St Matthew’s, Bloomington—Luke 18:9-14; Jeremiah 4:1-10, 19-22
John Donne was a distinguished priest of the Church of England in the seventeenth century. He finished his career as the dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. But John Donne is probably best known as one of the greatest poets ever to write in the English language. There is scarcely a high school literature student who has not run across the poem that talks about a church bell tolling to call the townspeople to a funeral, and contains the lines, “No man is an island, entire of itself … ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
No one is an island, independent and self-sufficient. Even a professed hermit depends on other people to keep him supplied with food and water. We all live in a complex web of relationships. Some of our relationships are more important to us than others. These relationships that are important to us are the source of a great deal of anxiety over a lifetime. Will my parents be proud of my report card? Will the one I immediately fell in love with across a crowded room return my feelings? Will my children still love me in spite of all the mistakes I make as a parent? Will my grandchildren want to visit me? Will they want to go home?
Each of us wants to get these crucial relationships right. We always want to know where we stand with the important people in our lives. Most of all, the majority of us, whether or not we would actually name it and express it this way, want to know where we stand with God. We have an innate sense that that’s one relationship it would be a good idea for us to get right.
Getting right with God.
The New Testament’s word for “getting right with God” is usually rendered ‘justification.’ We want to be justified, to stand in the right place, in our relationship with God. Now, in everyday talk, we usually use the word “justify” to mean “give a good reason for” or “make an excuse for”. As the word is used in the Bible, though, a more helpful image is that of a “justified” margin on a type-written page. All the characters line up with one another down one side of the page—they stand in the right place in relation to one another. So, the million dollar question is, How are we justified with God? What determines where we stand in our relationship with God, that most important of all relationships.
The conventional, off the street, wisdom is that this involves some form of stockpiling good deeds—or, as we hear people say these days, being a “good person.” One way of picturing it is that we have to accumulate a certain number of total “points” on some celestial scoring system. By this standard, the longer you live, the more opportunities you have to score points, so the better your chances are of justifying yourself with God. Pity those who die young!
Another way of looking at it is somewhat more sophisticated: it’s all relative. As long as your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, whatever the absolute number of either of them is, then your right standing before God is assured. So if you can just be sure you keep a credit balance, you can sneak in quite a bit of sinning and still not have to worry. Just be sure you have a good accountant!
The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable is a shining example of this tally-sheet approach to justification. He was a member of a movement within Judaism that saw itself as an assembly of super-Jews. They were not only correct, they were excruciatingly correct—in their religious piety, in their social and civic duties, and in their personal discipline. Whatever the law of Moses said, the Pharisees did that much and more. So the Pharisee, as Jesus tells the story, came into the temple to pray, much as you or I might come into a church to pray, during the week, when there’s not a public liturgy being celebrated. He’s careful to couch his prayer in terms of thanksgiving, but the tone of what he says is really self-congratulatory; he’s bragging in God’s presence. He’s upright in his dealings with his fellow human beings—he’s not an adulterer, not an extortionist, he gives everyone what is their just due. He’s also fastidious about his religious discipline—he fasts twice a week, and he tithes! Sounds like the kind of guy we could use more of, doesn’t it?
There was a made-for-TV movie back in the ‘80s that, for a while, appeared in reruns every time you turned on the TV, in which Andy Griffith portrayed the decline and fall of an alcoholic, and everything his family went through during the process. What struck me was how his wife and grown children were all obsessed with pleasing him—whether by becoming like him, a drinking buddy, which is what one son did, or by becoming a hyper-achiever in the business world, which is what his oldest daughter did, or by just cleaning up the messes that he continually left in his wake, which was his wife’s job. They were all trying to “get right” with him, to justify themselves, to make sure where they stood.
This is where the illustration breaks down, of course, so please don’t think I’m suggesting that God is like an alcoholic! But in a twisted sort of way, the behavior of that tragically co-dependent family toward their alcoholic, and the behavior of many of us toward God, is curiously similar. It didn’t work for the movie family. Andy Griffith’s character died, and his family would spend the rest of their lives working through the consequences of their behavior. It didn’t work for the Pharisee either. In the end, as Jesus tells the story, his punctiliously correct behavior did not justify him; it did not stand him in the right place with relation to God.
Trying to get right with God through living virtuously has a reverse-image counterpart, like a photographic negative. This approach assumes that where we stand with God is determined by our sinfulness, by our weakness and inadequacy, by the great gulf that separates us from God’s holiness, God’s glory, God’s perfection. “I know I’ll never be good enough to deserve God’s favor; I know I’ll never be worthy of getting into heaven, so just leave me alone and let me at least enjoy my sins while I can!” This is a sort of pre-emptive strike—it looks like God is going to reject me, so I’ll just reject him first! It’s an effort to maintain some sense of control over our own destinies. “You can’t fire me; I quit!”
But the other character in Jesus’ parable, the tax-collector, reveals the error of such a way. Now, we have to understand that a tax collector, in Jesus’ world, was an even more odious figure than an IRS auditor! First, he was a collaborator with a foreign military power that was occupying the country against the wishes of the populace. He was, by definition, a traitor to his homeland. Second, Roman tax collectors worked, as it were, “on commission”. They were responsible for turning over a certain amount of money to the authorities, and whatever they collected in excess of that amount was theirs to keep. So there was a tremendous temptation to resort to fraud, extortion, and plain old gouging in order to maximize their income. Jesus’ audience would have assumed that the tax collector in his story was guilty of all these crimes. He comes into the temple to pray, and dares not even lift his eyes toward heaven. He just strikes his breast and prays, “God, be merciful to me…a sinner.”
I’ve read that scientists who use animals as part of their research make a special point not to form any emotional bond with their subjects, for understandable reasons. Yet, I’ve also read that, even in the midst of an uncomfortable experiment, a dog, for instance, will affectionately lick the face of a researcher, and wag his tail. From the dog’s perspective, the researcher is guilty of a great crime. Yet, that guilt apparently does not determine where the researcher stands in the dog’s estimation! Neither did the tax collector’s sins determine where he stood in God’s estimation. Not only is he not summarily condemned by his sins, but, between the two men, it’s the tax collector who leaves the temple justified, right with God, and not the Pharisee.
How can this be? Our good works do not determine where we stand with God. Neither do our sins. So what does? How are we justified? How do we get right with God? This parable presents us with a conundrum. It turns our expectations upside down. So what’s going on here that we can’t see?
What’s going on here is grace. Grace—God’s loving inclination and movement toward us and for us. During the time of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, the kingdom of Judah, which was the remaining remnant of the nation of Israel, suffered from a prolonged drought. In the passage which we read in today’s liturgy, Jeremiah gives voice to the people’s anguish in their adversity. Yet, in the midst of that anguish, they neither blame God for punishing them unjustly—“Our iniquities testify against us, O Lord … for our apostasies are many”—nor do they jump to the conclusion that God has abandoned them forever. They’re humble, they confess their offenses, they don’t try to justify themselves with a catalogue of their virtues or good deeds. But in the middle of their contrition, there is a statement of great faith: “Lord, you are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name; do not forsake us, O Lord our God.” They—or Jeremiah, at least—never lost faith in God’s grace, in God’s loving inclination and movement toward them and for them.
In his simple humility, the tax collector in the temple also gave evidence of an underlying faith in God’s grace. As human beings who live in relationship, we want to know where we stand with God. But as sinful human beings, under the power of pride, we want to control where we stand with God, to justify—or choose to not justify—ourselves in God’s sight. Only when we surrender that need to control where we stand, either through our virtues or through our offenses, is where we stand revealed to us. Grace reveals where we stand, grace reveals the basis of our justification, grace gets us right with God. We are ransomed by the blood of Christ, healed by the power of Christ, restored through the intercession of Christ, forgiven, died-for, raised-for, and lived-for, saved not through works, but by grace, through faith. Amen.