Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Grace’

The Lost and Found Files

February 10th, 2012 No comments

“The Lost and Found Files” (Luke 15:11-32)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
January 8, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Lost!
My mom periodically reminds me that when I was little, every day I used to get hurt, and every day I would lose something. I’d lose my shoes, my cap, my baseball, that all-important piece to complete the Lego set, a toy car. Katherine can tell you that some things don’t change much over time. I still misplace my keys, my billfold, my cell phone, my pencils and pens, my paper documents, wrenches and knives, and there was a tape measure that I had lost for nearly a year. And I’ll go and search high and low for my lost items, usually when I’m already late and need to go.

Our parable for this morning is about a father who has lost his son, and he’s out to find him again. But this poor father, he’s almost as bad off with losing things as I am. Did you notice there are two lost sons in this story, two prodigals, and the father’s out to find them both? Lost son number one, he’s the younger boy – he says “Dad, you’ve held on long enough already. Just give me my share of the inheritance, and I’m outta here.”

The father could say, “No way, son, you’ll wait until the proper time, then you’ll get your inheritance. You stay here with me.” But this isn’t any ordinary father. You know what he does, he lets him go, watches him sell off a portion of the family farm and walk out on the family, sees him walk out on his father’s love. You see, the thing with love is, you can’t force anyone to love you. Even Almighty God knows all too well, it just doesn’t work that way. This father, he knew he’d lost his son even before the boy ran off with his money. He could have forced the boy to stay. He had to let him go in order to find him.

Found!
Now we’ll leave what happens with the younger son until later and stay with the father for now. And this father, he was watching and waiting, waiting and watching and hoping through many seasons, until one day, he saw his son’s figure on the horizon. Most folks wouldn’t have been able to tell who it was, but this father, he knew his boys, and he knew it was his son. The father just throws all propriety to the wind, hikes up his long robes and dashes off to find his long-lost son, showering him with a mother’s tender compassion of hugs and kisses.

Can’t you just see this guy’s neighbors shaming him at the grain elevator the next Monday, about how “Any respectable Hebrew landowning father would have had nothing to do with that boy who had so dishonored him. He dishonored you. You don’t go running willy-nilly after him to give him hugs and kisses. You’re a upstanding Hebrew father (at least you were). You excommunicate him.” But not this father. He’s no ordinary father. So thrilled is he that he has found his son that he throws a party, a great, big party, with music and singing and dancing and table after table after table of fine food and great joy. “What’s lost has now been found, and it’s time to celebrate!”1 he says.

Lost again!
But no sooner has the party begun for the father who has found his son, no sooner has the whole household started to celebrate that this son who had been dead is alive again, that the father starts searching again. He looks around, and he can’t see his elder son anywhere at the party. It’s like when I find my billfold and I’m finally ready to leave and rush out to the car only to discover I’ve lost my keys! He’s lost another son! And the search begins again, for lost son number two, the elder son.

Now you’ll remember that this is no ordinary father. He wouldn’t have to search for his son, who had brought even more shame upon him by making a public spectacle of the dysfunctional family. But the father goes out to his elder son, just like he went out to his younger son to receive him back and reconcile him. He goes out to the older son and begins to plead with him to come on in and join the party, for his brother was lost but has now been found, and it’s time to celebrate!

Some things we just can’t celebrate
Seems like it’s inherent in the human race that we like to celebrate. I remember both of my nephews turning 1 year old, and we had a party. Is a one-year-old going to remember that? No, but we like to party! Or you know how when a couple gets married out-of-state, we’ll have a reception for them when they get back home? Or how about how we celebrated the 125th anniversary of the church coming to the U.S. back in 1999, and then celebrated our 200th anniversary of the congregation forming just this past year? We love to celebrate! You remember a couple of years back when we had a big ol’ hog roast with live music just because God is good?

But this was one party the older brother just couldn’t attend. It wasn’t just ‘cause his brother was there and he didn’t like his brother. And some people, they don’t like to celebrate because they think it’s premature. Go to a one-year-old’s birthday party? Ehhhh, I don’t know how the kid’s gonna turn out just yet. Go to a wedding reception? Ehhhh, better hold off to see if it’ll last. The older brother, he’s not one of those folks either, though.

