Confession on a Dark, Cold Winter’s Day
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, February 7, 2021
Reading: Luke 18:9-14
I was introduced to the term FOMO over the winter. It’s “fear of missing out” and it is often used in the context of business and investing, but I think it applies to many other things in life. Right now, because of COVID-19, there’s a lot of fear of missing out. Things that you normally do that you can't, and some things that you could do, that you're not even thinking about.
I was thinking about something I missed out on, not because it’s been offered and I can't go, but because it hasn’t been offered this year. A couple of weeks ago, we celebrated Robbie Burns Day. For years, I participated in the Burns Night of the Toronto Scottish Rugby Club. I was sometimes the MC, sometimes a speaker, sometimes just a guest, but there was a fellowship, joy, and some fun, as we explored the poetry and the thoughts of Robbie Burns. I missed it this year, I missed it a lot. It got me thinking of perhaps the most famous phrase of Robbie Burns, and it goes like this:
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
To have the power to be able to see yourself as others see you. That’s what he means.
Now, I'm not sure in all honesty that I really want to know and understand how others see me. (I see Rev. Lori smiling there in the corner.) I'm not sure that’s a gift I want to have. But there are times when it would be kind of nice to know if you're doing something meaningful, or that when people see you, it brings joy into their lives. The more important thing is not “the giftie gie us… To see oursels as ithers see us!” but to have the power to see ourselves as God sees us. That’s a complicated thing, and it’s not one that comes easily, not do we fully know and appreciate. Having an awareness of ourselves in relationship to God starts with ourselves and not with God. It is how we see ourselves in relation to God, and that can be a helpful thing. In out text today, this well-known story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, goes right to the heart of that issue
This is a passage is among other parables in Luke’s Gospel, the one that precedes it, is about the persistent prayer of a widow. She is praised by Jesus for her persistence. Luke tells us now that Jesus is telling a parable about something different, about someone who trusted in themselves and looked down in contempt at others. This is an example of how someone who had a distorted view of not only themselves, but also God. It’s also profoundly about prayer and humility.
When Robbie Burns used that great phrase, it was in a poem called To a Louse, and “the giftie gie us…To see oursels as ithers see us!” might have been addressed to the louse to realise that they had alighted on the head of a very pious and good person, and they should be humble in the presence of that person. Or it could have been addressed to the pious woman, that she was harbouring a louse, a pest, in her head, and she should be humbled.
Seeing ourselves clearly can be a humbling thing, but the story that we have today tells us how, in a humble way, we should come to God in prayer. That this is the approach we should take when we want to see how God sees us. It starts off by revealing the odious nature of comparison.
When Jesus told parables, he was speaking in idiom. He was speaking in a style that people would understand. They understood stories with meaning. They also, as the original audience, would have understood the characters, people with whom they could identify with. He talks about real people in real situations in real time. The first character in this parable, is the Pharisee, the religious leader. This religious leader is praying, and they're probably around the temple, but as you look at the comportment, if you look at the way in which the Pharisee was delivering this prayer, it spoke volumes about Pharisees, prayer, and humility.
First, we’re told that he stood up and he prayed – get this – about himself. That’s the number one warning; he’s praying first of all about himself. He is the object and the subject of his prayers. He stands with his head high, looking up. This is a sign that you're coming into the presence of God with no shame, that you feel you can lift your eyes up to the heavens. He is bold and self-centred. He then outlines in classical terms, his reason for praying so passionately about himself. He says, “I fast twice a week.” Now, in biblical times this would have been a very strong message. Fasting was something that, according to the law, was required during the time of atonement. Levitical priests often emphasised fasting at the time of atonement.
The Pharisees went one step further and fasted twice a week, and the tradition was that they would fast on a Monday and they would fast on a Thursday. They would paint themselves white to show that they were fasting. It was a sign their piety was known by others, not just God. He also says that he tithes everything. Now, everything means everything. This is a major commitment. To tithe like that, is a real sign of being very serious about this. But to tell people that he’d been tithing, to make a public display of his tithing, to show everyone else that he had been a generous philanthropist, was disgraceful.
In his defence, you think, “Well, he’s obeying the law, isn't he?” There’s part of a person that thinks he’s doing what he thinks is right. There’s nothing wrong with fasting; on the contrary, nothing wrong with tithing. Gosh, I wish more did that. No, he’s doing good things, but he’s elevating himself while he’s doing that.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his wonderful early book, The Cost of Discipleship, talks about the law, and he says, “The law, itself is a good thing, and with the law, there is also a relationship with God. But if you only follow the law and you do not follow God, or put God first, then you have a deep imbalance.”
He writes this, and I want to quote him, because Bonhoeffer is well-worth reading, (and I want to plug for our Lenten study with Reverend Lori on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You really should sign up.) This is what he said:
Confronted with twin errors, Jesus vindicates the divine authority of the law. God is its giver and its Lord, and only in personal communion with God, is the law fulfilled. There is no fulfillment of the law apart from communion with God, and no communion with God apart from the fulfillment of the law. To forget the first condition is the mistake of the religious Jews, and to forget the second, the temptation of the disciples.
