Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

by Crossings

Luke 18:9-14
Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 25–Sunday Between October 23 and 29 Inclusive)
analysis by Mike Hoy

9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10″Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I 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.”

DIAGNOSIS: False Humility

Step 1–Initial Diagnosis: “God, I Thank You that I am Not like Other People. . .” (Exalted Living)
This petition sounds like thanksgiving. But don’t be fooled. It is certainly not thanksgiving to God. It is only thanksgiving in oneself, and only then at the expense of others to whom one compares oneself (favorably, we might add). Jesus interestingly enough, did not intend this parable for an audience of Pharisees, but an audience of disciples. As one biblical scholar notes, “the Pharisees as understood in a negative sense lurks in everyone, and we should not evade the scrutiny of the text by casting stones at ancient Pharisees.”

Step 2–Advanced Diagnosis: Trusting in Self
At the heart of such comparative expressions is a legalistically motivated value-system. The propped-up self-esteem recounts all the accomplishments which the Pharisee in us remembers. Furthermore, such “self trust” is often encouraged by our daily dealings in the world. No one would think of putting together a resume of all his or her faults. There is a lot of reason to think that “justifying oneself” is not all that bad; and one has the law of God itself to use as the criterion for supporting such efforts.

Step 3–Final Diagnosis: Humbled
The problem is that the law of God has a way of biting us in the back when all is said and done. Such “self-justifying” efforts end up being a lose-lose proposition. We not only lose those “others” against whom we have had felt the need to compare ourselves in order to bolster our own flagging self-esteem; but we have lost the relationship with God in the most law-ful sense by our very act of invoking God to listen to our petitions. In other words, we have put ourselves first and thereby deprived God of any true thanksgiving. The result is that we are ultimately humbled before God, and left without any further appeal or petition within our own resources upon which to draw.

PROGNOSIS: True Humility

Step 4–Initial Prognosis: Exalted
We postmodern-day Pharisees who have been humiliated to death do have one appeal left, however, from One outside ourselves. Christ himself has risked the abandonment before God–being humbled and humiliated to death on a cross–in order to give to others what he had coming to Him: exaltation. What raises our heads when all we can claim about ourselves is that we are “losers” is that we have a Lord who loses all for us so that we can be winners in his mercy, and by His merits.

Step 5–Advanced Prognosis: Going Home Justified
So freed are we by this Lord who humbled himself for our sake that we, in all humility, are able to take heart and to have the courage to look up to heaven, and there to see our humbled-and-now exalted Lord sitting at the right hand of God. There our humbled-and-exalted Lord makes his appeal as the defense attorney on our behalf before the Father’s throne, so that we may “go home justified.” Such vision–faith–is something we now have, rooted not in God’s Law but in God’s promising Gospel.

Step 6–Final Prognosis: “God, Be Merciful to Me a Sinner!” (Humble Living)
The new petition that this brings to our lips and to our everyday living is a humble petition. We have nothing to boast in ourselves; nevertheless, we dare to invoke the blessing of God’s mercy upon us as sinners even as we “sin boldly” each day. We dare to live each day by the grace of God, not counting on anything we do as worthy–only trusting that the God who justifies the ungodly is there with us each and every step of the way. How humbling, how mortifying a lifestyle! Yes, but how truly thankful we are for that mercy each day!


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