You see, he knows that there are some parties you just can’t attend because there are certain things in life that you don’t celebrate. You don’t throw a party for someone who just got busted for dealing drugs. You know, I once had a neighbor who beat the rap for providing alcohol to minors because the officer didn’t show up. What did he do? He threw a party! You remember all the partying back when Osama bin Laden was killed? God said, “As I live, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezek. 33:11). There are some parties even God doesn’t attend.

You just don’t reward someone who has shamed your family, wasted the money in extravagant excess of lecherous living, but beats the rap by sounding all religious and coming running home to put some food in his hungry body! You don’t do that. What lesson is that going to teach the wayward lad? There are some parties you just can’t attend, aren’t there? The older brother knew that. And he wasn’t about to join the party for this deadbeat son of his father. What was this father thinking, anyway? What lesson was he trying to teach?

Party-shy Pharisees
Well, back up just a second. You know why Jesus told this parable? You know whom he told it to? Anyone? It was a group of Pharisees and scribes. Now there’s a part of the story that we don’t often catch. The Pharisees and scribes weren’t the villains we often make them out to be. They were devoted to worship, prayer, and the careful study of Scripture. They were generous to the poor and hungry and sought to live simply. They resisted being co-opted by the culture around them.

You can image that they understood, like the older brother, that there are some parties one cannot attend, but they especially misunderstood the sort of celebrations Jesus had, what with eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes and the like, and welcoming them. What lesson would that teach them, after all?

Parable Part 1: Lost and Found Sheep
So Jesus told them a parable (singular v. 3) in three parts. The first was about shepherd with a hundred sheep. And this shepherd lost one of those sheep, and without even thinking, he left the 99 to go and find the one. And he looked high and low, through the cold, dark night, until there, trapped in the ravine, he found that one lost sheep, and he hoisted it up on his shoulders and brought it back. And when he got home, he called up his friends and neighbors and said to them, “Look, this sheep, which once was lost, has now been found! Let’s go celebrate!”

Likewise, Jesus said, when there’s a sinner who repents, the heavenly host say to each other, “look what once was lost has now been found! Let’s go and celebrate!” For there is more rejoicing over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous who need no repentance.

Parable Part 2: Lost and Found Coin
And the second part of the parable was about a woman who had ten silver coins, each worth about a days’ wages, and one day she discovered that she had lost one, and turned on all the lights and swept out the house and searched high and low, until there, in the cushions of the couch she found that coin. And then she calls together her friends and neighbors, and says to them, “Look, this coin, which once was lost, has now been found! Let’s go and celebrate!” “Likewise, Jesus said, there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents!

Parable Part 3: Lost and Found Son(s)
And for the third part of the parable, Jesus told about this father with his two prodigal sons. About how the first prodigal, the younger one, dishonored his family by selling off his portion of the family farm ahead of time, and ran off to a distant country, where he lived extravagantly. Robes and fine dining and comfortable living, I imagine. And, if his older brother’s assumptions were correct, he not only lost his money in that foreign land; he also lost what was left of his morals. He ended up tending the pigs, eating with the pigs, living like a pig.

And you know what happened next? Did he come home? No, it says he came to himself. This young scoundrel thought up a plan to find his home and security again. He decided he’d borrow a few words from ol’ King Pharaoh and start sounding like he found religion all of a sudden and say, “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired hands” (Cf. Ex. 10:16).

Such was his scheme to find his way home again, but even he knew where it was going to leave him, and had a word for it: unworthy. How would you like to live like that the rest of your life, “unworthy.” But at least it was better than starving, and he set off to find his way home.

But as you may have figured out by now that these aren’t stories about finding home; they’re about being found. This son hadn’t lost home; he was lost, and his father found him and ran out to shower him with hugs and kisses, and he returned home and said to his friends and neighbors, “Look, this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost, but now is found. Let’s go and celebrate!”

