Pentecost 23C – October 27, 2013 (or Reformation Sunday below)
October 24, 2010
Joel 2:23-32 – I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Even on male and female slaves, I will pour out my Spirit.
Sirach 35: 12-17 – The Most High will not show partiality to the poor; but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged. He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan, or the widow when she pours out her complaint.
Jeremiah 14: 7-10, 19-22 – Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake; do not dishonor your glorious throne; remember and do not break your covenant with us.
Psalm 65 – Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion; and to you shall vows be performed, O you who answer prayer! To you all flesh shall come. When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions.
Psalms 84: 1-7 – How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts. My soul has a desire for the courts of the Lord. Even the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a place to rest her young at your altars.
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 – As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation. My time has come. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.
Luke 18: 9-14 – Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (warning against hypocrisy)
Reformation Sunday – October 31 or Sunday, October 27, 2013, October 25, 2009
Jeremiah 31: 31-34 – The days are coming when I will make a new covenant with Israel and Judah: law on their hearts.
Psalm 46 – The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. (Ps. 46:4)
Romans 3: 19-28 – No one will be justified by the law. Now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed.
John 8: 31-36 – You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.
This Sunday is Reformation Sunday in most Lutheran Churches. It is also, however, Pentecost 23C, with the story of the Publican and the Pharisee. I hate missing this text, because we have been on this steady march since June 2, from Luke chapter seven, then eight, then nine and so on chapter by chapter, building to this place in chapter 18, where Jesus compares the prayers of a cheating tax collector and a righteous Pharisee, making the tax collector the good guy in the story. Luke’s Jesus has praised foreigners, crooked managers, crooked tax collectors, crooked judges and all forms of riffraff, while having nothing particularly good to say about the religious elite.
All of this seems to be be interesting in light of the Reformation, which was, among other things, a struggle with the religious authorities of the day. Since we don’t have canon law, the preacher has the freedom in our context to substitute the Pentecost 23C with the Luke 18 gospel if desired.
Now don’t get me wrong. John 8 is a perfectly fine text on which I have expounded annually for 25 years. I find it powerful that Jesus says the truth sets us free. He doesn’t say morality will set you free, or religiosity. Truth does. David Foster Wallace says, “The truth will set you free, but not until it is finished with you.” Facing the truth about ourselves is the most freeing thing we can do, but we don’t have the guts to do it unless we know we are loved unconditionally. Luther says, “It was grace that brought the prodigal son home. Otherwise he would have rather died than come home.” Truth may set you free, but it takes a lot of grace to face the ugly truth.
Facing truth is about authenticity. Luther said in the Heidelberg Disputation, “A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it is.” And it just so happens the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is about authenticity as well. It’s about facing the truth about ourselves. Here is the text from Luke 18:
He also 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.”
Luke is even so gracious to explain to us why Jesus is telling the story. There are some who trust in their own righteousness and regard others with contempt. If ‘Justification by Grace through Faith’ is the central doctrine of the Reformation, then this text warning about trusting in our own faith can easily sit right next to the Reformation Sunday appointed epistle, Romans 3 about righteousness coming through faith and not works of the law.
Jeffrey (“Luke”) says this is a very Jewish parable. It continues the theme of prayer in the prior story about the judge and the widow. From the looks of things, the tax collector should be the bad guy and the Pharisee the hero. Tax collectors worked for the occupying Roman army. They collected exorbitant taxes and overcharged as much as they needed to live. The profession was corrupt and despised. He was clearly a crook. The Pharisee on the other hand fasted twice a week. He tithed. He was the model of a godly life, but things are not always as they seem.
Augustine points out that the Pharisee never asks God for anything. He simply thanks God that he is better than others, especially this thief in the other “pew.” This is a prayer of pride that calls to mind: 1 Corinthians 8:1 “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Jeffrey calls this a counterfeit spirituality.
One might level the same critique of us. If our religiosity is about being better than others, more right than others, if it is about knowing facts rather than genuine spiritual depth, then we fall into the same trap as this Pharisee, that Jesus has set up to take the fall in his story.
Contrast then, the tax collector. He is guilty, hated and alone. He can have no claim to righteousness whatsoever. He has, nonetheless, an ace in the hole: humility. His prayer is quite simple. “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus says this man went down to his home “justified.”
The unrighteous sinner goes home justified. The righteous Pharisee does not. Justification is not by works, but by faith in a loving, merciful God.
Can there be any more appropriate message for Reformation Sunday?