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Right with God

October 25, 2016

“Right with God” Luke 18:9-14 © 10.23.16 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

One of the best movies of the 1990s was The Fisher King, with Jeff Bridges and the late Robin Williams. In it, Bridges plays Jack, an abusive, abrasive radio talk-show host. One morning Edwin, a regular caller, phones yet again, excited that at long last he has met a woman with whom he feels he can have a relationship. They had been introduced at an upscale restaurant named “Babbitt’s,” a place frequented by rich young professionals. Jack lowers the boom on the poor man, observing that Edwin will never really be accepted by this woman, since he is not of her class or kind. In fact, in Jack’s opinion, people like her should be destroyed. The caller takes the radio personality’s recommendation not as inflammatory rhetoric, but seriously as a plan of action. One night he walks into Babbitt’s and guns down several patrons at random before turning the weapon on himself.

When Jack sees the report of the massacre on TV and hears that his own words drove Edwin to murder, he quits his job at the radio station. Three years later, we find a tormented Jack living above a video store with his girlfriend. Eventually, he meets Perry, the Robin Williams character. Perry is a homeless man who used to be a professor of medieval literature at a local college. That is, until the night his wife was killed before his eyes at Babbitt’s. Now Perry is nearly insane. He wanders the streets, believing himself to be a knight in search of the Holy Grail.

Knowing what he has done to Perry, Jack longs for some way to be free of his responsibility to him. “If only I could pay a fine and go home,” Jack complains to his lover. He wouldn’t have put it this way, but in theological terms Jack is longing for some way to be right with God. Though the lines are said as part of a comic routine for which he is auditioning, we know Jack is hoping against hope that someone will “forgive me.” In the end, the only way he puts things right is to make common cause with Perry. In fact, Jack puts on the homeless man’s clothes and secures the trophy cup Perry believes to be the Grail.

Jesus presents us with another man seeking forgiveness, wanting a right relationship with God. He is a tax collector, a man who contracted to gather revenue for the Romans. Every bad trait of character may be found in him. He’s greedy, underhanded, a cheat, a liar, a thief, utterly without scruples. In order to make a big profit, the man charged more than the government required. He became rich from the toil of others. As if that were not enough, he was a traitor and collaborator who worked for an occupying army and empire. All for money. So he was hated by his countrymen, including the Pharisee who came to the Temple at 3:00 in the afternoon, the same time he did.

By stark contrast to this bottom feeder, the Pharisee is an example of all that is good in his religion and perhaps in people in general. A truly holy person, despite the bad press his party gets in the New Testament. Required to fast only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, he fasts twice a week! He probably stayed up late studying the Torah and got little sleep. This despite his having to get up and go to work the next morning. He was an incredibly generous giver, donating more to the work of God than was expected. Even his prayer, which sounds terribly arrogant to us, was in keeping with the psalms and liturgies of the day. It’s a prayer of thanksgiving, in which he asks God for nothing. What this Pharisee and his brothers did is all the more amazing when we remember that they were dedicated laymen, not religious professionals.

Which of these men would you and I choose as a friend? Wouldn’t it be the Pharisee? We would like to have him in our church and community. He’s patriotic, honest, hard-working, always volunteering for a service project or to teach Sunday school. He is an example of giving and generosity at budget time and all year long. A pillar of the congregation, a leader in civic affairs. We identify readily with him; he’s very much like us.

Yet for all their differences, the two men who prayed at the Temple that day were very much alike. I’m sure they would deny it, but that doesn’t make it any less true. In The Fisher King, Jack and Perry are equally needy, equally alone. So it was with the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself out of choice, for fear of being soiled by anything or anyone unholy and unclean. The tax collector stood far off by law, not allowed to venture where the holy Pharisee could go. Far off, too, because of his own sense of worthlessness.

The tragedy of the Pharisee is that he believes being and doing what God wants means separating himself from others out of suspicion, fear, prejudice, and malice. His prayer of thanksgiving is actually an exercise in self congratulation and a not-so-thinly-veiled attack on anyone who is not like him. He contrasts himself only with those far removed from his social class, people he knows only as stereotypes. And, like the comet’s tail against the blackness of space, his holiness shines brightly. If he were to compare himself to his friends, he wouldn’t find much to boast about. He’d only be average, ordinary. It’s appropriate to thank God for where we are in life. But as someone has said, faith does not properly express itself as despising others. Gratitude never involves condescension toward another human being (Charles Talbert, Reading Luke: 171). The Pharisee sets himself up as the judge of everybody else, a privilege that, by the way, belongs only to God. And so he becomes an idolater, someone who has made himself God. He simply does not recognize his sin, that he is as separated from God as the anguished taxman pounding his chest.