Which brings us back, of course, to the second lost son, the elder son, standing outside the party, just unable to join it. And what does the father do? Again he searches. He leaves behind the party, and again he “goes out,” saying, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Everything.

Both villains in this story come out winners. Amazing grace is offered to both sons. No doubt the younger son has the lead role in this drama, but the play is all about the father, who gives his land, gives his robe, gives his livestock and riches and “gives and gives and gives and gives until he is reduced to nothing,”2 hardly anything more than a naked, laughable man, almost as ridiculous as a naked Jesus upon a Roman cross.3

Lost and Found Celebration
The younger son didn’t find his way home; he accepted being found. I suppose there’s something that comes easier about accepting to be found when you’re at the end of your rope. The older brother didn’t even know he was lost, but he was going to have to also accept his father’s scoundrel of a younger son as his brother in order to accept being found, in order to come on in and join the celebration. The thing is, accepting being found, accepting being called a son again, joining the celebration, means “having the same mind” (cf. Php. 2:5) and speaking the same words of peace and welcome and forgiveness and hope as the father, always extending loving arms of embrace, and reciprocating the father’s love (i.e. repentance, as in parts 1 and 2).

The parable ends there, with the elder brother – with us? – standing outside, deciding whether we also will accept being found and come in to join the party.

You see it turns out the father was teaching his younger a son a lesson after all. And it wasn’t “We’ll let it slide, or ah, it’s no big deal son,” because it was a big deal, and no doubt there’d be a conversation about that, but not now. No, it’s the same lesson the older son had yet to understand. It’s the lesson that changes everything, and it’s simply this: “Son, we love you. We forgive you. We’re glad your home, and we’re glad we’ve found you in peace.” Now there’s a reason to celebrate and in heaven!

Think of a father – no, think of God – who’s willing to give up everything, even give up the status or rights of being God, to paraphrase Paul (Php. 2:6-8) – there’s the laughable (e.g. Mt. 27:29) Lord Jesus Christ on the cross outside Jerusalem – in order to find us all. For what once was lost has now been found. Let’s go and celebrate.

Notes:
1. A modification of Eugene Lowry’s general approach to this parable.
2. David Buttrick, Speaking in Parables, 207.
3. Jesus was mocked, ridiculed, and shamed upon the cross.

Categories: Sermons Tags: , ,

Blessed Are. . .

August 26th, 2011 No comments

“Blessed are. . .” (Matthew 5:1-12)
By Pastor Katherine Goerzen
June 19, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

When Jesus ascended and took his place upon the mountain side, you knew something momentous and earth-changing was going to happen. In Matthew’s Gospel, mountains are the places of some of the most significant moments in Jesus’ life, the places of revelation. It is upon a high mountain peak that Jesus experienced the “third temptation,” where he was promised all of the kingdoms of the world if he would bow down to the devil, yet he passed the test. It is upon a mountain peak where Jesus is transfigured to shine like the sun, and where a voice from the clouds proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” It is upon a mountain where Jesus commissions his followers to go and make disciples of all nations and where he promises that he will be with us always. And here, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, it is upon a mountain where Jesus gives one of his longest discourses with teachings about the Kingdom of God. This testifies to what Jesus and his calling are all about. With this mountain top revelation, one hears echoes of Moses ascending to Mt Sinai and giving God’s people the Holy Law; for here, Jesus proclaims the fulfillment of the Law, the true intentions of the Law given on Sinai.

Anabaptists throughout the centuries have found deep meaning in the Sermon on the Mount, for we take Jesus and his life and teachings very seriously. We do not believe that these words preached from the mountain are only meant for some future age yet to come, but that they are also profoundly relevant for Jesus’ followers in the present. We believe that Jesus meant what he said and that he was talking to all of his followers. And the same is certainly true for the beautiful introduction to this “sermon”, this series of blessings, or beatitudes, upon those who the world itself does not consider to be so blessed: the meek, the poor in spirit, the mourning, the peacemakers, the persecuted.

