God’s Grace, by Pastor Noel

October 27, 2019    Proper 25, C


     The word of the day is grace. I’m confident that grace is the word for every day. Hold onto it. God’s grace prevails.

     Times change, ideas change, people change.

     What we held as truth in childhood is probably not what we hold as true later.

     I grew up in the era of “western” shows on TV. You could tell the good guys because they wore white hats.

     As we mature we see that it’s not always so easy to discern good and bad. There are lots of “maybes” and “what ifs.” Our ideas change.

     The same can be true of how we read the Bible, especially the parables.

     If we think that parables have one, easy, answer, we are not reading them as Jesus taught them.

     Parables are meant to make us feel uncomfortable, to think about how we are living as God’s people.

     It helps to go back to what Jesus’ listeners would have heard. (thanks to Dr. Amy-Jill Levine and her books)

     Because, even though we say that everything changes, we know that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

     There always have been, and probably always will be, those we consider “good” guys and those we call “bad.” In different times those labels can get moved around.

     Voltaire said, “Of all religions, Christianity is without a doubt the one that should inspire tolerance most, although, up to now, the Christians have been the most intolerant of all (people.)”

     Luke guides our reading of the parable by saying that it is for those who rely on themselves and not on God.

     So, we are ready to find the good guy and the bad.

     In Jesus’ day, most folks would have seen Pharisees as the good guys.

     Pharisees were respected leaders. They were teachers and brought the ancient Torah into contemporary life. St. Paul was a Pharisee, and proud of it.

     Jesus listeners would have considered a Pharisee a pious and righteous man. Luke was not a Jew, and his view on Pharisees was not always complimentary.

     We have to balance both of those ideas.

     Early on the Christian Church became estranged from its Jewish beginnings, and looked with contempt on Jewish leaders.

     Even though it was Roman law that crucified Jesus, that contempt for Jews is alive and well and doing hateful things today.

     In Jesus day, the tax collector would have been “bad.” He was seen as a collaborator with the Roman oppressors. He collected taxes and possibly made himself rich by taking more than was due. He would have been considered a criminal, an outcast. As bad as the lepers we heard about last week.

     Jewish tradition said that there were people who were so bad that they didn’t need to hear the truth: Robbers, murderers and tax collectors.

     Jesus doesn’t tell us anything personal about these men. The first thing we hear about them is that they both went to the Temple to pray.

     The Pharisee gives thanks. He prays in a way that sounds self-righteous, but was right for his tradition.

     Saying he’s grateful that he’s not like the tax collector is also within his tradition.

     Even though to us it sounds as if he is showing contempt. Not loving his neighbor as Torah commanded.

     Much has been made of the fact that the tax collector stood “far off.” Jesus doesn’t tell us why. Perhaps he just wanted his privacy, and wanted to allow the Pharisee the same.

     The tax collector confesses that he’s a sinner and asks God’s forgiveness.

     Our Bible tells us that this man went home “justified” — made right with God.

     And the Pharisee didn’t.

     That would have been shocking to Jesus’ listeners. They would have walked away grumbling, questioning.

     But that may not be what Jesus said.

     I told you the word to remember is grace.

     It is possible to translate Jesus’ words as “this one went home justified alongside the other.”

     BOTH men went home in right relationship with God. Grace. Remember grace.

     That idea is in keeping with other parables Jesus told. The one we call “The Prodigal Son” and his older brother. The “Laborers in the Vineyard.” “The Ten Lepers” we heard about last week.

     In these stories God just pours out grace on everyone. Everyone can accept it and live with it, or turn away and complain that life isn’t fair.

     Luke adds a tagline to the parable. “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He seems to be accentuating the “good guy/bad guy” theme.

     Does God have a good guy/bad guy theme? Did Jesus? Jesus did criticize those who didn’t live by the Torah’s command to “love God, love neighbor.” And he left open the possibility that they could change and accept God’s grace and mercy.

     God’s grace is in the peace we share here each time we make Eucharist. We can share grace, just give it away, because there is an endless supply, and the more we live in it the more there is for us. God’s grace allows, encourages, us to be who we really are—no pretence or seeing ourselves through the world’s eyes.

     God gave grace to both men in the parable. We don’t know what they did with it. That doesn’t matter. What does matter is what you and I will do with the grace God gives us. 

The Rev. Noel Bailey

The Reverend Noel Bailey was born in Providence, is now back in RI for the 4th time, and hopes that this stay is longer than some of the others. She was ordained Priest at St. Michael's, Bristol, in May 1988, More details