Think back to your school days for a moment—if that’s not too scary for you. You’re sitting in a classroom either with rows of desks or in a large lecture hall. There’s a teacher standing in front of the classroom, his back to a screen, making a power point presentation, or, in my school days about a hundred years ago, writing on a chalkboard. The teacher is talking and imparting important information that you’re listening to and trying to record–unless of course you’re me and you’re daydreaming about what you’re going to do that evening or nodding off to sleep. In any case, there’s an information exchange going on. That’s why you’re in that class. To gain information. And the teacher is there to give you the information you need to earn a grade and pass the class so you can move on up in school.
What’s not going on in that classroom, except with the most extraordinary teachers in the most extraordinary classes, is transformation. It’s not likely that your life is being changed in any profound way as you listen to that lecture or take in the information in that power point. This morning, though, we meet such an extraordinary teacher, and he has a lot more on his mind than imparting information. That’s because this teacher is in the business of transformation. He doesn’t lecture or use a power point. He tells stories. And these particular kinds of stories are called parables. They are stories that invite the listener to be transformed.
Now, these parables that this teacher, whose name of course is Jesus, uses are generally not all that straightforward. They have a twist or a kicker which requires the listener to pause, to ponder, to think hard. When the parable lands as it’s intended, something shifts inside the listener. She’s challenged. Her worldview expands. Her mind and her heart are opened up to a new way of seeing and a new way of being. Consider, for example, Jesus’s parable of the workers in the vineyard. You know, one guy goes to work at 9:00 and the vineyard owner promises him a certain wage. The next guy goes to work at noon and yet he’s promised exactly the same wage as the first guy. Wait a minute. Hold on now. Our unfairness detectors are getting activated! And then another guy goes to work at 5:00 and the vineyard owner promises him the exact same wage as the first two workers. Our unfairness detectors are ringing off the charts. It’s just not fair! In fact, it’s outrageous! Yeah, well, maybe so, but Jesus is telling us that God, who, of course, is the vineyard owner, isn’t necessarily in the fairness business. God is in the grace business. The abundant grace business. The amazing grace business. God’s economy isn’t a zero-sum game like our human economy. Human economy is transactional. I work a certain number of hours to earn the agreed-upon wage, right? God’s grace, on the other hand, isn’t something we earn. It’s not transactional. In fact, God’s grace is completely unearned and undeserved. God’s grace flows in a never-ending stream of abundance. We just need to open our minds and our hearts to it. This is a teaching that’s not about providing information. This, my dear friends, is a teaching that leads to transformation.
Now this morning we come to another parable, the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector who each go up to the Temple to pray. It’s a familiar one and one we might imagine is actually pretty straightforward. The arrogant Pharisee, so proud of his piety, versus the humble tax collector, bemoaning his sinfulness. It’s pride versus humility and guess whose side we’re on? We’re very quick to judge and condemn the Pharisee and praise the tax collector. But doesn’t that really just substitute our own self-righteous judgmental condemnation for that of the Pharisee? And, really, does that judgment change us at all? Does it provide any insights? Does it move us to new behavior? Does it lead to transformation? I doubt it.
So I’m quite sure that Jesus had something different in mind here. Let’s take a look. First, we should know that Jesus’ audience of first century Jews living in Palestine would not have viewed these two characters as we do, with the Pharisee wearing the black hat and the tax collector wearing the white hat. On the contrary, Jesus’ audience would have viewed the tax collector with great suspicion, even hostility. After all, he was an agent of the occupying Empire. He represented the forces of oppression and financial slavery. And he was probably dishonest to boot. Tax collectors added their own cut of the proceeds they were collecting as their fee, their carrying charges, if you will. They were resented and considered to be traitors. The Pharisee, on the other hand, was a highly respected figure in the community. A figure of rectitude and righteousness. The Pharisees not only were interpreters of the Law handed down by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, but most of them also really sought to live out the Law in their own lives. They sincerely sought to be good. They, not the tax collector, were the good guys. So there’s the frame through which Jesus’ audiences sees these two characters. Different from ours, isn’t it?
Now let’s look at what they do. “Two men went up to the Temple to pray.” Two men who couldn’t have been more different, yet they share a common goal. To offer prayer to God. And to offer that prayer, not in private, but in the Temple, the place where the community gathers to worship. The Pharisee begins his prayer by checking off all the right boxes. He’s not a thief or a rogue or an adulterer, or God forbid, a tax collector. He fasts twice a week and tithes a tenth of his income. In other words, he is a good and righteous man who works hard to obey the Law. Doing what he’s supposed to do. Easy to see how he would be a respected figure. In contrast, the tax collector is clearly aware that he is not a good and righteous man. He has not followed the Law. He is despised by all. His guilt and remorse are crushing him, and so he acknowledges his sin before God and throws himself on God’s mercy. And yet Jesus says that he is the one who will go home justified, which is to say, he is the one who will go home right with God. There’s the twist, there’s the kicker in the parable for Jesus’ audience. It’s not the dutiful, the righteous, the well-behaved Pharisee who is justified. It’s the one who admits he isn’t dutiful and righteous and well behaved but who nevertheless pleads for God’s mercy, who pleads that his life might be changed, who pleads for transformation. He’s the one who goes home right with God. Jesus’ audience must have been astonished.
Here’s another astonishing take away from this parable. There’s transformation for both of these men. For the tax collector, having received God’s mercy, he can become more like the righteous Pharisee, a sincere follower of the Law, the Law which, after all, was given to the people by God so that they might thrive. He’ll try to do good. And the Pharisee will become more like the humble tax collector. He’ll recognize that simply checking off all the boxes isn’t good enough. He can follow every jot and tittle of the Law, but if his heart isn’t humbled, if he doesn’t recognize his need for God’s mercy and grace, all his rule following won’t count for anything. They learn from each other. They teach each other. They need each other, don’t you see? And where does this all happen? In the Temple. Which is to say, it happens in the worshipping community.
I don’t know about you, but there are times when I’m the Pharisee, the dutiful rule follower, trying to do it all on my own, making sure I’m checking all the boxes. And then there are times–no doubt fewer–when I’m acutely aware of my brokenness, my need for God’s mercy and grace. And thanks be to God, throughout my life I’ve had a worshipping community where all these parts of myself can be held and transformed. Where I can be both held accountable and loved. That’s why we need community. That’s why we all need this Epiphany community, a place where we can know God’s mercy and grace in spite of our brokenness and our failings. Which is to say, in spite of ourselves. We need each other, my dear sisters and brothers in Christ, just as surely as the Pharisee and the tax collector needed each other. And we need to be here together in this community, where the love and the grace and the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ can be at work in each of our lives.
This is the time of year where we focus on how we might best use our financial resources to support our own worshipping community. Do we need to pay the light bill and the water bill at Epiphany? Yes. Do we need to maintain these beautiful buildings and grounds? Sure. Do we need to pay the staff an appropriate living wage commensurate with their abilities and their dedication to their ministries here? Absolutely. All that’s important. But here’s something even more important. Give to this Epiphany community because you need this place. You need to be here knowing and sharing Jesus’ love and mercy with all your sisters and brothers. My guess is that you didn’t come here today for information. You might get plenty of good information along the way, and I hope you do. No, whether you’re conscious of it or not, you came here today, and you come here week by week, for transformation, the kind of transformation that happens in the worshipping community.
So let your pledge reflect your gratitude for God drawing you here to this blessed place. Let your pledge reflect your gratitude for calling you into a community where you can be yourself, a person who is trying to do good, who wants to do good, and a person who also knows your need for mercy and grace. Let your pledge be an offering of thanks to God that you are being transformed.