This passage is certainly beautiful, but what did Jesus mean when he said it? Are these the entrance requirements to get into God’s kingdom? Will we be blessed only when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, or we are merciful, or pure in heart, or persecuted? Are these the ideals that we need to strive for? Would good things start happening if only more people would act according to these ideals? If these are the ideals we need to live by, then who could possibly fulfill them all besides Christ himself? If this is indeed how Christ meant the Beatitudes, I wonder if this focuses more on our own good works rather than on God’s abounding grace. If this is how Christ meant them, I wonder if they cause more feelings of guilt or futility since we cannot live up to these standards, rather than causing feelings of joy and blessedness.1

So what did Jesus mean? “Is Jesus saying, ‘Happy are those who mourn, because mourning makes them virtuous and they will get the reward that virtuous people deserve?’ Or is he saying, ‘Congratulations to those who mourn, because God is gracious and God is acting to deliver us from our sorrows?’”2

Now I certainly believe that Jesus does care about how we live, and that he was trying to teach his disciples and the crowds who had gathered what the lifestyle of one whose citizenship is in the Kingdom of God looks like. But I believe here, at the beginning of his “sermon,” he is focusing more on God’s deep and abounding grace. Jesus is emphasizing God’s saving action: what God has done, what God is presently doing, and what God will do in the future. Before we act, we are already experiencing God’s blessing. Just as before the Ten Commandments were given on Mt Sinai, God spoke through Moses to say, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”3 before the commandments were read; so also Jesus is reminding the people of God’s grace, that God is already working to deliver us, before he goes on to speak of what faithfulness to God’s kingdom looks like. God’s grace and mercy come first, even before we act in ways that “deserve” it.

If Jesus had meant that these blessings were only for those who most deserved it, he probably would have waited to give these blessings at the end of the sermon, saying, “If you have done all these things… then blessed are you.” But instead, he has chosen to use these blessings to introduce the teachings that are to follow, as if to say that God’s grace precedes all that we do. We respond to God’s grace by living in ways that are in keeping with the kingdom, not because we have to in order to be blessed, but we respond because we are already blessed.4

God is already acting to save creation, and that is indeed reason to be joyful. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Congratulations to you, because God will see to it that all that you hope for will happen, and that it is happening already through my life, ‘at least in mustard-seed size.’5” God’s grace goes before all that we do.

While Jesus is emphasizing God’s grace at the beginning of the “sermon,” these blessings still give us a glimpse of what it means to respond to God’s grace, what the lifestyle of the citizens of the Kingdom of God look like:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven6

Now the poor in spirit “are those who experience poverty in many forms.”7 It refers to those who are economically poor, “those who are pushed to the edges of society, … those whose lives have come apart”8, as well as the spiritually humble, those who acknowledge their complete dependence on God. For who realizes their dependence on God better than those who have very little? For many of those who own a great deal of possessions believe that they have come by these either through their own doing, or because they have deserved them. And for those of us who have more possessions than most of the world, this is a good reminder that we should hold them lightly, to remember humbly that we are completely dependent on God, and not upon our own doing or upon our possessions.

The poor in spirit are not blessed because they are virtuous, but because God especially wishes to rescue the poor. God’s deep compassion for the poor was shown through the way that Jesus cared for them, how he fed them, and healed them, and made them his disciples. Jesus is indeed bringing good news to the poor because God is already seeking to deliver the poor, the humble, the lowly. And because God is already doing this, we can participate in this deliverance.

The poor in spirit are those who acknowledge their complete dependence on God, who surrender themselves to God, and thus participate in God’s deliverance in caring for the poor and the humble. They do not focus on their own humility and virtue, but upon God’s grace and redemption, both now and in the future. Our humility should not call attention to us, but to God’s grace in our own lives and in the lives of others.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted

Mourning means the grief of those who have lost someone or something that they care about deeply, those for whom the power of death is very present and very real. And mourning also means the grief of those who see that the world is not as God has intended it to be. Those who mourn are those who see and feel the deep pain and the brokenness of the world, those who cry out, “God, do not let your creation hurt like this forever!” But God has promised that every tear will be wiped away, and that death and mourning will end, and that all who grieve will be comforted. Indeed, God has already begun to accomplish this through the deliverance brought through Jesus, and the promise given through his resurrection.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth

Often those described as “meek” are thought to be passive doormats, those who let others walk all over them. Yet nothing could be further from the way that the Bible uses this word. There are two people in particular who are described as “meek”: Moses9 and Jesus.10 “One of them defied the might of Egypt and the other couldn’t be cowed by a powerful Roman official. … Both … seemed absolutely fearless … and completely surrendered to the will of God.”11

To be meek is to be humble, or to completely surrender to God’s will. Or as the early Anabaptists liked to talk about this using the word “gelassenheit” which refers to one who is “yielded” to God, or one who places his or her life completely into God’s hands. Those who are meek patiently trust that God will act, and who “surrender their will to God so completely that God’s will becomes their will.”12

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled

This refers both to those who literally hunger and thirst, as well as to those who hunger and thirst for God’s delivering justice in the world so that hunger and thirst might be no more. God’s righteousness was shown to us first through acts of saving deliverance, and we respond by participating in God’s righteousness. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those who are generous with what they have, who speak out on behalf of God’s saving justice whenever possible, and who seek to do good to those around them.13

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy

We are called to be merciful, just as God is merciful.14 the merciful are those who show kindness and love to others, those who are more eager to forgive than to punish or take revenge, and those who show compassion rather than seek first for their own good. Our mercy grows out of the deep awareness that God’s own self is merciful. It is God who first showed us mercy, thus citizens of God’s kingdom are themselves merciful in response.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God

Jesus said, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles,”15 which suggests that a person’s whole being can be defiled, or that the heart can be corrupted. The way to purity is to surrender ourselves to the One who is pure. Those who are pure in heart are those whose faith is genuine, those whose outward deeds match their inner commitments, those who desire to do God’s will above all else.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God

During Jesus’ day, there were those who thought of themselves as the “sons of God” who sought to bring about God’s kingdom by violently overthrowing their oppressors or eliminating anyone who they saw as opposed to God’s will. But Jesus proclaims that it is those who actively seek peace who will be called God’s children. Citizens of God’s kingdom “abandon the effort to get our needs met through the destruction of enemies.”16 Those who are peacemakers are not just those who live in peace, but who actively seek that there will be peace in every corner of creation, those who imitate the God of peace 17by seeking reconciliation and by loving even our enemies and persecutors. “Being a peacemaker is part of being surrendered to God, for [it is] God who [ultimately] brings peace.”18

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

The world will not understand the ways of God’s kingdom, for the world preaches a different set of beatitudes. Instead of “Blessed are the meek,” the world proclaims, “Powerful are the self-assertive, for they will get their own way!” Instead of “Blessed are the merciful,” the world proclaims, “Advantaged are the ruthless, for nobody will get in their way!” Instead of “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” the world proclaims, “Safe are those who do not stir the waters, for their lives will remain convenient.”19 I was struck this past week during a class session in Bible School when, after telling a number of stories where people from the Bible followed the way of the cross rather than the way of the world, one of the second graders responded by saying, “These people are weird.” But he’s only expressing what we’re taught by the world; for we have two conflicting and completely different kingdoms vying for our attention and allegiance. But as all of the beatitudes testify to, we are called to ultimately surrender ourselves to God and to God’s kingdom and to God’s justice. And the world won’t always understand the way that we are living, and so there will be times when the world will lash out at us. And we will be in good company when that happens, with all of the other prophets who have gone before us, including THE Prophet himself, the One so committed to God’s kingdom that he died for it.

So blessed are you. And because you are blessed, you are empowered to be poor in spirit, to mourn when the world is not as God intended it to be, to be meek and surrender your will completely to God, to hunger and thirst for righteousness and God’s justice to be done, to be merciful, to be pure in heart and purpose, to be active peacemakers, and even to be persecuted for righteousness sake. It is ultimately God’s grace that all of these things point to, for God’s grace goes before us in all that we do. And because of this grace, we joyfully respond to God. We are blessed so that we can participate in the deliverance that God is bringing in Jesus Christ.20 “We love because God first loved us.”21

May God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.

