Thursday, November 07, 2013

Foundations

Foundations
Lk. 18:9-14[1]
  It seems to me that we seek a wide variety of foundations upon which to build our sense of identity, well-being, and contentment in life.  For some of us, that foundation was laid by loving parents, and it has been a support to us all our lives.  Others, whether they had loving parents or not, choose to build their lives on foundations of their own making.  For many people it’s their appearance.  It’s not hard to see this in our culture that is so obsessed with youth and beauty that we inject toxins in our faces to remove wrinkles!  For others it’s achievement--whether they look to professional success, or wealth, or becoming a “mover and shaker.”  But life has a way of undermining these self-made foundations. Inevitably, they will all fail.
  Our Gospel lesson for today presents us with two men.  One man, a Pharisee, would have been a respected member of the community.  Pharisees were known for their devotion to studying and obeying God’s word in all aspects of their lives.  It’s no wonder they were viewed as godly leaders of their communities.  Now, in and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with the intention of obeying God in all aspects of life.[2]  We’re all called to that quest.  But the problem with this particular Pharisee was that he was very satisfied with himself.[3]  I like the way Gene Peterson puts it in The Message: Jesus told this parable about some who were “pleased with themselves over their moral performance” (Lk. 18:9).  Judging from his prayer, this fellow was very pleased with himself.  It’s hard not to think that he was bragging about himself to God![4]  But perhaps more importantly, that kind of spiritual arrogance always translates into looking down on others as inferior.  I would say that’s our first clue that there’s something wrong with this kind of religion.[5]
  The other man in the Gospel lesson is the exact opposite of the first.  In fact, as a tax collector, he would have been despised by more than just the Pharisee.  He would have been viewed as a traitor to his people and a thief.  Now, some of us might still think that way about tax collectors, but the situation in that day and time was very different.  In the ancient world, whenever a conquering power like Rome took control of new territory, they taxed the conquered people to pay for the war.  And essentially, they gave the right to collect taxes in that country to whomever was the highest bidder.  As long as he collected what he promised to pay, he could keep anything else he could extract from people.  And so he would hire a whole team of people who would work under him, each collecting a portion of the taxes.  And as long as they paid their quota, each one of them could keep whatever they could get.  So it’s not hard to see why this man would have been viewed as a thief and a traitor.[6]
  Two very different men who came to the temple to pray.  Both of them had built their lives on shaky foundations.  The Pharisee went for the goal of becoming a respected leader of his community by following the letter of the law.  The Tax Collector had thrown virtue and decency to the wind, and was basically robbing his own people, compounding the poverty and the oppression they already endured at the hands of their Roman masters.  And he had done so because he knew this career would be a fast-track to getting rich.  And I have no doubt that he had succeeded.  Two men came to the temple to pray.  Two men not so different in their attempts to build their lives on foundations of their own making, although the paths they took might seem to be on opposite ends of the scale.[7]  But I think the real difference was this: one of them was thoroughly satisfied with the foundation he had built for himself.  He was quite convinced that his life was right and righteous and even pleasing to God.  The other one apparently felt that the foundation he had built for his life had crumbled.  He came to the temple not satisfied, or pleased, or confident, but broken.  He was so broken that he wouldn’t even look up and he kept beating his chest in contrition. 
  And while the people to whom Jesus told this story would have expected him to say what a good man the Pharisee was and what a rotten scoundrel the tax collector was, he surprised them. In fact, I would say he shocked the living daylights out of them.  Speaking about the tax collector, he said, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other” (Lk 18:14).  I would venture to say that every jaw in the audience hit the floor.  What he said was the exact opposite of what they expected.[8]  But he was pointing them to something important: the shaky foundations we tend to build our lives on tend to fail.  The only foundation that we can ultimately know will never, ever crumble or falter or fail is the mercy of God.  And the tax collector, in his brokenness, cast his lot and his life on that unshakeable foundation with his prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk. 18:13).
  I think we all need to learn the lesson this broken man learned.[9]  The other foundations that we try to build our lives on may succeed for a while--even for a long time. But they will ultimately fail.  Because there is only one foundation upon which we can build our lives that will never fail: God’s mercy.[10]  The Psalmist says it this way: “The steadfast love of the Lord endures forever” (cf. Ps. 136). There is no place you can go, never a time when you are outside the reach of God’s unfailing mercy.  And when we find our identity, our well-being, and our happiness in God’s mercy, we are building our lives on the foundation that will last forever.



[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/27/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. F. C. Holmgren, “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” Interpretation, 48 (Jul 1994): 256-60.  He points out that the Pharisees were concerned with maintaining the health and well-being of the community through traditional religious practices like those elaborated in Deut. 26:1-15.
[3] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 210: “Theologically, verses 9-14 present in parabolic form the central doctrine of God’s justification of sinners and the ultimate failure of self-righteousness.  This doctrine is most often associated with Pauline theology, but in fact, it is as old as the Garden of Eden, the tower of Babel, and Jonah’ mission to Nineveh.”  Cf. Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 141: “the Pauline doctrine of justification has its roots in the teaching of Jesus.”  Yet, as Joseph A. Fitzmyer warns (Luke X-XXIV, 1185), while it does echo “the spirit of justification” in Hebrew Bible passages like Psalm 51,  “one should beware of reading this parable with all the connotations of Pauline justification.”
[4] The phrase is translated differently: like the NRSV, some say that he was standing “by himself.”  Others, like the NIV, say that he was praying “about himself.” There is actually a textual variant in the Greek New Testament that alters the word order to emphasize the latter interpretation.  Cf. Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 168.  Fitzmyer, Luke X-XXIV, 1186, differs from the majority view and supports the variant because it has some of the most important early witnesses to the text of the New Testament in support.
[5]Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX: 343: “Those who trust in their own righteousness will regard others with contempt, and those who regard others with contempt cannot bring themselves to rely on God’s grace.”  Cf. also Holmgren, “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” 253: “Prideful performance of one's religious obligations, combined with contempt for others, is no way to be righteous before God.”
[6] Cf. Craddock, Luke, 211
[7] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.2:385: “The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Lk. 18:9f.) speaks of two men who are both equally shamed before God but who are completely different because of their knowledge or ignorance of the fact. ... The shame of both is already disclosed. But the one knows that this is the case and the other does not. The one can only humble himself whereas the other sees many things which encourage him to exalt himself.”  The “shame” he refers to is the response of fallen humankind to the encounter with God who is completely holy and yet comes to us as “Immanuel,” God with us.
[8] Cf. Craddock, Luke, 211: “If anyone within the community of Judaism would not go home from the temple justified, it would be a tax collector.”
[9] Cf. Holmgren, “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” 251-52: “As history has shown, this ‘Pharisee’ of Jesus' parable has proved to be no stranger to the Christian community of faith!” Cf. also Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” NIB IX:341: “Disciples and believers are just as vulnerable to pride and self-righteousness as the Pharisees.”  I would add “or anyone else, for that matter.”
[10] Cf. Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” NIB IX:343: “grace partakes of the nature of mercy and forgiveness. Only the merciful can receive mercy, and only those who forgive will be forgiven [Lk. 6:36-38].”

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