The Disney classic movie - Snow White has the character of memorable wicked witch who barks at the mirror, "Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?"
When the mirror gives the wrong answer, the witch flies into a fit of rage and Snow White becomes the target of her resentment and pride. This morning the parable from the gospel of Luke involves two characters of vanity or pride and humility. Jesus is a master communicator and he presents stories from his everyday observance of life. Jesus often presents his teachings in the form of a narrative. And so we listen to what Jesus says, and we learn, and we apply it to our everyday lives. He told parables. A parable is a fictional story told to illustrate a spiritual reality and Jesus told many of them.
The gospel says, “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). Jesus here tells a story of “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” As we read this story, we can envision Jesus walking down the road on his way to Jerusalem and stopping along the way to talk to the crowd of people who were following him. Perhaps there are several Pharisees and religious leaders nearby, and commoners like tax collectors, sinners and the outcast of the society are scattered throughout the crowd.
The Pharisees represented the perfect Jewish religious model. They were the “religious right.” The tax collectors represented a totally different model. They represented the worse model of a sinner. Both the Jews and the Romans despised them because of the way they exhorted money from their own people. So Jesus’ parable continues:
“The Pharisee stood up in the Temple and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” “O Lord, it’s hard to be humble when I see how rotten others are compared to me. Thank you Lord I’m not like those people, you know, people who steal, who do bad things and who cheat on their wives or even like this guy over there who works for IRS. Yes Lord, I am one of the very, very few who does more than even the Law requires – you know, I give a tenth to the Temple of every profit I make from my investments while everyone else just gives a tenth of their disposable income. I also go without food and water, I fast from sunrise to sunset twice a week and not just once a year like most other folks. Yes God, thank you that I am not like these other people.” Thank you, Glory, Alleluia. You know, God, I hope to hear from you, “Job well done.” Amen.”
Pride is one of the seven deadly sins. Rabindranath Tagore an Indian poet has said, “The Sparrow is sorry for the peacock for the burden of his tail. Then Jesus tells about the other guy who is a tax collector “slumped in the shadows” (The Message), way at the back of the temple, out of sight. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to heaven as was common amongst those who came to pray but rather, he pounded his chest over and over again crying, "Have mercy on me, O God," The tax-collector begs. He knows his psalms. "Have mercy on me, O God, in your faithfulness," asks the psalmist; "in your great tenderness wipe away my offences" (Psalm 51.1). We note here the spirit with which each person prayed: The Pharisee considered himself morally and religiously superior than others. He exalted in his own religious practices and trusted in his own good deeds to make him acceptable to God. He despised and condemned his neighbor.
He prayed as if God owed him something for his goodness. In his prayer there is no evidence whatsoever of a humble and contrite (repentant) heart, as if he did not need to seek God’s help in his life. How sad that this Pharisee, zealous for the faith and well-versed in the Scriptures, had somehow overlooked passages like Isaiah 64:6: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”
We know human beings are incredibly skillful at minimizing our own shortcomings through focusing on the deeds of others that we consider to be “worse.” A person who might get pulled over going 75 mph on the interstate might consider himself not as bad as the motorcyclist in Minnesota who got arrested for doing 205 mph. Both acts, however, are illegal. Jesus is well aware of our tendency toward comparative self-righteousness. Today’s readings urge us to a depth of honesty that requires our constant repentance and amendment of life.
The Tax Collector recognized the holiness of God. He recognized the sin in his life; he didn’t hide it or deny it. He recognized absolutely his need for God’s grace and pleaded for it – “[he] beat his breast and said, ’God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The tax-collector, however, does not pray in confidence; he prays in despair. He is horrified by his own wickedness; but is trapped in it. He makes no mention of due reparation: the repayment of all he has taken illegitimately, with an extra fifth in compensation.
It is the next and last tax-collector in the gospel of Luke whom Jesus encounters, Zacchaeus in Jericho, who takes this final step, and more. "I will give half my property to the poor," he says; "and if I have cheated anyone I will pay them back four times the amount." Jesus responds, "Today salvation has come to this house" (from Luke 19.1-10). The promise of Psalm 51 is fulfilled at last. "Give me the joy of your salvation, O God. Sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" (from Psalm 51.14-17).
What is the spirit and the attitude our hearts as we speak with God? “In the eyes of Christ a person confessing sin is nearer to true goodness than a person boasting of his goodness.” (F.F. Bruce, Theologian). This is the moral of Jesus’ story: “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 18:14).
Surely, the word of God draws our attention to humility. I would like to end my sermon with a story from Dr. Seuss in Bartholomew and the Oobleck:
Bartholomew shouted, “Don’t’ waste your time saying foolish magic words.
YOU ought to be saying some plain simple words!”
“Simple words…? What do you mean, boy?”
“I mean,” said Bartholomew, “this is all your fault! Now, the least you can do is say the simple words, ‘I’m sorry.’”
No one had ever talked to the King like this before.
“What?” he bellowed. “ME…ME say I’m sorry! Kings never say ‘I’m sorry!’ And I am the mightiest king in all the world!”
“You may be mighty king,” he said. “But you’re sitting in oobleck up to your chin. And so is everyone in your land.
And if you won’t even say you’re sorry, you’re no sort of king at all!”
I pray as this gospel is proclaimed throughout our nation this Sunday. It may touch our hearts in such a way that as individuals and as a nation we may come before God in all humility. We may ask the Lord to guide our nation and to guide the Candidates for Presidency to speak the truth, that they may work for peace, justice and prosperity in our land and peace in our troubled world. God says, “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicle 4:14)
May the Good Lord deliver us from “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?". Let us seek God’s mercy and ask him to deliver us from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy. May God give us the grace to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God. Amen.
Resources used for preparation of sermon:
Synthesis for Proper 25
The Living Church, October 24, 2004
G.B. Caird, Saint Luke
William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke
Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone
Reginald H. Fuller, Preaching the Lectionary, The Word of God for the Church Today