Notes:
1. Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context.
2. Ibid., page 34.
3. Exodus 20:2, NRSV.
4. Fred Craddock, “Hearing God’s Blessing” from www.christiancentury.org
5. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, page 34.
6. Ideas for this section, and all the following sections on the Beatitudes come from Stassen and Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics, and Thomas Long’s commentary on Matthew (Westminster Bible Companion).
7. Long, Matthew, page 48.
8. Ibid.
9. Numbers 12:3 (the word translated “humble” in the NRSV is the same word for “meek”)
10. Matthew 11:29 (the word translated “humble” in the NRSV is the same Greek word used here)
11. Clarence Jordan quoted in Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, page 40.
12. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, page 40.
13. Long, Matthew.
14. Luke 6:36.
15. Matthew 15:11, NRSV.
16. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, page 45.
17. Romans 15:33, Philippians 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 13:20.
18. Ibid.
19. Written by Jessica Schrock-Ringenberg, and taken from Words for Worship 2, edited by Diane Zaerr Brenneman.
20. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics.
21. 1 John 4:19.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

March 15th, 2011 No comments

“The Pharisee and the Tax Collector” (Luke 18:19-14)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
February 28, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

I spent many a Saturday morning curled up on the couch with some cinnamon toast and chocolate milk watching “Garfield and Friends” and the “Bugs Bunny and Road Runner Show.” Now the Looney Tunes episodes with Bugs Bunny often had a similar plot line that goes something like this: Bugs is simply minding his own business, enjoying life, when some antagonist comes along and upsets Bugs’ peaceful little world by some evil act or another. And then comes the famous line: “Of course you realize, this means war.” And of course we realize that this innocent “widdle wabbit” would not do anything mean unless he was provoked, but provoked he has been, and so he feels the very human tendency to retaliate on the one who has treated him so unfairly. So the rest of the 7 minute episode often involves Bugs’ very creative ways of getting back at the one who was mean to him in the first place. It is a very satisfying plot line, especially for anyone who has ever been mistreated by another. We love to see good triumph over evil, and we especially like to see “evil” get what is coming. This is the type of justice we long for, where every person gets exactly what he or she deserves.

We read this hope that everyone will get what they deserve into this parable. We see the Pharisee as an arrogant and self-righteous man more confident in his own merit than God’s grace. And we see the tax collector as a humble and good-hearted man who is truly repentant for his past wrong-doings (just like Zaccheus, whose story is told in the next chapter of Luke). Each goes home with exactly what he deserved: the one who exalts himself is humbled and the one who humbles himself is exalted. From a reading of this parable, many have concluded that a repentant tax collector ranks higher in God’s sight than a self-righteous Pharisee, as they each get what they deserve. And indeed, “many of us have only a negative attitude towards Pharisees and warm feelings towards repentant tax collectors.”1

I wonder if this is how Jesus’ first listeners would have heard this parable, though. Unlike us, they have not been trained to think of all Pharisees as pompous villains and all tax collectors as generous and good-hearted people. This parable has completely lost its original expectation-shattering, surprising reversal with its familiarity.

Would the crowds who sat among the hillsides straining to hear Jesus speak have understood these two characters as we do today? For those listening to Jesus’ first telling of this parable, would their assumptions and conclusions match our own? What sort of connotations jumped to their minds when they heard “tax collector” and what did they think of when they heard the word “Pharisee?”

Well, with tax season drawing closer and all of the frustrated grumbling that this causes in our households, we are reminded that throughout history, no tax collector has really been looked upon in a favorable light. But perhaps Jesus’ fellow Jews would have looked upon them with even more ferocity and hatred. If anyone within the Jewish community would not go home justified, it would be a tax collector.2 They were considered traitors for working with the occupying Romans; they were serving the oppressors! They were cheating and bleeding their own people dry to pad the pockets of their enemies. They were religiously unclean and reprehensible people whose very lives were considered offensive. Surely when Jesus’ first listeners heard the tax collector cry to God to have mercy on him, a contemptuous and scoffing laugh rippled through the crowds. A just God would never show mercy to a man who had “robbed so much from the poor to give to the rich,” a man who had ripped off his own people only to serve the interests of their enemies. Surly our merciful and just God would not make an atonement for such a reprehensible and vile man.3

