Fr. Ron Feister: Are Our Ways God’s Ways?

Sermon delivered on the last Sunday after Trinity C, October 27, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Due to a technical difficulty there is no audio podcast available for this sermon. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Lectionary texts: Joel 2.23-32; Psalm 65.1-13; 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18; Luke 18.9-14.

Today’ s Epistle finds Paul waiting in prison for final judgment.  He is aware that his earthly ministry like that of his Master is close to an end. He now looks forward to the crown of righteousness that comes from having fought the Good Fight. He sees his life being poured out like a libation. As this term is used in this reading, it applies to the wine that is poured out upon the sacrificial offering of Old Testament Times.  The effect of that pouring of the wine libation upon the  offering was to cause the fire to flare up and the whole place to be filled with the aroma. Paul is encouraging Timothy to take heart that even as Paul’s life is coming to an end that through his sacrifice and his relationship with Timothy that the fire of the faith may be increased and spread through the whole of creation. Paul’s life of witness and sacrifice surely did merit for him a Crown of Righteousness.

In today’s Gospel story, we also find the theme of righteousness as we are introduced to two wildly different characters. A religious Pharisee, like Paul, and a tax collector. It is appropriate that we get to known a little about these two types of individuals before we proceed. We have all been introduced to the tax collector in earlier sermons.  He is an outcast. A cooperator with the Romans, he earns most, if not all of his income, by charging excess taxes and by dishonest dealings. Other than a leper you could not find a more disgusting type of individual in Jewish society.  The other individual in the story is a Pharisee. Our picture of what a Pharisee was is often very negative, but in honesty, these were not bad Jews. They were members of one of the four major theological groups. The believed in a resurrection, that God rewarded good and punished the bad, they emphasized faithfulness to the Torah (the first 5 book of the Bible), in both written form and oral tradition, and they believed in a Messiah.

The Pharisees were not the elite of society  – a position claimed by the Sadducees.  They were to speak in modern terms -your average blue collar church goer. Still all the listeners would have identified with him and no doubt been caught up in the story. In the parable, the Pharisee stands in the Temple with hands up raised, and prays directly to God again a practice familiar to the listeners. The Pharisee is not being singled out because he is the bad guy. He is no doubt offering a prescribed prayer that all Jewish men were expected to know and pray daily.  He starts by thanking God for all the benefits he has received and for being kept from falling into a sinful life – who can fault someone for dong that.  He acknowledges that he has done his duty for God, and perhaps, we can understand his boasting a bit – after all he does more fasting than is required and he gives a full 10% of his income as an offering; this is more than he was required to do for not all income was subject to the tithe. You could say he gave his 10% on the gross income and not the net.

His prayer was not one seeking righteousness, but merely thanking God for not making him like those who were not righteous.  The wording of the prayer was not really meant as a boast about his own status or to despise others, though the wording gives that impression and no doubt caught the ear of Jesus’ listeners.

The tax collector’s prayer is of a totally different type. He stands far off, not unlike the leper.  He beats his chest as a sign of penitence. He keeps his eyes down and he raises not his hands.   He is not rejoicing in his righteousness – he knows better. He is seeking forgiveness and the righteousness that cannot be earned, but can only be given by God.

The tax collector leaves having received forgiveness and receiving the righteousness for which he begged, the Pharisee did not. He does not receive righteousness or forgiveness, because he is not even aware that he is in need of such. The one who humbled himself is thus exalted.  The one who exalted himself is humbled.

The lesson for us is that there is a danger that we will see ourselves as righteous, after all we are not thieves, rogues, adulterers or heaven forbid, dishonest tax collectors.  We may come to believe that we are righteous enough and do not need to ask for mercy and forgiveness or we may become convinced that any one not as righteous as us is not worthy of consideration.

The key to understanding what Jesus is attempting to teach is to look at the audience to whom it was addressed – they are described as “some who trusted that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” But God, who is all righteousness, does not despise the sinner, God willingly forgives the sinner and as in the case of the tax collector restores them to a state of right relationship with Him.

We have to ask ourselves are we willing to forgive when others seek to be reconciled to us? When others have shown repentance for having wronged us, are we willing to restore our relationship with them. Are we willing to humble ourselves and honestly admit our own sinfulness that we like the tax collector may be exalted; that we might receive righteousness. God’s way is to be open to forgiveness and reconciliation – the world’s way is to judgment and self-satisfaction.

In our Old Testament reading, we find God blessing the people with needed rain and promising a fruitful harvest to restore them after they had been plagued by locusts. These plagues were seen as a punishment for the people’s lack of faithfulness.  God goes even further by promising them a new relationship with Him in which all – young and old, slave and free, will experience the spirit of God in dramatic fashion. As we have heard over the last many weeks, this is God’s pattern, his justice requires that the people pay a price for their unfaithfulness, but because of God’s love for them, once they repent, He blesses them.

How do we relate then people betray us?  Are we willing to bless those who have abandoned us?  Are we even willing to pray for them and ask that God but his spirit into their lives?

Last week’s Gospel gave us the story to the persistent window who finally wore down the immoral judge. A lesson on the need to be faithful and persistence in prayer; but the Gospel ends by stating that God is quick to listen and respond to the prayer of the faithful. Sometimes God’s response seems to come slowly, if at all, but this in only because God knows the right timing and the right answer. Are we quick to listen and respond to the pleas of our brothers and sisters or do we require them to nag us like the Judge?

When Jesus is asked who is to be the greatest in heaven, he takes children as an example. They are totally dependant. They are open to God’s creation. They are more willing than adults to admit having done wrong. They are more willing to seek forgiveness. They are willing to accept back those who have injured them as friends. They are honest – sometimes uncomfortably so. They come without prejudice. They are not concerned with their own righteousness, but they are, in their innocence, truly righteous.

Yet these are not the characteristics that the world finds attractive.  These are not the attributes that makes one first or exalted in the world’s view, but last in the few of the world. We are called to chose. First in the world’s ways or first in God’s ways. Do we exalt ourselves or do we humble ourselves that God may do the exalting.