Lesser Children of God?
by Frank Schaefer
based on Luke 18:9-14
Listening to our children present the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector
brings a little story to mind that I have read (where else, but) on the Desperate Preachers
Site: Its about a certain Sunday School teacher who said, after reading this
passage, "Now, children, put your hands together, close your eyes, and thank God you
are not like this wicked Pharisee!"
But theres more: Another Desperate Preacher suggested: when we laugh at this
story, what we're really doing is thanking God that we aren't like that Sunday School
teacher. But . . . what Im really doing by telling you this is that I think Im
above it all and that I have the answer to this catch 22.
If anything, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector is telling us that no
matter how hard we try, we cannot . . . ever . . . figure out Gods grace--a truly
Two people approach the temple. One is a person of the religious establishment--in
fact, he is a religious leader. The other person is an outsider, a corrupt
tax-collector. Now, try to listen to the parable in the way Jesuss audience would
have heard it. You see, they didnt know the ending like we do. At this point in the
parable there was little doubt in the listeners minds who was the hero and who was
It was citizenship class 101 stuff: the Pharisee was an upright,
outstanding, and respected member of the Jewish society, he tithed, he was a law-abiding
citizen, and in addition, he did good things for the community. The tax-collector, on the
other hand, was a corrupter of traditional beliefs; not only did he not tithe to the
temple, he was in cahoots with the Roman government, he was corrupt and charged more than
he should have, and the worst part was--he was untouchable, above the law in that respect.
Anybody in that crowd would have picked the Pharisee as the hero in Jesus
parable. But Jesus did it once again. He dumb-founded all of his listeners. Turns out the
tax-collector is the hero. Yes, hes corrupt and sinful. Yes, he has cheated hundreds
of people out of their meager savings. But he comes before God, looks inward, is
overwhelmed by the ugliness of his sin, and humbly asks Gods forgiveness--and he
went home justified.
What do you mean justified? Just like that? No plans for restitution? Penitence?
Back-payment? Apologies?--he goes home justified without all that? Yep! Thats
what Gods grace is like says Jesus. Its a totally amazing grace, isnt
The other question is: why didnt the Pharisee receive forgiveness? Well, for one
thing, his self-righteous attitude prevented him from asking for forgiveness. Did he need
forgiveness from any sin? He seemed to be doing all right: he was a good man, he gave his
life in service to God. But even if he was following the Loving God
commandment to the T, we know he was guilty of at least one thing: he was not doing well
in the love your neighbor as yourself department. Exalting yourself over a
neighbor is not Jesuss idea of loving him or her.
Ouch That hits home doesnt it? Remember a few months ago when we
talked about that community yard sale? Some people from the community had asked whether
the church would consider opening up the parking lot for this purpose and provide some of
those Cokesbury tables. Between the bickering over who would be in charge and how much we
were going to charge for the tables, the yard sale never materialized. But the really sad
thing I remember was our attitude. We knew it would fall through from the beginning, didnt
we? We tried so many times to reach out to these neighbors and every time we did, we were
disappointed, frustrated. Why even bother with them?
Bishop Weaver (of the Eastern PA Conference of the United Methodist Church) said
something interesting right here in this church this past Tuesday. He said: you know
what? God is doing a knew thing today. God is moving into the neighborhood! First I
thought this is an odd interpretation of Rev. 21. I thought to myself: doesnt
this passage refer to the afterlife when it talks about a new heaven and a new earth and
how God will dwell amongst the people? But the more I thought about it, the more
this interpretation made sense. For, if you think about it, where did Jesus primarily
minister? Among the people, in the hood. He brought the good news into the
neighborhoods, proclaiming: the Kingdom of God is near--in fact, its already
among us! But then the bishop said something even more confusing. He said: it
doesnt say here that God is moving into the churches of the neighborhood. It says
that God is doing a work among the people in the neighborhoods, and we better make sure
that we--the church--are in tune with what God is doing already.
Listen folks, we are in real danger of missing the boat here! Its up to you and
me either to act like the Pharisee and look down upon our neighbors, or to open up our
church and reach out to the people all around us that are hurting, that are longing for
love and hope. We can either chase the neighborhood youths off our grounds, call the
police on them the next time they throw eggs or brake another window, or we can try to
reach out to them.
Bishop Weaver challenged us-Avon Zion UM Church to--stop bickering over petty things in
our meetings, and instead to reach out, even if that means that we have to
change a few things around here! What did he mean by change? For those who have ears let
them hear: if what it takes to reach out to our neighbors means to topple some heavenly
things, so be it. According to Rev. 21 the first heaven and the first earth passed
away. The bishop continued: Sometimes even the heavenly things, even our
sacred traditions--like our hymns and organs, and even our pews will have to go--if that
is what it takes to reach our neighbors. To radical? Well, tell it to bishop Weaver!
I remember when I first moved into this neighborhood. I remember how excited I was
about reaching out, about introducing myself to the neighbors, about sharing the good news
of Jesus with those that are at the end of broken dreams. Whatever happened to this
excitement? I tell you what happened to that excitement. I got disappointed by people from
the neighborhood. I got my feelings hurt . . . and as much as it hurts me to admit: I have
become like the Pharisee. Because I caught myself thinking: well, maybe these people
just cannot be reached. Perhaps we need to focus on people that can be reached in other
neighborhoods. (Thank you God that I am not like these people in my neighborhood).
The thing is, God is still doing Gods work in this neighborhood. And God never
said that it would be easy. God never said that there wouldnt be disappointments,
frustrated expectations, and hurts as we reach out to people in our neighborhood. God
never said that if you open up your church that there wouldnt be things stolen or
Id like to give this sermon over to someone who can finish it in a way I never
could. I have asked Jeff Imboden to share from his experience as a Christian and parole
officer, as one who has worked the streets for 20 years. Jesus once said:
I did not come for those who are well. Its the sick who are in need of a
physician. Let us listen as those who want to share in Gods work within our
neighborhood, to reach out to those who are in need . . .