Message for October 23, 2022

Luke 18:9-14

20 Pentecost C

How are You Standing?

Here’s a story you know better than I do. It’s harvest time. A local farmer gets sick or injured. The farmer can’t bring in the harvest. It’s a crisis for that family.

Soon, help arrives. Neighbors come with combines, trucks, tractors, grain carts, and fuel. Meals are organized and delivered. In the blink of an eye, the farmer’s harvest is in the bin. Disaster is averted. Scenes of tearful gratitude make the local news.

Why do people do that? Well, it’s just what neighbors do, right? Most of you can’t imagine doing anything else. In that scene, differenced disappear. Old resentments recede into the background. Competition for ground is put on hold. We’re all in this together. Nothing else matters.

Why do you do it? It’s more than a sense of obligation. It’s not just repayment of previous help. Ignoring that neighbor would make us feel less human. Answering the call makes us happy. We get real joy in coming together around deep human need. Responding to that need makes us whole, content, more fully human.

It’s what God has made us for. I thank God today for all those times when you’ve helped a neighbor in need. I thank God today for all those times when you’ve dropped everything and answered the call. And I thank God for all those times when you’ll do it all again.

Stories of harvest help create a painful contrast to day’s Gospel reading. It’s the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. When we’re helping, we’re at our best. When we’re at our best, we stand with each other and for each other. When we’re at our worst, we stand apart from each other and against each other.

Today’s reading asks a question. How are we standing? I hope that question rattles in your brain this week. How are we standing?

Two men go up to the Jerusalem Temple to pray. One is a Pharisee. He’s not a bad guy. He does everything right. In fact, the Pharisee does everything more than right. He should be the hero. But’s he’s not.

I need you to listen closely here. The Pharisee’s problem is NOT that he’s Jewish. There’s a lot of anti-Jewish garbage floating on Christian parts of the Internet these days. It’s wrong – theologically, historically, and morally wrong. The New Testament is not a stick to beat the Jews. Anti-Jewish perspectives are un-Christian.

The Pharisee’s problem is NOT that he’s Jewish. His problem is how he stands. In verse eleven, we hear that the Pharisee is standing “by himself.” He stands apart from others. He rejects community and connection.

He stands “by himself.” That phrase can also mean “toward himself.” That’s the more literal translation. The Pharisee is focused on himself. He is turned away from God and neighbor. The Pharisee’s problem isn’t his identity. His problem is that he is turned in on himself. So, his prayer isn’t about gratitude. It’s about self-congratulation.

How are we standing? Don’t stand like that Pharisee.

The Pharisee stands toward himself. So, he turns away from others. “I’m so glad I’m not like the rest of those people,” he prays. “I’m really glad I’m not like that stinking Tax Collector.” Tax collectors make easy bad guys in the New Testament. They were a combination of thief, traitor, and torturer. No one wanted to be “like” the Tax Collector – not even the Tax Collector himself.

But the Pharisee got it wrong. The Pharisee is like the Tax Collector in all the ways that matter. The Pharisee is created in God’s image and likeness – just like the Tax Collector. The Pharisee is in bondage to sin, death, and evil – just like the Tax Collector. The Pharisee needs to be put right with God and his neighbor – just like the Tax Collector.

These two are different in one way. The Tax Collector knows what he needs. “God,” the Tax Collector prays, “be merciful to me, a sinner.” The Tax Collector doesn’t have low self-esteem. He just sees himself as he is. That’s what it means to humble oneself. Humbling oneself isn’t about feeling bad or small. It’s just about telling myself the truth about myself.

How are we standing? That’s a question about direction, not distance. The Pharisee is in the front pew. But he’s turned toward himself. The Tax Collector is barely inside the back door. But he is turned toward God. Jesus says the Tax Collector goes home “justified.”

God turns the Tax Collector in the right direction – toward God and neighbor. That’s what being “justified” means.

God stands “toward” you. That’s the good news today, and every day. God stands for you. God stands with you. God stands by you. That’s who Jesus is and what Jesus does. No matter how I twist and turn, God is there for me. When I stand far off – wrapped in my own wrongs and regrets – God comes to me in mercy and love.

I think about these words from the Letter to the Hebrews. “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness,” Hebrews 4:16 says, “so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” God comes to you in Jesus. Jesus untangles you from yourself. The Holy Spirit frees you to turn every day toward God and neighbor.

How are we standing? Do we stand toward ourselves? At our worst, we stand apart from God and against our neighbor. At our best, we stand with God and for our neighbor. Think about the joy in that harvest help story. Standing with God and for our neighbor is how we’re made. Standing that way keeps us straight with the world.

In the past few weeks, I’ve talked a couple of times with other ELCA pastors in our area. We’ve talked about the present and future ministries of our congregations. For some of those congregations, the present is challenging. And the future is troubling.

You know the issues facing those congregations. Average attendance is going down. Average age is going up. Their communities are declining. The way we did church forty years ago doesn’t work now. The way we did church ten years ago doesn’t work now. Those congregations can’t call full time pastors. Some might not last another ten years.

Well, Pastor, you might ask, what does have to do with Mamrelund Lutheran Church? That depends on how we’re standing. If we’re standing toward ourselves, those congregations have nothing to do with us. But I don’t think we can be right unless we stand with God and for our neighbor. It’s time for some of that harvest help in the church.

Mamrelund Lutheran Church is the “mother church” for many of these area congregations. Look at their histories. You’ll find Mamrelund pastors and members in many of those histories. Mamrelund has helped to birth new ministries in this community and across several counties.

When I started as an Iowa pastor forty years ago, I heard about Mamrelund Lutheran Church. I knew this was a leading congregation. I knew this place as the “cathedral on the prairie.”

Let’s remember this leadership role. I don’t know what that means for ministry here or with our neighbors. Neither does our synod staff. But we know the Holy Spirit knows. We trust that if we turn in the right direction, the Holy Spirit will lead us into a faithful future together.

Members of area congregations will discuss our futures on Sunday, November 13th. We’ll meet at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Red Oak from two to four p.m. We’ll speak plainly with and to one another. I’m inviting as many of you as possible to come to that meeting. I know it won’t work for some of you. But we need to have this conversation together. We need to do it for us and for our neighbors.

How are you standing? Toward yourself? Or toward God and neighbor? I’ll wrestle with that question this week. I hope you will too. Let’s pray…

Text Study for Luke 18:9-14 (Part Two)

Studies of the Lukan account demonstrate that the Lukan author pairs particular stories. These pairs often involve a man and then a woman (or vice versa) as the “hero” of the story. In offering these pairings, the Lukan author invites us to use the paired stories to interpret one another. The two parables that begin Luke eighteen clearly form one such pair. It’s worth our time, therefore, to see how these stories mutually inform one another (and us).

In both parables, one of the characters does the majority of the talking. In each case, that conversation is between the character and himself. That “interior” monologue is obvious in the case of the Unjust Judge (see Luke 18:4). I would argue, as have others, that our Gaston the Pharisee is also using an “interior” monologue. It’s just not as obvious.

Photo by Lukas Rychvalsky on Pexels.com

Our Gaston stands “toward himself” and prays. We know that the NRSV and other renderings translate this phrase in Luke 18:11 as “by himself.” That’s an acceptable translation and probably part of the Lukan author’s intention. However, we know that the Lukan author is quite capable of employing double and triple meanings in the construction of a phrase. I am confident that the Lukan author intends for us to see our Gaston as not only standing toward himself but as also praying toward himself. Therefore, this prayer has the character of an “interior” monologue.

We know from previous texts and studies that the Lukan author uses these interior monologues in part to identify the “fools” in these texts. The parade example, of course, is the Parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12. Both the Unjust Judge and our Gaston are made out to be “fools” in the sense used in Psalm 14. There we read that a fool says in his heart that there is no God. The Unjust Judge has no reverence for God and declares this to himself.

But what about our Gaston the Pharisee? Certainly, this character is not a godless fool? Look at the prayer – “I am thanking you, God…” Yet, the prayer is not about God. The prayer is about Gaston. I would suggest that our Gaston the Pharisee’s heart is so full of himself that there is no room left for God. And when there is no room left for God, there is certainly no room left for his neighbor. More on that later.

What are the parallels between the Persistent Widow and the Penitent Tax Collector? They seem quite different. The Widow demands justice in her cause. The Tax Collector begs mercy from God – the kind of mercy that will release him from the burden of his sins. The requests are different. But they are requests. Perhaps the Tax Collector has come to the Temple repeatedly begging to be set right. Perhaps the Widow has put away her pride and focused on the issue at hand. I don’t know, but it’s worth considering how these characters are connected.

In each parable, a powerful figure is portrayed as lacking and brought low. In each parable, a vulnerable figure is portrayed as being filled and lifted up. We continue, I hope, to hear the echoes of Mary’s song in these parables. I hope we continue as well to hear echoes of Jesus’ Nazareth sermon here.

Both the Unjust Judge and our Gaston the Pharisee are filled with themselves. Our Gaston didn’t do anything “wrong.” In fact, he clearly did it all “right” and more. Let’s not get caught in thinking that this parable is a critique concerning “works righteousness.” Jesus wasn’t a Lutheran, and he hadn’t read Paul’s letter to the Romans. In fact, the works of our Gaston are beyond good and right. He is, in that sense, beyond reproach.

Our Gaston had excellent faith practices. But those faith practices were a means to an end. They weren’t an end in themselves. How do our faith practices orient us for daily living? That’s part of the question here. Do our faith practices orient us toward loving God and loving neighbor? Then they are good and right and healthy. Do our faith practices orient us toward ourselves? Then they are obstacles to loving God and neighbor.

Does our piety move us closer to our neighbors? Then it’s a good thing. Does our piety keep our neighbors at arm’s length? Then it is not. The Unjust Judge used his power for himself. That’s what made him unjust. Our Gaston the Pharisee used his piety for himself. That’s what kept him unjustified. His piety should have moved him closer to his brother in need (of forgiveness and reconciliation). But he wasn’t having it.

In Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine argues that we should read this parable more positively when it comes to our Gaston the Pharisee. I hope you get the chance to read her interpretation. It’s an important and powerful corrective to our typical anti-Jewish readings. She concludes that the Tax Collector went down to his house justified “alongside” our Gaston the Pharisee. That’s a possible translation of the Greek in Luke 18:14. But I think Levine is over-interpreting in order to correct our anti-Jewish over-interpreting.

I don’t see that our Gaston was justified alongside the Tax Collector. That’s not because he’s “too Jewish.” Instead, I would argue that he was not justified because he wasn’t Jewish enough. Jewish piety begins with practice. That is certainly clear. But the goal of that piety is indeed to increase among the faithful love for God and love for neighbor. When Jesus holds up those standards for his followers, he’s not doing something new. He’s calling Jews to fully embody what is already in them.

The Unjust Judge has secular power and uses it for himself. Our Gaston the Pharisee has “piety power” and uses it for himself. With that framework in mind, I think we can make some headway in our interpretation. I am confident that this parable is addressed to the disciples just like the previous one was.

While Jesus may be speaking “to” those who put their confidence in their own rightness, I think it’s at least as likely that Jesus is speaking to the disciples “toward” those who put their confidence in their own rightness. He is speaking regarding such folks in order to teach the disciples. We know from previous interpretation that when the Lukan author is teaching the disciples, the author is also teaching us. So, once again, it’s time to listen up.

We can examine the ways in which we use our piety power to separate ourselves from God and our neighbors. I think, for example, of Christian congregations that keep their resources all to themselves. That’s too often the case with physical and financial resources. But it’s also the case with institutional resources.

Why is it that Christian congregations, at least in the States, can only be enticed into cooperative ministry when either (1) their congregation can be in charge or get the credit, or (2) their congregation is in desperate straits and needs the partnership of others in order to survive as a congregation? In our individualistic culture, we stand toward ourselves rather than toward our neighbors — even when those neighbors carry the same denominational or traditional label as we do. We can’t go home justified when we adopt such a stance.

I heard this put succinctly yesterday in a meeting. Our judicatory bishop quoted a colleague. “If you’re doing ministry alone,” that colleague declared, “you’re doing it wrong.” You can’t get much more countercultural than that in the States these days. If we’re standing toward ourselves in ministry, the chances are that we’re doing it wrong. If we try to function as church and never ask who else should be our partners, then we’re doing it wrong. We can’t go home justified when we operate that way.

Too often, we Christians stand toward ourselves in our attitude toward ministry. I’ve got mine – whatever that might mean – and it’s up to you to get yours. That’s not my problem. If we operate that way, we will find ourselves in the same position as our Gaston the Pharisee. Too many Christians in established congregations are satisfied with things as they are and hope that things stay that way at least until those established Christians are done with their own funerals.

I know that doesn’t describe all Christians in all congregations. But I can tell you from experience that it describes far too many of us. We won’t lock the door on those Tax Collectors who might wander into our sanctuaries and sit in the back pews. But we’re not going to do anything to stand toward them. After all, we’re not like “those people.”

And yet, in our parables, who are the heroes? The Persistent Widow gets justice. The Tax Collector gets justified. Taken together, they give us a picture of what the fullness of following Jesus offers – a right relationship with God and with neighbor. The “villains” in the parables have neither. And they’re not particularly bothered by the lack.

I will be asking my congregants on Sunday to reflect on how we stand toward ourselves in our daily lives and how we need to be converted to a different orientation. I will be asking us as a congregation how we stand toward ourselves and ignore both the needs for support and the opportunities for partnership that come to us through our colleague communities. I hope the conversation makes them squirm as much as it makes me squirm.

Resources and References

Baron-Cohen, Simon. The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty . Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Text Study for Luke 18:9-14 (Part One)

The first thing I want to do with this parable is to combat our tendency to make the Pharisee into “The Jew.” This parabolic character is certainly the villain in the story. But he is not the villain because he represents “Jewish legalism” or some other supposed Semitic shortcoming. It is so very easy for us as Christian preachers to make ourselves look good by making Jews look bad.

There is no text in the gospels more prone to this interpretation than the one we get for Sunday. Therefore, we Christian preachers have an even higher responsibility than usual to draw the anti-Jewish fangs from this interpretive serpent. I think one way to do this in a message might be to give the character an actual name. I know it’s a bit of a conceit, but I think it’s worth it. If we give the character a name, we might help people to see the character as one person rather than as a representative of an historic community.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

The name I’m choosing is “Gaston.” I’m thinking about the villainous character from the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast. Gaston is the village darling. Yet, Belle (the “beauty” in the title) dismisses his advances, rejects his overtures and, at least according to Gaston, publicly humiliates him.

Gaston’s sidekick is having none of it. For example, he sings:

No one’s slick as Gaston

No one’s quick as Gaston

No one’s neck’s as incredibly thick as Gaston

For there’s no man in town half as manly

Perfect, a pure paragon

You can ask any Tom, Dick or Stanley

And they’ll tell you whose team they prefer to be on.

So, Gaston it is.

“God, I thank you,” Gaston the Pharisee prays in the Temple, “that I am not like the rest of people…” That’s the real conflict in this parable. Our Gaston is suffering a profound failure of empathy. It may be that he is not a swindler, an unjust person, an adulterer, or (God forbid!) “even as this tax collector…” Our Gaston refuses to acknowledge the common humanity he shares with the tax collector. In so many ways, he is precisely “like” the rest of the people. But that is precisely what our Gaston cannot accept.

What causes such an empathic failure? Simon Baron Cohen argues in The Science of Evil that the erosion of our capacity for empathy results from treating other people as objects rather than subjects. “Treating other people as if they were just objects is one of the worst things you can do to another human being,” Cohen writes, “to ignore their subjectivity, their thoughts and feelings” (Kindle Location 182).

Cohen reminds us that this insight comes in part from the work of Martin Buber in I and Thou. Cohen’s work expands on this moral edifice and describes the psychological basis for such failures. “My argument,” he writes, “is that when you treat someone as an object, your empathy has been turned off” (Kindle Location 211). That’s how Cohen strives to explain, for example, Nazis using the skin of their Jewish victims to make lampshades.

I think Cohen describes the psychology and even the assumed ontology of empathic failure well. But I’m not sure he gets the mechanism right. For example, let’s think about how racism actually works in Western history. The Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch, the British, and the French (among others) want the land of natives in the Americas. They want to exploit that land using the bodies of African captives. That’s where the story begins.