No, they thought, the tax collector would not be justified, but the Pharisee would surely receive favor in God’s sight. After all, Pharisees were models of piety and faithfulness; they were widely respected for their good deeds and their zeal for God’s Law. And though his words may sound arrogant to our ears, this Pharisee was simply praying according to the approved way of his time. Indeed, his prayer sounds very similar to a common rabbinic prayer: “I give thanks to thee, O Lord, my God, that thou hast given me my lot with those who sit in the seat of learning, and not with those who sit at the street corner; for I am early to work, and they are early to work; I am early to work on the words of the Torah and they are early to work on things of no moment. I weary myself and they weary themselves, but I weary myself and profit thereby, while they weary themselves to no profit. I run and they run; I run toward the life of the Age to Come, and they run toward the pit of destruction.”4

And his prayer seems to be in the same spirit as Psalm 17: “If you try my heart, if you visit me by night, if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me; my mouth does not transgress. As for what others do, by the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent. My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped.”5 It was very appropriate for this Pharisee to thank God for a righteous life. It is considered that Jews kept the Law as a grateful response to God’s salvation and mercy, and if this is indeed the case, it could be concluded that this Pharisee was perhaps only referring to his obedience as a way to assure God of his gratefulness.6 Jesus’ first century listeners would not have viewed this Pharisee as an arrogant and self-righteous man, but as a faithful and godly man, whose prayer they would have liked to have been able to repeat themselves.7

But these aren’t the connotations that spring to our minds when we hear this parable. It has lost all of its punch to our modern ears. Perhaps if Jesus would have told this parable in the following way, we would be as surprised as the crowds who had first gathered to hear him:

Two men went up to the local Mennonite Church early on a Sunday morning. One a Mennonite pastor, and the other, a Methamphetamine dealer. The Mennonite pastor was well respected within the congregation, he loved his family, and he always made himself available to the members of the congregation. When he entered the church building, he saw the meth dealer sprawled out on the sidewalk. The pastor knew that this meth dealer, who of course didn’t use the drug himself, had already caused a lot of damage in their community; the pastor even knew of one situation where the daughter of one of his parishioners, who had once been active in the youth group, had become addicted to meth and had nearly lost her life last fall. The image of this vile man stayed with the pastor throughout the morning, so that when it came to be the time in worship for the congregational prayer, the pastor silently prayed: “Merciful God, I thank you for the many ways that you have blessed my life: with a loving wife, two children who make good grades in school, and who, for the most part, listen to their mother and me, for a faithful and generous congregation, a house that keeps me warm in the winter, the bounties of the local farmers, and the many other ways that you provide for us. In response to your many blessings, I have tried to faithfully follow your ways. I volunteer at the homeless shelter; I give money to MCC. I have tried to have a positive effect on this community, unlike the horrid, worthless meth dealer I saw outside, who has ruined families for his own profit. I thank you for your just dealing with each of us and that he will eventually be repaid for every life he has destroyed.”

But the meth dealer, who had stayed outside on the church steps, knowing that he would never be welcome inside, fell on his knees and cried: “God, forgive me, for I am a wretched and despicable man!” And it was this man who went home justified, rather than the other.

Perhaps this retelling begins to capture some of the expectation-shattering surprise that Jesus’ original parable carried when he told about God’s justification of the tax collector rather than the Pharisee. But Why? Why would God do this? Neither man got what he deserved. Why would God justify such a corrupt and repulsive man rather than the one who had gone above and beyond all for the sake of God’s Law? Perhaps it was not because he was arrogant and prayed in such a self-centered way (Indeed, inevitably, all of our prayers are self-centered). Perhaps it was not because he seemingly focused on works-righteousness. Perhaps it was because he had forgotten that this tax collector was also created in God’s image and beloved by the Creator. He had narrowed the wideness of God’s mercy and in his disgust and contempt for the sins of the tax collector, in his self-righteous pointing, he denied the tax collector’s humanity before God.8

For God’s grace and mercy are infinite and broader than our understanding. Do we truly have “the power to comprehend, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of God that surpasses knowledge?”9 Are we able to understand how wide God’s mercy and grace extend?

