Thirtieth Sunday: His Mercy, Not My Self-Justification

Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; Psalm 34; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

This week’s Gospel gives us the tax collector and the Pharisee: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”  This is the root of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,” which the Eastern tradition urges us to pray constantly.

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The other readings cast helpful light.  Sirach tells us God is “not unduly partial toward the weak.”  We can misread much of Luke’s Gospel, as if just being poor, or miserable, or a sinner, is enough to get you into heaven.  Careful.

Rather, “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds . . . and the Lord will not delay.”  The point is not our wretchedness, but God’s action.  The key is not just that we need salvation, but that he saves.  That’s what prayer is all about, and that’s the difference between the tax collector and the Pharisee.


Paul’s words to Timothy nudge our parable in a different direction.  Paul brags: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.  From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me.” 

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The challenge is that, in some ways, the Pharisees are so very much like the saints.  The reason Jesus talks so much about Pharisees is that they are not easy to identify.  We can run from sanctity in the name of fleeing Pharisaism, and embrace Pharisaism in the name of sanctity.  Pride is the hardest sin, because it looks so much like righteousness.

But in the second paragraph, Paul differentiates.  “No one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me.  May it not be held against them!”  In the first sentence, Paul sounds his unique righteousness.  But in the second sentence, he shows its real heart: he forgives. 

Then, “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed.”  He preaches not himself, but Jesus Christ.  Jesus works in him—so intimately that Paul repeats his, “Father, forgive them”—but Paul knows it is only Jesus who makes him holy, and so he preaches only Jesus. 


Key to our parable is Luke’s introduction: “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else” (or: counted the remainder of humanity as nothing).  The point is not just that the Pharisee rejects the tax collector.  The point is that he rejects everyone.  There’s a fine line between being grateful for God’s work in your life (like Paul) and despising everyone else (like the Pharisee).  Recognizing God’s work does mean knowing you’re special; it doesn’t mean being a Pharisee.

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The Pharisee is pretty righteous: fasting twice a week and tithing on his whole income is way better than most of us.  He’s right that humanity on the whole is “greedy, dishonest, adulterous.”  He’s right to oppose those vices.  He’s right to thank God for saving him (though it’s interesting that he thanks God “that I am” not “that you have made me”).  He’s right to give thanks, and to pray.  He’s doing so many things right.

And Jesus condemns him: “I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former.”  How we should pray that we will go home justified, that we will not be counted among the Pharisees.  How dangerous this accusation of Pharisaism is, since the one who accuses tends to be one!  How narrow the way, how straight the gate, that Jesus preaches!


What should we be instead?  Tax collectors?  I don’t think that’s the point.  Again, so much of the danger here is that the Pharisee is right about so many things.

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But note that the tax collector, like the Pharisee, goes up to the temple to pray.  He knows the sacred geography.

But where is his focus?  The Pharisee looks at himself (“spoke this prayer to himself”) and at humanity (“not like the rest of humanity”) and at the tax collector (“or even like this tax collector”).

The tax collector would not raise his eyes to heaven, but prays to heaven, “O God, be merciful.”  He looks to himself, not to commend himself, or pray to himself, but to “beat his breast” and call himself “a sinner.”  His whole prayer—the whole parable—collapses if he is self-righteous, if he complacent in his sin.  The point is not that he should be a tax collector.  The point is that, unlike the Pharisee, he knows he needs to change.

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Jesus Prayer is the key: to go, no longer to the Temple, but to Him who replaces the Temple, and pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” only location of my prayer, “have mercy on my a sinner.”  To know always my sin, and his mercy.  That is everything.

In what ways does your gaze shift from his abundant mercy to your self-justification?

Twenty-First Sunday: Seek

Exodus 17:8-13, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2, Luke 18:1-8

Two weeks ago, the apostles said, “Increase our faith!” and Jesus said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed.”  Last week, Jesus told the Samaritan leper, who knew to return to him, “Your faith has made you well.” 

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Interwoven with those exhortations to faith were warnings about meeting him when he comes again.  Two weeks ago, it was, “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’?”  And between last week’s reading and this week’s, we skip a passage that says, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed,” “They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. . . . so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.” 

This week, he ties those two themes together: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”


He does it with another strange parable.  Luke has beautiful parables, like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.  But also strange ones, like the dishonest servant, and perhaps the rich man and Lazarus.

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Here, he wants to teach us that he will “give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night.”  He could have used a straightforward story, like we have in our first reading: when Moses prays, the Israelites win. 

Instead, he has the parable of the widow.  Her insistent prayer makes sense.  What is strange is how he portrays himself in the story: “there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.”  He says, “Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.”  Why portray himself as the one “who neither fears God nor respects man”? 


God is good.  He is righteous, he upholds righteousness.  The Psalms tell us, “he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”  “The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.”  “I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy.”  He is not like that judge.

But as in the story of Moses praying for the Israelite army, he wants us to acknowledge that goodness.  Ironically, that means we have to cry out.

We are tempted to say, “God is good, he’ll take care of it.”  In practice, I think this thinking is more pervasive than we’d expect.  Christians and non-Christians alike say, if God is good, I don’t need to pray, I don’t need to work, I don’t need to be righteous.  God will take care of it.

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But Jesus calls us to a relationship.  And that relationship means that we do have to cry out, we do have to pray and work and beg for him to act.  Ironically, the only way to know God’s goodness is to have to work for it.  So Jesus tells this bizarre story where he compares himself to an unjust judge, one who doesn’t care about justice or about us.  Ironically, it’s only when we beg like that widow, when we act like we have to convince God to be good almost against his will, that we discover that he really is good.  That’s the mystery of prayer.