Of course, contempt for others did not begin or end with the pious Pharisee. Throughout history, religious people and groups, along with nations and clans, tribes and families, have defined their identity quite often in opposition to someone else. To be “us,” it seems, there has to be a “them.” Everyone of us, this preacher included, could easily fill in the blank in a sentence that begins “O God, I thank you that I am not like….” We might think of a public figure or a neighbor, even someone among our friends or family who is ill-mannered or unreasonable, ignorant or mean, unprincipled or immoral. We could point to the practices of a particular group of people—a church, a company, a political party—and say to ourselves that while we have our faults, at least we’re not like that.

We come by our us-and-them worldview honestly as Presbyterians. The Westminster Confession was written in such as way as to divide the world into two camps—the elect and the reprobate, the saved and the lost—as well as to cast doubt on the truth of any other theological position. There is in the document the arrogant line: “The full sense of any scripture… is not manifold, but one.” And it’s clear that the Westminster divines considered their take on every text to be that one true interpretation.

So we know about the Pharisee. But what of the tax collector? Turning to the case of that man, it’s clear he feels inferior, worthless, totally bad, a wretch, a worm. Sometimes his prayer has been taken as the sum total of holy living, the proper daily address to God. His petition is short, passionate, heart-felt. Reconciliation and forgiveness are impossible unless God grants them, because the law of the time would require him to repay everyone he had wronged. He has no claim on God’s mercy, nothing to give him but an empty hand and a despairing heart. The man is rich and rotund, clothed in fine purple. Yet what Walter Brueggemann has termed his “satiated present” promises nothing but an empty, hopeless future. So he throws himself on the mercy of the heavenly court.

But here we must be cautious. If we take the tax collector’s prayer as the sum of piety, we may very well err on the other extreme from the Pharisee. It’s no more Christian to be excessively negative about ourselves than it is to be overly proud. In fact, isn’t it true that focusing on our faults is still focusing on ourselves? It’s a twisted sister to pride. As John Calvin said, there is no reward in excessive feelings of inferiority, only in the discovery of the inconceivably merciful God.

What both men in the story need to do is move toward each other from their respective places on the spectrum of sin and guilt until they both stand at a place where their sin is clearly seen and admitted, but also where they are touched and changed by the grace of God. Indeed, that’s where we all need to be.

And guess what? The great good news of the gospel is that the God to whom both men prayed transcends our divisions. He meets us all at the point of our need: the proud and self-assured with the self-denigrating and penitent; the humble and helpless with the haughty and the high achiever; richer and poorer, younger and older, pillar of the church and off-scouring of humanity. Whoever we are, we are being sucked down into a great big whirlpool or black hole. No matter where we are positioned in the maelstrom, we all end up in the same place. What we need is for someone to reach down and bring us to safety. And that is what God has done in Jesus. What he is doing. As the scripture says: “…now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us…. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:12ff).

The Rev. John Claypool was a nationally famous Protestant preacher. At one point in his life he sought the counsel of a Roman Catholic psychotherapist. Claypool had experienced personal tragedy and was in a time of great transition. The minister told of his divorce and many other conflicts in his life, to which the therapist responded: “I’ve known a great many Protestant clergy who have experienced what you are going through.” “Yes,” Claypool replied, “but I never thought it would happen to me.” “Listen to yourself!” said the priest. “I was trying to encourage you with my words, and you refused to hear them as such. We are going to work together on two questions: first, when are you going to join the human race and admit you are neither any better nor any worse than anyone else; and second, when will you allow divine forgiveness to be your resource?” Over the course of a year, the two did work on those issues. The minister came to see he was more like other people than unlike them, and so he could make common cause with them in their pain and concern.

Being and becoming right with God begins there: in the realization that we share a need for grace and goodness with others, and in the faith that God is ready to meet our need. In fact, he is eager to be merciful. As one writer has observed, we belong to a God who will not succumb to the present (Walter Brueggemann, The Christian Century, 9.23-30.1992: 841). He will not be defeated by a present full of despair and hurt or one full of pride and elitism. Instead, he leads us into his future, with the promise of justice and mercy for all who call on him. We are invited to yield control of our lives and our times into God’s hands. When we do that, we are freed to work for and experience the kind of community where Pharisees and tax collectors can live together in faith, hope, and love, where they can look and long for the time when humanity will be one as we kneel before the Sovereign Lord of all.

To whom be thanks and praise forever and ever. Amen.

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