In order to justify these behaviors, the oppressors develop stories that underwrite the land-grabbing and person-stealing practices. Those stories include things like the Doctrine of Discovery, the Curse of Ham, and dual origin Creation accounts. The documentary evidence demonstrates that the behaviors came before the stories. The stories were used to describe natives of the Americas and kidnapped Africans as objects rather than persons. Once the stories took hold, the behavior made sense to the perpetrators.

It is certainly possible to lose track of the relationship between the stories and the objectification. Anti-Semitism is such an established and ancient part of Christian practice and narrative that it’s hard to tell which is the rhetorical chicken and which is the behavioral egg. It seems to me that early Christians wanted to come out ahead in their cultural competition with the Jews in the Roman cultural setting. That desire took Christian stories and spun them to make the Jews the villains. The rest, as they say, is history – horrific history.

What causes empathic failures? The cause, I would argue is the desire to obtain and/or maintain power and privilege at the expense of another group of human beings. If I have more than someone else, I have to come up with a reason – a “justification” – for that imbalance of resources. If I don’t have a story to justify the inequity, then even a three-year-old can figure out that this is unfair and that I’m not a good person.

But if I can tell a story that demonstrates my superior worth, compared to those who are without, then I can keep my power and privilege and feel like a decent human being. I’m not like the great remainder of human beings who are undeserving of the good things of life. I’m not a scoundrel. I’m not a crook. I’m not an adulterer. I’m certainly not like this tax collector. I’m Gaston the Great – “Give five hurrahs; Give twelve hip-hips; Gaston is the best, And the rest is all drips.”

One of the themes of this section of the Lukan account, therefore, must be the perils of power and privilege. To maintain such power and privilege, we have to tell ourselves stories about ourselves that deform and disfigure our very humanity. Think about the “unjust judge” in the previous parable. He has no reverence for God and cares not a whit about the opinions of others. It’s only when his person, power, and privilege are threatened that he acts. That’s not a model of humanity we want our children to emulate.

Or think about the rich ruler who will show up in a few verses. We don’t get this story as part of our lectionary journey at this point, so it’s a good thing to point to it. When Jesus challenges him to surrender his possessions and become a Jesus follower, the man is deeply distressed. He can’t consider such a course of action. He’d have to change his whole story about how the world works. He can’t change the story and keep his stuff. He can’t lose his stuff and keep his story. So, he walks away, shaking his head in consternation.

Of course, the disciples are just as nonplussed. As the man walks away, they cry out, “Then who can be saved?” If the rich don’t deserve what they’ve gotten, then what hope is there for the rest of us who apparently are deserving of nothing? How quickly the Lukan disciples have forgotten the parables about the rich men in chapters 12 and 16. But never mind about that. Deserving is not the thing, Jesus tells us. If we trust in our stories, the ones that we use to justify ourselves, then we can’t be fit for the Kingdom of God. In fact, if we think about those other parables, we are nothing but well-fed fools.

Let’s go back to the beginning of our text, shall we? Jesus has left a painful question hanging in the air. When the Son of Man comes again, shall he perhaps find faith on earth? The faith Jesus seeks is trust in his way of life and love. It is the persistent pursuit of justice embodied in the story of that wily widow. That’s the faith Jesus wants to find.

That persistent pursuit of justice is not rooted in a story about what I deserve or don’t deserve. That’s up to God. The question is, will the Son of Man find anyone with the capacity to trust a story that doesn’t make me better — or worse, in the case of the widow — than everyone else?

Our Gaston is an example of those who put their confidence in the stories that make them deserving of what they have, that make them better than the rest. This is, I think, the meaning of that phrase, “having confidence in themselves.” Jesus isn’t criticizing positive self-image. He’s working on our inveterate tendency to tell stories that make us deserving of what actually comes to us as gift. We want to tell stories that lock in our gifts rather than the story that calls us to trust in the Giver.

The converse is also true. Those who have it worse, like the tax collector, must somehow be worse. Our Gaston the Pharisee makes that clear as well. But God doesn’t traffic in the currency of better or worse, deserving or undeserving. If we want, God will put us right.

What does this failure of empathy do to us? It twists and distorts and deforms our humanity – sometimes beyond all recognition. God’s acceptance restores that humanity. God’s acceptance makes us “right.” After all, the Son of Man came to save sinners. That’s the story we tell.

Resources and References

Baron-Cohen, Simon. The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty . Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.