Of course, the widow in the story doesn’t get anything by her own works.  She’s not able to secure justice for herself, and she’s not even able to earn the judge’s intervention.  We’re not talking works righteousness here.  Like the widow, we are helpless unless God acts.  But ironically, we only discover that helplessness when we work to beg God to act.


Our second reading, from Second Timothy, tells us about another practice where we discover God’s graciousness: reading Scripture.  Like the widow’s intercessory prayer, studying the Bible, searching the Scriptures, is a kind of proclamation of God’s goodness.  In the Scriptures themselves we find that he is good.  But even before we find him, the very practice of searching for him there is a confession of his goodness, a practice of knowing his providence for us. 

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And just as it makes sense to say we don’t need to beg God’s mercy, because he’ll do it anyway, so too it makes sense to say that we don’t need to look in Scripture, because God will speak to us anyway.  And yet he wants us to search for him, because it is in searching that we find, in knocking that the door is open to a relationship, a real confession of his goodness, not just a passive expectation that he’ll care for us while we ignore him.

While we wait for his coming, he calls us to be eager and watch.

Do you search for God?

Twenty-Eighth Sunday: The Body of Christ

2 Kings 5:14-17; Psalm 98; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19

This Sunday’s Gospel is a little complicated.

On one level, the story is easy to follow.  Jesus heals ten lepers.  Only one comes back.  “Your faith has saved you.”  A good homily could be given on that level.

But the complication begins with the difference of that one leper.  All ten had cried out, “Jesus, Master!  Have pity on us!”  Normally, that seems to be all it takes for him to say, “Your faith has saved you.”  For example, in the next chapter, the blind man will say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  And Jesus will say, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well” (or “saved you,” or “healed you”: it’s all the same in the Greek).  But here, he says that only to the leper who returns.


It’s all about geography.  Our reading begins, “As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem”—the organizing theme of Luke’s Gospel—“he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.”  I’m not sure what to make of that.  Galilee is the north, Samaria is the middle, Judea, with Jerusalem, is the south.  The first half of Luke’s Gospel, and the early chapters of Jesus’s life, are in the north, in Galilee. 

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The turning point of Luke’s Gospel is Luke 9:51, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem”: he heads south. The very next verses say, “And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him.  But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” 

His journey begins by entering Samaria.  The Samaritan religion was a variant of Judaism that didn’t recognize Jerusalem, but held onto the older tradition: before David built Jerusalem and Solomon built the temple, the previous version of the Temple, the wandering Tabernacle, had been kept in the central plains.  Samaritan means “the keepers”; the Samaritan version of Judaism guarded that older tradition, in defiance of David and Solomon’s Temple. 

It’s funny, then, that this Sunday our reading begins, “he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.”  Galilee should have been left behind.  I don’t know what to do with that, except to say that Luke is drawing our attention to this journey.  But I do notice: Jericho, to the east of Jerusalem and on the Jordan river, is also the route to Jerusalem that Galileans used to avoid going through Samaria.  Maybe Luke is thinking of Jericho again?


The next appearance of Samaria was in the chapter after he set his face to go to Jerusalem.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who fell among robbers was “going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.”  Jerusalem is in the mountains.  You always “go up” to Jerusalem.  This man was leaving—on that Galileean road.

So was the priest who passed him by.  With the Levite who passes him by, it is unclear, except that it says he did “similarly” to the priest.  And it’s very clear: priests and Levites do their work in Jerusalem.  They work in the Temple.

But the Good Samaritan is just “travelling.”  It doesn’t say he was “going up” or “going down,” but it’s interesting that the priest and the Levite have their backs to Jerusalem.  Interesting, too, that when the Good Samaritan takes the man to an inn, the Greek word is literally, “a place that receives all people.”


The third time Samaritans appear in Luke’s Gospel is in our reading this Sunday.  The lepers “stood at a distance,” because they were following the Law: leprosy is contagious, and lepers were supposed to keep far away.

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Jesus follows the Law on this, too.  He does not lay hands on them.  With the blind man in the next chapter, “Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him.”  But with the lepers, he does the opposite: he tells them to go away: “Go show yourselves to the priests.” 

He is following the Law in a second way.  The Law requires those who are healed of leprosy to have their healing confirmed by the priests.  And the priests are now in Jerusalem.  He is sending the lepers to Jerusalem.

The one who returns is a Samaritan, someone who doesn’t believe in Jerusalem. 


“He fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him”—the word for thanks is eucharist.  Jesus said in reply, “. . . Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks?”

Our first reading is Naaman the Syrian, another foreign leper.  That story too is earthy, geographical: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.”  The waters of the Jordan heal him.  He takes two mule-loads of earth home with him so he can worship on holy ground.

Our second reading, from Second Timothy, shifts from land to the body of Jesus, “raised from the dead, a descendent of David.”  Salvation is “in Christ Jesus.”  “If we have died with him, we shall also live with him.”

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Jesus is the new temple, the new Jerusalem.  The place of worship matters.  We need to go up to the Temple.  God is everywhere, but we meet him by going to the place where he chooses to reveal himself to us.  The Samaritan is wrong to deny Jerusalem, so important to Jesus—but also right to replace Jerusalem with the higher temple of Jesus’s body. 

Jesus removes the ethnic attachments of Israel.  You don’t have to be born of Israel to come to the Temple.  But you do have to go to the Temple.  Just as Jesus had to go to Jerusalem, we have to go to Jesus.  We don’t eucharist just anywhere, but at his feet.

Does your religion ever get disembodied?  Could you be more Christ-centered?