Proper 25, Year C, St. Agnes’ Church, Cowan

“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Lk. 18:9).

Our Gospel today provides the frame for Jesus’ story: in other words, before we even hear the story of the two men praying, and start to guess at its meaning, the Gospel writer Luke tells us what it’s all about.  We don’t have to wonder for ourselves what’s going on. We know from what’s happened before who the audience is (the Pharisees, Jesus’ opponents) and we know that they are the target. From the very beginning we know the point. “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Lk. 18:9).

Let’s review the story before we lose sight of it completely. There are two men praying in the Temple. One thanks God that he obeys the moral code; that he gives to charity and follows all the laws and commandments. He even thanks God that he’s not like the other man who’s praying in the Temple, the despised tax collector! This man is not despised because he’s a civil servant, but because he is a collaborator with the occupation authorities, an enemy of the People, a person who traffics in the misery of Israel.

By contrast, the tax collector prays a simple prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk. 18:13). He’s not looking around him, searching for someone he can feel superior to. He looks to the ground and beats his breast because he knows he’s a sinner, a person who needs redemption. He’s not congratulating himself on his own righteousness. He’s not giving thanks to God for allowing him to follow the law, but he’s simply begging for mercy.

Who do you think God looked favorably on? Jesus tells his listeners, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other” (Lk. 18:14). It’s the man with humility, the tax collector, who’s pleasing to God; while the man who tries to justify himself in God’s eyes who ends up not right with God. Humility is the key, not thinking too highly of ourselves, but thinking with sober judgment, as St. Paul says (Rom. 12:3).

The sting in the tail that gets mentioned from the first framing of the story is the note of contempt. This is worth pausing over for a moment. The word here, that describes the attitude of the first man to the tax collector, is the same word used elsewhere in St. Luke’s Gospel to describe what King Herod does to Jesus when he’s arraigned before him on the night before his crucifixion. “Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him” (Lk. 23:11).

The Gospel writer, by applying this frame, highlights the connection between the everyday contempt of the self-righteous for the unworthy, with the murderous contempt of Jesus’ betrayers and tormentors for him, the object of their scorn. In other words, the self-righteous evil that lies in the human heart, in every heart (buried no matter how deep), no matter whether it’s expressed or unexpressed, can burst forth suddenly with terrible effect.

There is no doubt that we live in divided times. Pundits talk about it every day. The novelist Thomas McGuane wrote a few years ago about his own fictional community that “It wasn’t just that fellow feeling was plummeting around the land but that the animosity was getting to be so detailed” (Nothing But Blue Skies). It’s a spiritual issue for our times, contempt for the neighbor. We don’t have to rely upon pundits or novelists, of course, to know the truth. All we have to do is to look into our own hearts.

Humility is the remedy, of course: the humility exemplified in Jesus Christ himself. “Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus,” St. Paul says (Phil. 2:5). “Being found in human form, he humbled himself” (Phil. 2:7-8). Humility, in our case, means seeing the reality of our own situation, and the common lot we share with all people: the need for forgiveness, for healing from God and reconciliation with God and each other. There’s no ground for contempt. Each of us must pray the prayer of the tax collector, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (Lk. 18:13).

Today, of course, we are celebrating confirmation, and welcoming two persons as confirmed members of the Episcopal Church. These are bracing words for our fellow parishioners as they take upon themselves new responsibilities in the community, but these are bracing times in which to practice the Christian faith. We all need grace for this life, and so we will pray and lay hands upon you for the power and presence of God to dwell with you. God is calling you to be his humble servants, and he will supply all you need for the work that is ahead.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee