; I knew where I wanted to end up, but I got there by a different route than I anticipated. The sermon title, After You, was intended to highlight the difference between saying “I am coming after you,” and “Go ahead, I’ll come after you.” Which attitude are we taking into our interactions with people? Especially people those who we may see and make assumptions about, but don’t really know their heart. Sometimes there’s just too much stuff to pack it all into one message. That why I get to preach almost every week. May the attitude of Christ be with us as we leave this place and go or serve in the world. Amen.


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