Page last updated



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 Preacher’s Site: It’s 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 there’s 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 I’m really doing by telling you this is that I think I’m 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 God’s grace--a truly amazing grace!!

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 Jesus’s audience would have heard it. You see, they didn’t 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 the villain.

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, he’s 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 God’s 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! That’s what God’s grace is like” says Jesus. It’s a totally amazing grace, isn’t it?

The other question is: why didn’t 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 Jesus’s idea of loving him or her.

“Ouch” That hits home doesn’t 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, didn’t 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: “doesn’t 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, it’s already among us!” But then the bishop said something even more confusing. He said: “it doesn’t 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! It’s 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 God’s work in this neighborhood. And God never said that it would be easy. God never said that there wouldn’t 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 wouldn’t be things stolen or destroyed.

I’d 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. It’s the sick who are in need of a physician.” Let us listen as those who want to share in God’s work within our neighborhood, to reach out to those who are in need . . .