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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Reformation and Deep Divinig Scripture - 10/27/2019

Today we observe the Reformation of the Church, which, through many times and people and fashions, has led to us to gathering in this place of the Lutheran expression of Christianity on the shores of Lake Superior, 502 years after the day Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic priest and professor in Wittenberg, Germany, nailed his 95 theses to the church doors. It was the social media platform of the day. It got a lot of “likes” and comments.

You may remember from our Reformation 500-year that one of the things Luther brought about in his reforming ministry was a new way of engaging the scriptures. At that time, the whole Mass was done in Latin, a language most of the people didn’t really understand. And, the reading and interpreting of scriptures was left primary to the priests.

Luther felt the bible was meant to be in any and all hands, not just the priests. So one thing he ended up doing was translate the bible for the first time into the language of the people, which for him was German.

Luther and his wife Katie also knew that, in general, people’s ability to read was an obstacle in fulfilling this vision of the everyday person’s engagement with scripture. And so they were also fierce promoters and providers of education and teaching people to read … from the farmer to the pharmacist, rich and poor, boys and girls.  

“A simple (person) with Scripture has more authority than the Pope or a council.”

Luther said something like that on several occasions, apparently.

I think we can be very thankful for this consequence of the Reformation and of Luther’s ministry. I know this Christian practice of reading the bible for myself and gathering with others to read it together in bible studies or at meetings is one of the primary reasons I ended up an ELCA Lutheran.

This way of engaging with Scripture is in our reforming DNA. We are like Jacob, encouraged to wrestle with the text down by the river all night long, hanging onto our God-given faith that we will be blessed by the encounter, even if it wounds us and sends us away – limping a little – and changed forever.

Today’s Gospel reading provides us with a really good example of why it’s good to dive into the Scriptures and wrestle with them … why it often benefits us to go deeper, to think about different angles, and for us 21st theologians, to think about what these words and parables would have communicated to their first hearers…our Christian cousins of the 1st century.

Because today’s Gospel reading, if left at a topical understanding, is a trap.

Think about it. First, we are primed before Jesus even starts the parable by the Gospel writer. We are told that we will now learn something about the self-righteous who look down on others with contempt.

And then Jesus begins: Two Jewish men are praying at the Temple in Jerusalem. It is the most Holy Place in the universe to these men. One is a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

The Pharisee gives thanks to God for all the ways he holds true to God’s holy law. That is one mark of a devout and righteous and well-respected Pharisee. They believed it was important to make the benefits of living within God’s law visible and accessible to all Jewish people.  

And, in a contemptuous kind of way, the Pharisee also thanks God that he is not leading a life overwhelmed by sin like thieves, rogues, adulterers or even this tax collector.

Jesus then introduces this tax collector in a sympathetic light … he is bent over, tormented by his sin, begging for God’s mercy and forgiveness.

And then Jesus concludes his parable by revealing that it is this sinful and repentant tax collector who returns to his life justified in the eyes of God … because those who are puffed up about themselves and over others will be quite humbled in the fully revealed cosmos of God. But those who humble themselves will be exalted by God, even thieves, rogues, adulterers … even this tax collector.

The end.

Immediatly, we, the hearers, start working on the meaning of Jesus’ parable in our heads. The Pharisee is in the wrong. He is arrogant and has exalted himself over other people like this tax collector. That tax collector feels more like a victim. He is so repentant and utterly destroyed by his abuse of God’s law.

And there it is. We just stepped into the trap.

Because in coming to this conclusion about the parable, we become like the Pharisee. Suddenly we have the bent over and repentant tax collector, being looked down upon by the self-exalted Pharisee, who is now being looking down upon by us.

The first thing we learn about the self-righteous who look down on others with contempt then, is that we can so easily become the self-righteous who look down on others with contempt.

And here is where we find the entry into Scriptures that Luther knew was only possible if everyone was encouraged to engage with them personally and continuously. We know that our good teacher Jesus would not lead us down this rabbit hole just to make fools of us or hurt us in any way. (And if you don’t know this, let me assure you, our good teacher Jesus would not lead you down a rabbit hole just to make a fool of you or hurt you in any way.)

More likely it is to get our attention … check! … and invite us to go further.

One way we can do this is to think about those 1st century cousins of ours and how they heard what Jesus is saying here.

I already filled in a little bit on the Pharisee. It is easy to hear the word “Pharisee” and think of a caricature – a one-note bad guy. But humans are not caricatures. Pharisees, just like you and me, were complex people.

And, we know there were Pharisees among the first Jesus-followers. Some scholars think Jesus himself may have been a Pharisee, making it possible that the Jesus Movement actually came out of the Pharisaic sect. It’s an interesting possibility.

So we have this Pharisee praying in a way that may be expected and normal for someone in his vocation. Where he makes his misstep is in believing there are others, like this tax collector, who are beyond the reach, the power, the love of God.

So that’s a little more of the picture to help us understand how those early hearers would have understood Pharisees.

And then there is the tax collector. He may seem like a sympathetic character to us – probably not so much to many of our cousins.

These Jewish people worked for the occupying Roman Empire – which often taxed the Jewish people unfairly. The system was notoriously corrupt. People like this tax collector would bid on how much tax they could collect from a given region. If their bid was chosen, they set about collecting it in whatever way they could. And they were permitted to keep anything above the bidded amount.

Here’s how one commentary I read characterized it: “The gospels operate with an understanding that tax collectors were generally viewed as dishonest and greedy. The reasons are obvious. They were slimy opportunists and collaborators, willing to victimize their own neighbors while assisting the occupiers. They upheld Roman interests at the expense of the people of God.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4206)

So when Jesus says it is this man – truly an enemy of the people – who leaves the Temple justified, we can imagine this would have left the original hearers of Jesus’ parable with mouths agape.

“This is the one who God chooses to justify more readily than the Pharisee?”

This was hard to accept. Just as it would be hard for us to find mercy and forgiveness for one among us who professed to walk the Jesus way, but bends God’s law and Jesus’ teachings when it comes to making a buck, or gaining status or feeling more powerful.

What Jesus is saying here is that if it were a faithful Christian of today side-by-side praying with a repentant con artist who preys on senior citizens; or a powerful politician who can only think of re-election and the expectations of big donors; or the abuser who can only feel powerful enough when dominating someone else physically, emotionally or financially …

… What Jesus is saying … ?is that those people are more readily justified by God when they repent? More readily even then the righteous ones they control or terrify or con?

Yes, Jesus says, in word and deed, over and over again. We hear it these days in our Call to the Communion Table each week – “Jesus welcome sinners and then he eats with them…”

We heard it earlier in Luke when Jesus was eating with another tax collector – one who would become a disciple … “Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:29-32)

What Jesus has done so cleverly in this parable is show us an important contrast. We start off thinking it’s a contrast between a solidly faithful and yet fallible religious person and another so-called religious person who so easily put faithful convictions away in order to profit. But when we dig in as we are encouraged to do, thanks to Luther, we find the contrast is really between human mercy and forgiveness and God’s mercy and forgiveness.

The perfect faith Jesus brought to this world, our justification through him that hung and died on the cross, the victory and new birth that burst forth from that defeated tomb is God’s mercy and forgiveness made available and accessible to the entire cosmos – even us on our worst days, even the ones who to us appear like the tax collector to the Pharisee – beyond the reach, the power, the love of God.

In Jesus, that person no longer exists. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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