28. August 2022
He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others… The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’
In Name of the + Jesus. Amen.
Comparing yourself to others is in your nature. You did this instinctually from birth. Is this mom? No, then scream! Later, it’s anatomy. Boys have this and girls have that. Then its other defining characteristics, like skin color, weight, height. And then, you learn more ways to separate, distinguish, and categorize. Some are immutable, unchangeable. Others are given by station in life. Others are voluntary and chosen. Slowly you constructed an identity of your own, largely in definition as by what you’re not. You understand yourself according this profile of immutable, involuntary, and voluntary characteristics.
What began as observation for necessity, “I’m hungry!” evolved into knowledge of the order of creation established by God and clearly visible to the senses. But You sinful flesh also takes hold of your senses and uses your observations to isolate, separate, exclude, demean, and oppress the other. Chose any race of people and you’ll find racism. Chose any biological gender and you’ll find sexism. Chose any social class and you’ll find bigotry. Chose any nation and you’ll find elitism. Chose any voluntary lifestyle and you’ll find judgment of the other.
You sin-corrupt instinct is to look down upon those on a lower rung of the social-economic ladder. “Thank God I’m not like them.” You call this contentment, being satisfied with who you are. But it is also pride, boasting in who you’re not. Thank God we don’t live there, work that job, have to live that way, or are around those people. So, you were taught to not be so judgmental along with all the -isms of cultural ill.
Rather, you were taught to look up the socio-economic ladder and aspire upwards. Work hard for the promotion. Invest wisely for asset growth. Live disciplined lives for the beach body. Overcome your race or class. Step out and make the next big thing and get the next big break. We programmed our society to reward merit with bonuses, annual pay raises, intentional inflation, and incentives for growth.
But how do you know when you’ve “arrived?” Can you ever really get there? What is your standard of success? For most, they have some ephemeral vision of health, wealth, and reputation. They can’t tell you what it is but they can tell you when they’ve gotten there. Or so they think. But those who get knocked down, losing job, wealth, health, and social standing, have something to tell you. The unending self-improvement hamster wheel may bring a modicum of short-term success, but ultimately only brings despair and its twin, pride. All is vanity and chasing after the wind, laments Jeremiah.
And worse, your vain pursuits become so all consuming that you neglect the one thing needful, faith in your crucified and risen savior Jesus. You work, strive, and wrestle with life and the social, economic, and political problems all around. You want to improve your life and your world. You dedicate yourself to your children’s well being. You commit yourself to make your marriage perfect. You volunteer your time for the food bank. You join the activist cause. You want to be better and make everything around all right. But are you attentive to Jesus and His Word? Do you believe Jesus is the only one who can actually make a difference in your life—family, church, and world?
Maybe you do! So you commit yourself to being more religious. You do all the things the Bible tells you to do. You pray twice a day and at meal times, too. You read the whole Scriptures twice a year. You give 10% off the top of every paycheck, even before Uncle Sam takes his cut. You support the Mission of the Month, give to local charity, adopting a child, and help the poor. But are you doing so out of faith? Or do you think to get God’s attention, earn His love and respect, and store up merit to advocate for you on the last day?
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector are both trying to make the most of their life. They’re both aiming for success but in different ways. The tax collector works hard to get more, improve himself and family, and earn the favor of those above him. You can judge him for selling out to the Romans and using unethical practices to enrich himself, sure. But that’s just the way the world works, you and he rationalize. Some people get all the breaks.
The Pharisee is more pious and respected in the religious community. But he, too, is just trying to get ahead. He’ll earn a favorable status in the community. He’ll be respected and acknowledged in the marketplace. He may even be given special privileges within the church and for the church. That’s just the way the church works, you and he rationalize. Some people are more important than others.
But it is only the tax collector in the story who understands his real position. The tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ He recognizes that all the categories, classes, and divisions we see in the world in the final estimation don’t mean a thing before God. The stories you tell about yourself—whether ethnicity, nationality, class, gender, or economic success—don’t mean anything when you’re brought before the judgment seat of God on the last day. On that day, the only thing that matters is whether the Father sees in you the reflection of His Son Jesus.
Your identity before God is clear and simple. You are a child of God through Holy Baptism. You have been clothed with Christ, washed in His saving blood, branded as one redeemed by Christ the crucified. You might be worker or employer, long-time American or immigrant, male or female (or some other imaginary gender). According to your baptism, you are all one in Christ Jesus.
And with Baptism comes the gift of the Holy Spirit. It now not you who lives but Christ who lives in you. Jesus is working daily in you to crucify the old Adam with its sins and desires, and to raise up in you a new you who lives before God in righteousness and holiness. He tears down the dividing wall between you and God and the walls you’ve constructed to keep the other away. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Thus, Jesus brings you into His church to hear the same accusing Law, the same joyful Gospel, the same forgiving Absolution, and to eat and drink of the same life-giving and faith-restoring body and blood. You can’t help but see social-economic distinctions in this world. Not everyone is the same but God has given ordered the world with a wonderful diversity, each given differently and for the benefit of the neighbor. Yes, we turn that created order against the neighbor and become self-interested to the exclusion of those in need. But now, here, in this, Christ’s Church, you see those dividing walls torn down. All are given to confess together, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And all are given to hear, “In the name of Christ, you are forgiven! Go in peace!” Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin