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Austin, TX 78705

Shock Treatment

San Williams

October 24, 2010
Luke 18:9-14

10-24-2010 Sermon

This morning each of us has come to the church to pray. A few of you even came into the sanctuary before worship began to have a few moments to prayerfully prepare. Following the Prayer of Confession, we have a time for silent meditation when we each have an opportunity to bring before God the prayers that are on our hearts, perhaps even the sins that are weighing on our conscience. Typically, we Presbyterians keep our prayers to ourselves. We wouldn’t think it very seemly to beat our breasts and blurt out our sins in public. Chances are, we’re actually relieved that we don’t hear each other’s prayers. But what if we could? Well, Luke lets us do just that. In the parable that we heard today, we’re allowed to eavesdrop on two worshippers as they offer their prayer in the Temple. One of the worshippers is a religious person in good standing, while the other is a reprobate who has no standing whatsoever. Let’s listen in as each worshiper prays to God.

Listen first to the prayer of the Pharisee. God, I thank you that I am not like other people: Thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income. Amen.î It’s hard for us not to dismiss this prayer outright for its arrogant tone. We’re predisposed to stereotype Pharisees as self-righteous hypocrites. But there’s no reason to believe that this man’s prayer is insincere. No reason to doubt his disciplined adherence to the moral and ethical code of his faith. He obviously takes God seriously. Someone has said that you know religion is important to a person when it affects two areas of that one’s life—his stomach and his pocket book. This is exactly what the discipline of fasting and tithing represent. We heard the prayer of a person who fasts twice a week and tithes his income. He is honest, fair, faithful—upright in all his dealings. In short, he’s an upstanding citizen and model churchman.

And let’s be honest: What congregation today wouldn’t be thrilled to have the kind of member we see represented by the Pharisee in today’s parable? Imagine a congregation filled with such characters. The pews would be packed and the budget oversubscribed.

I attended a conference last week that included a panel discussion on theology and the arts. The panelists spoke about exciting new architecture for creative worship and suggested ways churches can renovate their space. Several pastors in the audience responded defensively, lamenting that their church didn’t have the funds to maintain their present buildings, much less renovate or build new ones. One of the panelists—Jim Forbes, who is former pastor of Riverside Church in NYC—noted that statistically church members today give on average around two per cent of our income to the church. He dared suggest that if we took seriously the biblical tithe, or even edged our giving up a few percentage points, the financial woes of the church would be over. I don’t know a congregation that wouldn’t be thrilled to have a member as dedicated and generous as the Pharisee in today’s parable.

But now let’s turn our attention to the back of the sanctuary, in order to hear yet another prayer. In the far corner stands a tax collector, staring at the floor, beating his breast and wailing, ìGod be merciful to me, a sinner.î Now today, we tend to romanticize the tax collector by thinking of him as a loveable Joe-the-bartender type. But Jesus’ first hearers of this parable would view the tax collector as a despicable person—a traitor who not only worked for the foreign occupiers, but who was willing to take advantage of his own people. The tax collector in question apparently knows he’s ignored God’s commandment and taken advantage of his neighbors. The best he can manage in the way of a prayer is to pound his chest while muttering some inarticulate plea for mercy. Such is the prayer of this sinner.

Now here comes the surprise. God tunes out the prayer of the righteous man while accepting the prayer of the reprobate. According to Jesus, this immoral sinner went home having received God’ favor, while our churchman-of-the-year—well, he just went home. In spite of the Pharisee’s faithful service, his regular worship attendance, his generous giving, his voluntary fasting, his wholesome lifestyle—in spite of all these good things, this virtuous man didn’t find favor with God. And look who did! A malicious tax collector. Surely every person who heard Jesus utter this parable was shocked, as we should be. It would be like saying Mother Teresa and Bernie Madoff went to church to pray, and it was Bernie Madoff—the swindler, the cheat, the liar—who found favor with God. Like other parables of Jesus, this one is intended to shock us.

But why? Surely this parable is not an attack on Judaism, nor a dismissal of the Torah. Neither is Jesus condoning the behavior of the tax collector. Rather in this parable, as well as others, Jesus uses the element of surprise and reversal to shock his hearers into a new way of seeing.

I received just such a shock at a recent meeting of university area churches. One of the challenges of this university neighborhood is the presence of street youth. These are homeless young people between the ages of 16 and 24. As you know, they are not well-dressed, well-mannered, well-heeled young people. Many of them come from abusive backgrounds and have aged out of foster care . Some face addiction and other psychological challenges. The presence of these youths presents various problems for neighborhood businesses, university students and area churches. In recent weeks, there have been several meetings of the university churches addressing ways to confront these problems. During one of these meeting, a person at the table said, ìThe first thing we need is to change the way we see these youth. They are not a problem. They are a blessing.î I was shocked. His comment shocked me into seeing these young people in a new way. Not as a problem but a blessing. Not as a blight on our neighborhood but as Christ in disguise. Not as gutter rats, as they are sometimes called, but as children of God—people no less loved by God than are any of us.

In truth, most of us—all of us—tend see others through the eyes of the Pharisee. We bolster our sense of identity by disparaging others. Like the Pharisee, we stand apart from the neighbors we find objectionable, thinking: Thank God I’m not like those unkempt street kids. Thank God I’m not like those Moslems. Thank God I’m not like those stupid. . . .you fill in the blank. This is the kind of prejudicial seeing that Jesus came to change.

Friends, may we all be shocked into new ways of seeing. Every person, regardless of station, status or past history is a person of worth, a beloved child of God. If we can truly see that, and treat others accordingly, then surely—like the tax collector—we’ll all go home today having found favor with God.