October 23, 2022

The Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost

October 23, 2022
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8; Luke 18:9-14

From the Gospel according to Luke, “… God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I speak to you in the
Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

One of the truths that came to light during the pandemic is that the wearing of masks not only
distorts one’s appearance but hides their thoughts as well. Standing in this pulpit week after week, I
could see your eyes but not your facial expression. So it was difficult to have any sense of your
thoughts, your concerns, how you were responding to words of hope and healing, were you even
interested, or were you distracted as you continued to wrestle with something troubling your heart.
Now while some of us continue to choose to wear masks, ending the mandatory mask requirement
restored the ability to have a better sense of what is truly in the hearts and minds of many both in
the Church and in our communities because we can now see each other’s faces. In many ways,
removing masks encourages us to be honest about our true selves and honesty is always the
beginning of redemption. But the reality is, just because a physical mask has been removed doesn’t
mean we’re not still hiding or masking our deepest thoughts or worries, or what we really believe
and think about ourselves, and others.
Today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke encourages us to remove the masks we cling
to both literally and figuratively so that we come face to face with who we really are and what we
really think and believe. Remember the intent of parables is not to make us feel good, but rather, to
shake us, to urge us to think differently about God, ourselves, and our neighbor, and then change
our ways. And today’s parable about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector does that on many levels.
Many Christians, maybe even most, tend to read this story thinking to themselves, “Well, thank
God, I am not like that Pharisee.” We want to identify with the Tax Collector because he relies upon
God’s mercy and grace rather than religious ritual for redemption. That is the very essence of our
Protestant heritage. But one of the traps of this parable is that the moment we say to ourselves,
“Thank God, I am not like that Pharisee” our masks drop away and reveal that is exactly who we
are. This parable invites a closer look at how it applied to the hearers then, and still applies to us
today because if we’re honest, we should see ourselves in both characters because we are both of
them: Tax Collector and Pharisee.
Tax Collectors were despised because they cheated everyone. They collected more than what
was due – that’s how they got paid. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being paid for one’s labor. In
fact, it was expected that Tax Collectors would charge and take a little more as a salary, as a way to
support and feed their families. But given the tax increases levied in order to support the vast
Roman Empire, taking more than what was due was a crushing blow to most people and that taking
wasn’t based upon a fixed formula, but rather, by one’s appearance or whether the Tax Collector
liked you, or not. By describing this man as a Tax Collector Jesus suggests he is not to be trusted.
So, hearing him call out for God’s mercy and admit “I am a sinner” makes us smile and nod our
heads in approval. We like it when others acknowledge their sins. Oh, but be careful …that’s part of
the trap in this parable.
See, describing the other fellow as a Pharisee is just as tricky. Now, Luke had no use for Pharisees,
and yet, the truth is, Pharisees had committed the whole of their lives to living the Torah, to
upholding God’s values and ways in all things. They are very much like those who desire and try to
live each one of our baptismal covenant promises. Pharisees were people of faith just like you and
me and they were committed to demonstrating their faith in every aspect of daily life. Now, for
some, - and, of course, we would never do this – such commitment often led to nitpicking over how
things should be done, whom one should associate with and so on. Jesus always called that sort of
thinking and action into question and so it is natural for us to vilify the Pharisee in this story
. But, then Jesus throws us a couple of curves: The Pharisee says he tithes all his income and fasts
twice a week. The word, “all” here means that he not only tithed his salary, but everything he
owned. The Torah requires tithing on earnings alone, not on one’s possessions. But this guy tithed
everything and that is something to be admired, not despised. And the fact that he fasted twice a
week goes above and beyond what it means to be a person of faith. See, in Jewish tradition, fasting
twice a week is never about enhancing one’s personal piety or seeking atonement for one’s own
sins, but rather, it is a means to pray about, and seek atonement for, the sins of the entire
community. In reality, this Pharisee is a super-believer who has fully grasped and embraced the
scriptural teaching that we are – all of us - responsible for our neighbor and that, indeed, we are our
brother’s keeper.
Nevertheless, his apparent disparaging words lead us to judge and conclude that he is a pompous
jerk. But in reality, he really is trying to live his faith. So in the moment we say, “Thank God, I am
not like him” we have fallen into the trap of this parable. We have set ourselves up as judges and
think or believe God’s grace is limited to those whom we think deserve it and more worthy of it than
anyone else. We lapse into thinking that we are better than our neighbor. “Thank God I am not like
those people (the Pharisee prayed): rogues, thieves, adulterers, tax collectors,” – we might add to
that list – “Thank God, I’m not like those aliens, Muslims or other faiths, or those homeless people –
you know it’s their own fault anyway”. And in so thinking, the masks we work so hard to maintain in
front of others fall away and reveal the true thoughts of our hearts and minds; thoughts that we are
more worthy of God’s love and grace, mercy, and forgiveness than others. In so thinking we forget
the words of the Tax Collector, “I … am … a … sinner”. We forget that we are no different from
anyone else, that we all need God’s grace just as much as we all need to live it and show it and offer
it to one another. That’s why this parable shook up those who heard Jesus tell it.
The prophet Joel proclaimed that “all who call upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved.” And all
means all. We love that inclusive language, but we need to remember that not only can all be saved,
but also, all are sinners. While our gospel lesson concludes saying that the Tax Collector went to his
home justified rather than the Pharisee doesn’t mean the Pharisee’s prayer or his commitment to
faith didn’t have merit. Jesus is upholding the tradition of the Torah here which affirms that the
prayers of all people – Jew and Gentile - are heard by God when they come from the heart,
regardless of who you are. And when paired with last week’s parable about the Widow and the
Unjust Judge, Jesus reminds his hearers, reminds us, to not only pray with the faith-filled
determination of the widow, but with the humility of the tax-collector as well. Why? Because we are
all sinners in equal need of, and worthy of, God’s grace. What matters to God is what is in one’s
heart and mind, not the masks we wear, and that makes all the difference. For when God’s mercy,
love, grace, and forgiveness abides in the heart and mind, masks are removed, and lives are
St. Paul, in today’s reading from 2 nd Timothy, says that God’s grace made all the difference in his
life and that he relies upon it every day because that is what changed him from whom he once was,
from Saul, the Persecutor, to Paul the Apostle. That’s what a true experience of, and commitment to
God’s grace and mercy does in the lives of people of faith. It changes everything about who we are
and how we live. It changes how we see ourselves, and more importantly, how we should see
others, and, in turn, by removing our masks, how others see, know, and experience us.
And that leads to an even deeper message in this parable and brings it into the context of our
lives. Not only does this parable answer the question about who is worthy to receive God’s mercy
(and that is all who call upon the Name of the Lord), it also asks the question whether God’s mercy,
God’s grace, made any difference in the lives of that Pharisee and Tax Collector after they left
Temple, after we leave this Church? How does God’s grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness impact how
we see ourselves and our neighbor? How do those gifts of God transform our everyday lives, how we
think, how we act, what we say about others especially when no one else is around?
Our lessons this morning urge that we remember and truly understand that there is no need to
hide who we are behind a mask because all are created equal in the sight of God and in all humility,
all of us, you and me, are sinners. Remember and understand it so fully that it makes a difference in
us, in how we choose to live, treat others, and how it changes the hearts and minds of all who claim
to be people of God. The Tax Collector said, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” By God’s grace, may
that mercy abound in us, and through us, and for us, and for the whole world. Amen.