“We All Need Grace”
20th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 25C)
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `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.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
Do you ever talk with people who don’t go to church? I’m sure we all have family, friends, and neighbors who are pretty resolved that they don’t want to go to church anymore. Maybe they used to go and stopped, or (and this is more and more common) maybe they never went at all. Most of the people in my life who feel that way have been hurt by Christians. They think that Christians are hypocrites who say one thing and do another. They are frustrated that Christians so often have the attitude or appearance of being better than everyone else.
Jesus is dealing with some of these same concerns in today’s Gospel reading. The Pharisee here gets a lot of things wrong, but he’s got some good points. He shouldn’t denigrate other people in his prayers, especially not in public. But he wants things that aren’t too different from what we want.
The Pharisee is concerned that other people of faith ought to act better. He is frustrated with the injustice he sees in the tax collector’s life. He’s actually angry about other people’s hypocrisy. Because the tax collector is in a socially and economically compromised situation; he isn’t someone you would want to trust as the church treasurer or in any position of influence, because tax collectors were known from greed and theft. He’s not somebody who you would look to as a model Jew or Christian.
We talk a lot about the moral teachings of the Bible and the way we are supposed to act and witness to the world. So I want to affirm that the Pharisee isn’t wrong to want a better, fairer and more just society. He isn’t wrong to criticize the behavior of “thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
But he is wrong to think that he is really any better in the eyes of God. While he is able to point to some things he does that are obedient to God’s Laws, he acts as if he has never failed himself. He doesn’t recognize that he is a sinner too.
God wants righteousness; God wants justice; God wants goodness. But God also understands that we are not able to be perfect. In the words of Psalm 103, God knows that we are only made of “dust”. We don’t have the power or the resolve to do the right thing all the time. So God doesn’t expect us to be “good people”. God expects us to be forgiven people. God wants us to recognize our own faults and rely on God’s mercy. When we believe the lie that we are better than our neighbor because we seem to have more things together, we become like the Pharisee in this parable: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people”
Christianity is not about being a “good person.” It’s about knowing I’m bad and that God loves me anyway, enough for Jesus to die on a cross to save us from ourselves. That’s the meaning of grace. Grace means admitting I am a sinner and can’t save myself. Grace means turning to God for all my help and all my goodness. Grace means trusting God to raise me up instead of just “trying to be a good person.”
We don’t have to earn God’s approval by showing off how much better we are than others. That is exalting ourselves. It’s a sin that the church has languished in for far too long.
People who don’t go to church usually perceive Christians as hypocrites who think they’re all high and mighty on Sunday and act just as bad as everyone else on Monday. They call us hypocrites because they often can’t tell the difference between Jesus’ people and those who never set foot in a church. They call us hypocrites because they think that what we’re doing together here is patting ourselves on the back for being better than everyone else.
And, in a sense, when they call us hypocrites, they’re right. Because we aren’t any better than anyone else. We don’t behave rightly that much more often than our non-religious neighbors. We are just as bogged down by sin as anybody is. The difference, again, is not that we behave better but that we invite and receive God’s mercy. We come to church because we’re hypocrites who know that we are in need of grace. We come to church for forgiveness, not for self-assurance.
So if anything, we need to set the record straight with our friends and neighbors who skip church to avoid the hypocrisy. They may feel that they need to get their act together before they can set foot in St. Matthew’s. But they don’t and we don’t. We aren’t a museum for perfect people leading perfect lives. The church is a hospital for sinners who start by acknowledging our sin-sick souls and turn to Jesus for help. We are beggars telling each other where we can find bread. We are pointing one another to the great healer and forgiver, Jesus, the true Balm in Gilead.
So we don’t have to wait until we’re perfect people to walk through these doors and receive this holy sacrament. We gather around Jesus’ Table; God’s Altar on our knees, begging for mercy. We get together in church to turn away from ourselves and look to God’s loving and merciful hand. We declare here that we can’t make it on our own. We admit here that “we have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed.” We’re not trying to say that we are good. We are broken, we are sinners, and only God is good. The Good News isn’t that we can fix ourselves, but that God is kind enough to want to fix us.
If we could justify ourselves, then we wouldn’t need God and we wouldn’t need church. We only become righteous, holy, or good through Jesus.
Jesus is able to bridge the gap between our broken humanity and God’s perfect wholeness and healing. Jesus is willing and able to forgive all our screw-ups and guide us closer to God. So we may not be perfect but we will know grace.
So if you’re looking for a group of perfect people who tell each other that they are right about everything, you’ve come to the wrong place. And if you’re life is going great and you don’t think you need forgiveness, kindness, or love, then you don’t have to stay.
But if you’re like most people, you know things aren’t right. And you know that you and I are at least part of the problem. And church provides a place where we can speak honestly about ourselves before God and each other. Church provides a place where we can seek God’s grace and mercy, trusting that it is available to all who ask for it. The church is where we can discover again that no one is too far gone for God to love and forgive. The church is a community of forgiven people who must always be willing to forgive.
So we have to be careful to avoid the Pharisee’s prayer and mindset. We aren’t better than others, even those who do awful things that are worth criticizing. If you can only remember one thing, remember this prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Amen.