We, like the Pharisee, know God’s grace and mercy when it comes to us and those whose lives are similar to our own and we are grateful for God’s grace and loving-kindness towards us. But don’t we also long for the day when God will give what’s coming to those we don’t like? We draw lines in the sand about who is within God’s grace and who is outside of God’s grace, and very few people ever draw the line in such a way that they themselves are outside of the “qualifications” for God’s mercy and grace. In fact, God often looks suspiciously as we do, and loves what we love, hates what we hate, and excludes who we exclude.

We even do this within our churches and we point our self-righteous fingers at those who sit in the pews beside us. In The Mennonite Starter Kit there is a humorous, yet prophetic parody of this parable as told by different factions within the Mennonite Church today:

Two Mennonites went up front in church to pray; the one a liberal and the other a conservative.

And the liberal stood and prayed thus with himself: “God, I thank you that I am not as other Mennonites are – militaristic, materialistic, sexist – or even as this [conservative]. I fast for El Salvador twice a week, I give to MCC tithes of all that I possess, which isn’t much since I’m trying to identify with the poor and avoid paying war taxes. I protest the death penalty and visit those in prison. I support [Ten Thousand Villages] craftspeople overseas and attend strategy meetings for all the correct causes at home…”

And the conservative stood and prayed thus with himself: “God, I thank Thee that I am not as other Mennonites are – humanistic, [unbiblical], immoral – or even as this liberal. I watch Christian broadcasting twice a week, I give them tithes of all that I possess, which is much since Thou hast prospered me as a reward for clean living. I protest abortion and have adopted unwanted babies. I support missionaries overseas and attend revivals at home…”

Which of these went home justified?10

It is human nature to draw lines in the sand, to point fingers at those we consider outside of God’s grace, and to believe that God wants to get even with those we despise as much as we do. But where is the good news in this? Is this mentality of an “eye for an eye” a part of God’s infinite, life-changing, expectation-shattering, merciful Grace? God’s grace is much broader than we could have ever imagined. God’s grace is not limited to the children who we think are most deserving. God’s grace extends even to those children who we think are outside of the realm of God’s grace. “For what good is grace – this unconditional love of God – if it is not extended to those who deserve it the least but need it the most?”11

It is human nature to show grace only to those who deserve it, to love those who love us. But it is divine to show grace even to those who we do not believe are deserving of such grace. But is this not our divine calling, as those who follow Christ in our lives, to love as extravagantly as Christ loved, to be merciful as God is merciful, even to go so far as to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? For remember who Jesus showed grace to: the unloved, the unwanted, the undeserving. “He healed lepers. He comforted prostitutes. He ate with tax collectors. He forgave sinners. Those whom the world despised, he befriended. [And even amidst the hateful mocking of the crowds and the cruel shouts of the criminals who hung beside him,] He died with love on his lips: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.12‘”13

Notes:
1 Walter L. Liefeld, “Parables on Prayer” in The Challenge of Jesus’ Parables, ed. Richard N. Longenecker.
2 Fred Craddock, Luke Commentary, Interpretation Series.
3 Ideas for this paragraph taken from: Craddock, Luke, and David Buttrick, Speaking Parables: A Homiletic Guide.
4 Buttrick, Speaking Parables.
5 Psalm 17:3-5, NRSV.
6 Kent L. Yinger, The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction.
7 Ideas for this section taken from Buttrick, Speaking Parables, and Michael Farris, “A Tale of Two Taxations” in Jesus and His Parables: Interpreting the Parables of Jesus Today, ed. V. George Shillington.
8 Buttrick, Speaking Parables.
9 Ephesians 3:18-19, NRSV.
10 Craig Haas and Steve Nolt, The Mennonite Starter Kit: A Handy Guide for the New Mennonite (with the liberal and the conservative switched in the retelling).
11 Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, If Grace Is True.
12 Luke 23:34.
13 Gulley and Mulholland, If Grace Is True.

Categories: Sermons Tags: , ,