Jesus told this parable:
10 Two men went up into the Temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a Publican. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this Publican. 12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.”
13 And the Publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” 14 I tell you, this Publican went down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee. (Luke 18:10-14a)
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This is a fun parable, one I’ve known since childhood as a baptized Christian before earliest memory. Jesus saying that whoever thinks he or she is doing a better job with life than the next person is mistaken. And there’s no condemnation here, the next person also is doing poorly and saved anyway, just like you!
In the story, the Pharisee is pleasing God in the Old Way, keeping all 613 commandments of the Law of Moses, Hebrew Bible, and doing a good job of earning his salvation. If we are talking about St. Peter at the Pearly Gate, the Pharisee has already paid his dues, and he knows it. Respected, respectable and righteous, he’s thankful he’s been living a good life and does not have other people’s fears and worries.
The Publican, though being inside the Temple is as ritually clean as the Pharisee, is a hated, crooked, thieving political hack who enriches himself by graft, stealing taxpayer’s money. On top of that and worse, he’s in the pay of the imperial government of the detested Roman occupation, despised as a traitor. With his way of life, he cannot possibly please God, and he knows it too. Not so much as raising his eyes to heaven, he does not just have an inferiority complex, the man really is inferior. In the Old Way of salvation, he’s doomed to scorn and damnation. All he can do is throw himself on God’s mercy. Under the Old Rules, he’s lost and must pay for his evil ways. But Jesus introduces a New Way, chesed, ἀγάπη -- the lovingkindness of God. Saint Paul calls it “justification by Grace,” saved by Grace through the Faith of Jesus Christ.
You may have noticed that in reading the gospel, I skipped the first line. I do not appreciate that Luke the gospel writer tries to co-opt the preacher by interpreting the parable for us before he even tells it. Luke interprets it for his ancient time and generation; we can read and interpret it just as well as Luke, and better than Luke for the 21st century — the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican: both men are saved into God’s kingdom — the Pharisee by the Old Covenant that he earned it, saved by works of the Law of Moses, and he does not need to be “justified,” he has justified himself and he’s justifiably right proud of it! The Publican is saved by the New Covenant that God loves him anyway: Saved by Grace!
The Pharisee would be horrified, outraged that while he pays full price of admission, the Publican is getting in free: if this is “Monopoly,” the Publican has landed on “Chance” and drawn a “Collect $200 and Get Out Of Jail Free” card. If you think about it, today’s story is not all that different from Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. Workers who started at dawn are saved by the Old Covenant: they earned it. Workers who did not start until an hour before sunset are saved by the New Covenant of Jesus Christ, the gracious lovingkindness of God. Just so with the Pharisee and the Publican. Salvation by Works is the Old Way, salvation by Grace the New Way. If you don’t like it, if you don’t think it’s fair, get over it, it’s not our rules, it’s no longer the Law of Moses, it’s the Holy Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
We have a Baptism this morning, initiation into the Church, the kingdom of God. In baptism, as we build up to inducting a tiny boy into the kingdom, the Church offers you a chance to make your promises to God all over again. It’s the Baptismal Covenant for Stratton Lee Tucker, and the Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant for you. You can renew with God whether you’re a Pharisee or a Publican, whether you’ve been keeping covenant with God or have crashed and burned. But pay attention: this is a faith document. It’s in two parts. In the first part you say “I believe.” There’s nothing salvific about believing, believing does not save you. All that first part of the covenantal creed does is make sure you’re in the right room with the rest of us Trinitarian Christians. We believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But belief is not Faith. Faith is how your belief affects your life. How does what you claim to believe determine how you live? That’s the second part, Faith is the Covenant: Will you?
Will you, Will you, Will you, Wlll you, Will you. The Church of Jesus Christ asks this of a tiny boy being baptized this morning — and his sponsors in baptism will answer for him and then they promise to help him grow in Faith and into the Faith of Jesus Christ. The Church also invites you, and since we know darn well you’ve not been keeping Covenant, the Church offers you the opportunity to start over with God.
Nothing you say or do here today saves you, certainly not the Old Covenant that, unlike the Pharisee, you have not been keeping anyway. By the Baptismal Covenant you can enter again into discipleship, emulating the faith of Jesus Christ and walking the Way of the Cross. And like the Publican, you are saved by Grace because God loves you. Welcomes you, invites you to be part of his Jesus Movement in this life, in this world. Invites you, welcomes you, wants you in fellowship and discipleship, loves you.
Loves you, loves you, loves you, loves you, loves you! This is the Gospel of the Lord!
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Sermon in Holy Nativity Episcopal Church, Panama City, Florida on Sunday, October 23, 2016, the Reverend Tom Weller. Proper 23C. Baptism & Holy Communion. Text: the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican