“Are You Looking at Me?” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! The scripture I just shared has a special place in my heart — not only for its message, but because of associations I have with it. It was the first parable I memorized as part of my biblical storytelling class when I was a student at AMBS. I had memorized other biblical passages before, of course, but it brought home to me in a new way what I had already known: that the stories of the Bible, including the parables of Jesus, were oral events. Listeners heard them as stories, usually in a group of at least 12 and sometimes many, many more. And Jesus was a pretty good storyteller: he put some things in this short parable which were bound to get his listeners’ attention. I should be so lucky, right?
The other association I have with this scripture is that it was the text I was given by the Program and Arrangements Committee when I was invited to preach at Annual Conference in 2018. I usually don’t take months to prepare a sermon, but in this case I did. Some of you have seen that sermon recorded or at Annual Conference in Cincinnati. I don’t expect you to remember it, and I have written a different sermon for today. One of the gifts of storytelling is that although the story may remain the same, the storyteller and the audience bring different things to their speaking and listening. So here’s what I am bringing to this text today: how we act matters. Our attitude toward other people matters. This is not an either/or — you can either do the right thing or feel the right thing — it is a both/and. In this parable Jesus is saying that we should do the right thing and have the right attitude toward ourselves and others. Simple, right? Maybe, maybe for us . . . not so much for Jesus’ listeners.
Jesus is speaking to his disciples and probably others, and he starts by setting them up, “Two men went into the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” This is a little bit like saying, “A priest and a rabbi and a Church of the Brethren pastor walk into a bar.” You know it’s going to be a joke, and that the pastor is going to be the punchline. If two men are praying and one is a tax collector, the tax collector is going to be the butt of that joke. Jesus’ disciples would be anticipating a message about repentance, and how the tax collector needed to confess the ways in which he had turned his back on God and his fellow Jews by cheating them and colluding with the occupying forces of Rome. Tax collectors are not beloved by most societies, but when the person taking your money is giving it to your enemies, they are not merely annoying, they are betraying you and your values. It turns out this parable is about repentance, just not in the way the disciples were expecting.
The Pharisee is an arrogant man. He has a respected and privileged position in society, and he’s earned it. He’s had years of specialized training, rigorous tutoring, and he’s backed it up by praying, fasting and tithing. Oh, and one more thing — he thinks he’s better than other people. In fact, he sneers at others. Likely he does this everywhere he goes, but he obviously despises this fellow Jew who has also come to the Temple to pray. ‘Thank you God that I am not like other people’ is pretty blatant, but it may have been typical from a Pharisee.
This is not the prayer we hear from the tax collector who says merely, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” And which of these men is justified? The sinner! Wait — the sinner is justified and not the righteous man? Surprised? The disciples would have been. This is shocking. Notice that there’s no suggestion that the Pharisee is lying and not he’s not really fasting or tithing as much as he says. Nor does the tax collector propose any action or restitution: God be merciful to me; I’m going to give up the IRS gig and start working for a not-for-profit feeding homeless children. Each of these men are justified — or not — solely on the basis of their attitude. The humble man is justified, the arrogant man is not.
If this is not a challenging teaching for you, you are a better person than I am. I have made a career — literally, a career — out of praying, tithing, reading scripture, and generally trying to do the right thing. I could go on and on and list all of the ways I have done this, and the sacrifices I have made of time and money, and in so doing . . . I would be a lot like that Pharisee. I hope that my good works have made a difference in this congregation and in our community, but the truth is my good works don’t justify me one little bit in the eyes of God. God is much more interested in my attitude toward myself and other people. Although I speak with tongues of men and of angels and have no love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. That was the apostle Paul, singing in harmony with Jesus. There are some pretty tough teaching in the Sermon on the Mount about what happens if you insult a brother or sister, and how God is unimpressed by us loving only the people who love us.
You can probably guess that when I hear this parable, the character I most identify with is the Pharisee. Maybe that is not the case for you. But here’s what has evolved over the past few years in my understanding of this parable. Our attitude toward ourselves and other people is inseparable from our commitment to Christ, and in fact, it is probably more difficult to have the right attitude than it is to pray and fast and tithe. But how we regard act toward one another is a measure of our Christian values. Part of the reason it’s more difficult than praying or tithing is because we won’t get any recognition for having the right attitude. Our Finance team issues quarterly giving statements; the Shalom Team does not give out quarterly attitude statements: On September 28 at the Fellowship Team meeting, someone challenged your authority, and you found a way to work with them anyway, even though you were right. On October 5, somebody told you how unhappy they are with Pastor Rosanna, and instead of saying “I know, she’s terrible, I’ve felt that way for years, and everybody does too” you said, I’m sorry to hear you feel that way. Have you ever considered talking to Pastor Rosanna about it? Those acts of humility are never going to be recorded, and may even go completely unrecognized. Those acts of humility could cost you more than tithing 10% of your income, but they will shape who you are more profoundly than the money you give to the church.
I suspect that Jesus knew how difficult it is make a statement like the tax collector did. To say, “God, I hope you can see past all the ways I have messed up.” It is so much simpler to justify ourselves by regarding other people with contempt. You know the people I mean, immigrants, atheists, folks who receive public assistance, people who voted for a different presidential candidate than I did. You fill in the blanks. But the truth is no amount of bad behavior on the part of anyone else changes the fact that I have messed up. It is not a matter of degree: we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Period. The only way we can leave the Temple justified is by the grace of Christ, and the only way we can receive the grace of Christ is to confess that we need it. It doesn’t matter who else is at the Temple or what they have done. We are not justified by the good or bad behavior of anyone else; they cannot confess on our behalf, nor can they accept Christ’s grace for us. You don’t have to be better than me — I hope you are, but don’t expect God to be impressed. If your faith is built on being better than other people, that structure is going to fall. If your faith is built on the confession that you are a sinner and that you are justified by grace alone, that is bedrock. This morning we are going to have the Service of Anointing. We practice anointing in the Church of the Brethren for confession of sin, strengthening of faith, and the healing of mind, body and spirit. Anyone may come forward while we sing our final hymn, and I will place oil on your forehead as a sign of the gift of God’s Spirit and the prayers of this community resting on you. If there is something specific you want me to pray for with you, please let me know in a few words. You do not need to confess your sins to me, but you do need to acknowledge them to God. I wish you all the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.