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Eleventh Sunday after Trinity--Sept. 3, 2000

Fr. William Sisterman

St. Dunstan's Anglican Church, Minneapolis, MN 

Readings:  I Corinthians 15:1-11 and Luke 18:9-14 

Jesus said, "For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled while he who humbles himself shall be exalted."  

My friends, a few minutes ago you heard a little jewel of a parable by Jesus. It wasn't very long and yet it is so pithy. It contains so much and it's also barbed. It can, if we allow it, really hit us where we live. That is Jesus’ intention. 

In order for us to understand this parable better, I'd like to do three things with you. First, I'd like to talk about the principal actors in this drama, the Pharisee and the Publican. Second, what about those prayers that they offered? Why did Jesus praise one and damn the other? Third, I want to bring this little parable back home to twenty-first century Christianity and to our own little temple as we gather here to pray. 

First of all, a little about the Pharisee and the Publican. The Pharisee! You hear the word, Pharisee. and immediately, you conjure all kinds of images, most of which are not very good. Pharisee is synonymous with hypocrite. These are the kind of people that obey the laws for show or they are the kind of people that put burdens on other people that they won't lift themselves. Pharisees don't get very good press. Some of the strongest language about them we find in St. Matthew's Gospel. Incidentally, Matthew was a Publican. He didn't think much of them at all. 

The Pharisees were people who, in many instances, were indeed superficial and hypocritical. But I think we have to understand a little more about the Pharisees. Why were they so involved with the Law? Because they saw the Law of Moses as the way to make their nation strong. By faithfully keeping that Law, Israel would be a strong nation once again. By keeping the Law of Moses, the Torah, they would draw closer to the God who loved Israel in the past. The Pharisees would try to keep the letter of that Law, even to the extent that they would have the Law written on a little scroll contained in a little box wrapped around their forehead so it would be before their eyes always. It was called a phylactery. 

They were strong people. Many were good people. We have to remember that it was a group of Pharisees that came up to Jesus to warn him that Herod was out to kill him. Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night, was a Pharisee. He heard the teaching of Jesus about being born again of water and the Holy Spirit. He also assisted in Jesus' burial. There was a Pharisee in the Acts of the Apostles that did something very wonderful. He was compelled to speak on behalf of all of the disciples. His name was Gamiliel. He rose before the governing body of Israel to defend the upstart Christians and their preaching. This is what Gamiliel said, "My advice is that you have nothing to do with these men. Let them alone. If their purpose or activity is human in its origin, it will destroy itself. If, on the other hand, it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them without fighting God Himself" (Acts 5:34ff). This from a Pharisee! 

And then there is Saint Paul. Before his conversion he was a Pharisee and very proud of it. "I was born a Pharisee, and my father before me was a Pharisee." They kept the Law in order to make Israel strong again. 

Now we turn to the other player in this little drama: the Publican. He was Jewish, yet he was in the employ of the Romans - the hated occupiers of the country. He collected taxes for them. This group of individuals was not popular to say the least. Anybody who gathers taxes seems not to be very popular. It was as true then as it is now. 

But we have to remember there were some other virtuous individuals who were Publicans. Zaccheus, for example, who said to Jesus, "Look, if I defraud anyone, I restore to them fourfold" (Luke 19:8). Matthew (Levi), was a Publican. But Publicans, because of their occupation as tax gatherers, were open to all manner of graft and fraud. They did a lot of skimming off the top for themselves and many became very wealthy. These individuals were involved in a very unsavory occupation. A group of Publicans came to John the Baptist and asked him, "What should we do to be saved?" One of the things St. John the Baptist told them was, "Don't exact any more from your people than is due you" (Luke 3:12). 

Now we come to the prayer of the Pharisee and the Publican. One turned Jesus on and one turned him off. With head unbowed, the Pharisee prayed in this fashion: "I give you thanks, O God, that I am not like the rest of men: grasping, crooked, adulterous, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I tithe on all I possess. I give thanks to you, God, that I am keeping the Law, that I have been keeping this Law all my life." 

Jesus does not tell us that this man was lying. He doesn't say, "That Pharisee was really defrauding people; he was adulterous and, besides, he only gave seven percent, not ten percent as his tithe to the temple. As for fasting, he indulged in Godiva chocolates at every opportunity." He doesn't tell us that. He just lets that prayer be. Yet the prayer repels Jesus. What was wrong with what the Pharisee was saying? The Pharisee was attributing all of his goodness to himself. That was his problem. He didn't give God any room to work in him. He is saying, "All this virtue, O God, I do on my own." 

Afar off, the Publican doesn't raise his eyes at all. He just beats his breast and says, "O God, be merciful to me a sinner." Jesus says that was the good prayer. Why? The Publican could say very candidly, "I am what I am. I am a sinner. God, be merciful to me." 

Bring this parable to our own day and I think you and I might be able to see that there are two real temptations that you and I face. The first temptation is to believe that I am responsible for my own salvation. That is false. No matter how good and virtuous we might be, no matter all the great and wonderful things that we do, none of it will bring about salvation. That is a free gift from God which we accept or reject. Sometimes we can think, "As long as I'm doing everything that I am supposed to do. I've got it made. It's a greased slide right into heaven. I've got no problem." That was the fault of the Pharisee and Jesus warns against that. It is only by the grace of God that we are saved. 

In the fourth chapter of Acts, St. Peter said this in one of his sermons: "There is no salvation in anyone else for there is no other name in the whole world given to men by which we are to be saved." No salvation apart from Jesus our Lord! None! That is what we have to acknowledge. The Publican did acknowledge this and went home justified. "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner." 

There is a rabbi I knew some years back at Temple of Aaron in St. Paul. He had a wonderful sense of humor. One day, he had a big button on his lapel. The button said, "Jesus saves. Moses invests." Well, I don't know about Moses, but he did have it right about Jesus. Right on the button, you might say. Jesus saves and there is no salvation apart from Jesus. This is the core of our faith. This is what we believe. 

There is another temptation, also noted in this parable, that you and I can fall prey to: the judgmental attitude. "O God, I'm glad I'm not like the rest of humanity, like this Publican over here". The first century Christians were judgmental about those “perfidious Jews” who didn't come to believe in Jesus Christ. They were judgmental and it was wrong. The Crusaders looked on those people they were about to slaughter as infidels. Judgmental! It goes on and on. Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland. It goes on and on and on. Black and white in America. It goes on and on. We can think of so many examples where this kind of judgmental activity continues. 

Maybe what we ought to do is take that prayer of the Pharisee and Christianize it a bit. Rather than pray, "O God, I thank thee that I am not like the rest of men." Maybe what we ought to pray is simply this, "O God, I thank thee that I am like the rest of men. It is cause for rejoicing that I am like the rest of men. Like everyone else, I have been created by you, O God, in your image and likeness I have been given a mind to know you and a will to choose and to love you like everyone else. Like everyone else, I stand in need of the merciful forgiveness and the power of Jesus Christ in His death and rising. O God, I thank you that I am like everyone else." That could be a proper prayer. 

You and I have the tendency to set ourselves apart. We want to think that we are not like everyone else. But if we believe that we are not like everyone else, then we deny our humanity, who we are and what we are. We deny our oneness with Christ our Lord who took up this humanity of ours and became one with us, one of us. With that humanity, He redeemed us. Ours can be a simple prayer today: "O God, I thank you that I am like everyone else." But let us always add to it the Publican's prayer, "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. 

Please note: These sermons are offered for your meditation.  If you wish to use them for some other purpose or republish them, please credit St. Dunstan’s Church and Fr. Sisterman.