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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 10/24

I sometimes wish Jesus was more like Andy Griffith.  As I channel surf with the remote these days, looking for something to watch on television, I wind up at TVLand more often than I should admit and watch reruns of Andy of Mayberry.  It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the show this year so it’s been on a lot, in fact I read somewhere that it has gained a whole new audience of those who aren’t old enough to have seen it when it was first on. It really is a pretty good show especially when you compare it to most of the rest of what’s on TV and Andy is kind of a Jesus figure.  Or, is Jesus an Andy figure?  

Jesus is kind of like Sheriff Andy Taylor in that he tends to be compassionate and understanding and gracious toward just about everyone, so Jesus does measure up pretty well that way.  But they differ in the ways that they teach and that’s where I wish Jesus was more like Andy.  In each episode of the TV show Andy winds up teaching a simple to understand, homespun moral by solving the problems of Opie or Aunt Bee or his idiot deputy Barney Fife and it makes you smile and feel good; you understand and it’s a good lesson.  

Jesus on the other hand, Jesus teaches lessons too, but he does it by telling these parables that set traps for us, leading us in one direction only to turn the tables on us.  We think they’re about someone else until we realize they’re not; they’re about us and he’s nailed us again and sometimes it’s not real easy to understand, we don’t smile and we don’t feel good.

He’s at it again today and like last week’s parable the text tells you what it’s about before Jesus says anything.  “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  So it’s a caution concerning self-righteousness and with the characters in the parable being a Pharisee and a tax collector right away that’s a hint, that’s a red flag that a trap is being set because those are characters that evoke an emotional response.  It’s not the same as starting a parable with “A sower went out to sow.”  A sower or a farmer is pretty much a neutral character, but Pharisees and tax collectors aren’t.

But also keep in mind that the way we hear Pharisee and tax collector is different than how Jesus’ first audience would have heard those terms.  Largely because of what we know about Jesus regular conflicts with Pharisees, we tend to react negatively when we hear them mentioned.  Even for people who may not know much about where the term comes from, Pharisee has become part of the English language as a word referring to a legalistic, rule of law nitpicker.  So centuries of interpretation lead us to see the Pharisee as a negative character, but Jews listening to Jesus would have had a different take, a much more positive one.  They would have assumed that the Pharisee was a righteous man and in fact Jesus describes him as doing what a righteous man is supposed to do, praying, fasting and tithing, offering ten percent of his income.  So their initial assumptions about this character are different than ours.

As far as tax collectors go, I don’t think people of any time or culture have had a real favorable reaction to them because while most of us understand the need to pay taxes, no one really likes to pay them.  There is a lot of anti-tax sentiment out there these days but even that I think is directed more at the politicians than it is the ones who actually collect the taxes; the treasurers, city and county clerks and so forth are just doing the job to which they have been elected or appointed. 

For Jews in Jesus time though, tax collectors were seen to be in collaboration with the oppressing Roman Empire and in fact they pretty much did have a license to steal.  They could gouge people for as much as they could get out of them, turn over the required amount to the government, and keep the rest as profit.  So our reaction on hearing “tax collector” might not be quite as hostile as that of a first century Jew, but it’s still probably negative.

For the original audience there would have been shock as Jesus told the parable and called a man righteous who everyone thought to be unrighteous and they would also have been shocked that he refused to call righteous a man everyone would recognize as being righteous, and who, even in this parable, was doing all the right things, fasting, praying and tithing, leaving them to wonder, “What was he doing wrong?”  That’s the trap Jesus set for them and it wouldn’t have made them feel very good because it upset the order of their world regarding who’s good and who’s bad and it would make them feel even worse when they got around to figuring out the answer to the “What was he doing wrong?” question.

The trap he sets for us is a little different, but it leads to the same result.  Unlike the people Jesus first told this parable to, we’re not bothered by the fact that Jesus puts down the Pharisee because, like I said, we don’t like Pharisees anyway; we’ve come to view them as bad guys in the Jesus story.  But…when we think about the fact that this parable is about regarding others with contempt, when we remember that regarding others with contempt is the answer to the “What was he doing wrong?” question, then, if our starting assumption is that Pharisees are bad guys that means we regard them with contempt and we realize that Jesus has nailed us, again.  We’re doing the same thing the Pharisee was doing. 

It gets worse though; if we reflect on it at all, we see that viewing the Pharisees as bad guys is probably the least of our problems when we think about other people or groups of people who we view negatively, toward whom we feel self-righteous.  We may disagree on who they are, but we’ve all got those people.  You see what I mean about Jesus?  Why can’t he leave us feeling warm and happy like Andy Griffith instead of probing those sins we were quite comfortable not knowing about. 

While at first most of us probably don’t identify ourselves with the Pharisee of this parable, we can be just as guilty as he is of self-satisfaction.  We may not be quite as blatant about it as he is in that we don’t pray to God giving thanks that we’re not like someone else.  We might not pray it, but we do think it.  Added to that is the fact that just about every church would welcome and love to have the modern-day counterpart of the Pharisee as part of the congregation.  Much is excused of someone who is active in the life of the congregation, who is in church every week and who gives ten percent of their income to the church.  That’s the Pharisee!  We’ll put up with his self-righteousness as long as he’s giving ten percent.

Trying to justify ourselves by the use of comparisons is a pretty natural human response.   A parable like this one is a reminder of the error of making  comparisons that lead to feelings of self-righteousness.  As an aside I should add that comparisons that go in the other direction and make you feel like you could never be as good as someone else can be just as bad, but that’s another sermon for another time.

Soren Kierkegaard, a prominent Danish theologian/philosopher from the 1800’s made a couple of good points regarding this text, good points about being truly penitent.  First of all he says that a genuine act of confession and penitence involves imagining yourself all alone with God; just you and God which leaves no possibility for self-righteous comparisons.  The holiness of God can only reveal each of us as sinfully inadequate, unable to justify ourselves.  Kierkegaard also suggests that such an all alone encounter with God makes us aware of the danger we’re in and that if we feel safe and self satisfied like the Pharisee, we’re really in trouble.  We need to know the holy otherness of God.

I like his idea of imagining ourselves alone before God for the reasons just mentioned, but also because, alone before God we’re also going to see Jesus.  The same Jesus who sets these parabolic traps for us, is also our way out of them which the tax collector in the parable somehow knew.  Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s grace, grace which renders all of our comparisons irrelevant.  It’s grace grounded in love for each of us as we are, despite the ways we don’t compare very well. 

Alone before God, we see Jesus, Jesus who frustrates us sometimes, but Jesus who always leads us to God’s grace.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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