You see, the law is fine. It is given by God, but God is its Lord. The problem with the Pharisee is that he was all about his own fulfillment of the law, and not in humble service of God. He declares this. His language is outrageous; he says, “I thank You God, that I am not like adulterers, I'm not like robbers, I'm not like evil-doers.” Then he points to the tax-collector, “and I'm not like this tax-collector.” He had made the odious comparison, and this was his greatest sin. Not only was he praying about himself and elevating himself, he was also putting down somebody else, he was comparing himself to someone who was deemed to be lowly.
We’ve all watched in the news over the last few weeks, the struggle of the farmers in India with their government. It may be a story that hasn’t been covered enough in Western media, because it is a major world story. As I was reading and exploring a bit more of the history; I realized that there have been tensions between farmers in India and the government for many years. In 1994, there was a fascinating moment when the government in New Delhi at that time, decided to bring into the country, three million – three million – tons of dung from the Netherlands to use in the farms in India. Well, the Indian farmers were outraged. After all, they had cows, they had dung, they also made sure there were no parasites in them. “Why are we importing dung?”
A hundred or so farmers got their oxen and their carts, and they took tons of dung and placed it on the steps of the parliament in New Delhi to make their point. “Our dung is as good as their dung.” They made their argument cogently. The problem is we often do that, in our comparison with other people. We think our sins look better in comparison to somebody else’s. The odious nature of comparison.
That was the problem with the Pharisee; he didn’t declare his own dung in his life. He didn’t confess his own sins before God. He came to God with his head up high, full of pride, looking down on others. He’d lost his perspective of God, and he clearly had forgotten how God would have seen him in reality.
God is not impressed by our ability to explain how good we are. God knows what is in our hearts, and what was in the heart of the Pharisee, was pride. He was using the law as a way of keeping others out as well, to distinguish himself from everybody else. It was a way of protecting himself from the tax-collectors of this world. He was putting a fence around himself, using the law as a fence to protect himself from others. I am not like everybody else, and I think God that I'm not like everybody else.
It reminded me of when I visited a friend’s cottage outside of Kingston, Ontario. I was given a warning by my friend that in a neighbouring cottage there was a very fierce dog. He was a Rhodesian Ridgeback, strong-willed dogs. I was told, even though I'm known as a dog-lover not to get too close to Bert. I got there and I saw Bert in the distance, and I thought, “Oh, I’ll go up to Bert and make friends.” Bert was protecting his land. Bert came running up to me and I'm thinking, “Oh dear Lord, I'm in trouble now.” Bert was snarling and barking and just doing what he was supposed to do to protect his land. Just as he was getting close to me, he just stopped dead in his tracks, and turned around and went back. I'm thinking, what on earth is this? I must have great power over dogs, very proud of myself. This happened again the next day, and then the next day. Finally, another day when he came up and stopped dead in his tracks and turned away, I said to my friends, boasting a little bit, “Do you see the power I have over this Bert? I put up my hand when he gets near me and he stops.”
They said, “It’s got nothing to do with you, Andrew. There is an electric fence and when he gets too close, he gets a buzz in his neck, stops and goes back. It’s got nothing to do with you.” The fence was protecting Bert as well as protecting me. He was on the inside and I was on the outside, and the fence, though I couldn’t see it, was having an effect.
Well, that is how the law was operating for the Pharisee. He had a fence, and protected himself with his fasting and tithing, but forgot that in comparing himself with everyone outside the fence, God could still see him inside the fence. That was the problem for the Pharisee.
Jesus is showing something more positive about prayer. It can be humble and sincere. That’s the second protagonist: the tax-collector. Tax-collectors had, as many of you know, a bad reputation. They were often co-opted by the Romans and by the Herodians and people in power to take money from the masses. Many of them would exchange money and would do so in a corrupt manner. They had a bad reputation. Just look at Zaccheaus in another story. But this particular character also goes to pray, but unlike the Pharisee, he stands at a distance. He’s humble; he bows his head in shame. He beats his chest. In many ways his whole approach was antithetical to and totally different from that of the Pharisee. The complete opposite.
He came to God in his prayer humbly and put down his head in shame. He then, much like the tones of the great Psalm 51, said (and this is the approach that he took. Again, a very biblical approach).
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your unfailing love, according to Your great compassion, blot out my transgressions, wash away all my iniquity, cleanse me from my sin, for I know my transgression and my sin is always before me, against You, and You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight.”
He was following a great biblical example of contrition, of knowing that in the presence of God, we have all sinned. Now, he knows as a tax-collector that he is publicly seen as a sinner. Maybe it isn't just a private matter with him. Nevertheless, deep within his own soul, he says, “Have mercy upon me.” His approach to God was one of humble confession.
What does Jesus then say about that tax-collector? Well, the way Jesus tells parables, he lets us make up our minds as to which of the two was righteous. Then he points to the tax-collector and gives us his clue that the one who was justified in the sight of God, is the tax-collector and not the Pharisee. Not the one looking down his nose on everyone, but the one who had humbly confessed, like the psalmist, that they needed the mercy of God.
That is why the tax-collector is the example of how God sees us. God sees us as people in need of mercy. The beautiful thing is that although we come seeking mercy and confessing our sins before Almighty God, it is God alone who justifies us, who puts us in a right relationship.
The problem with the Pharisee is that he tried to decide what that relationship with God was based on his own self-assessment. The tax-collector had come, recognising the sovereignty of God, and recognising that he needed the mercy of God, therefore he is justified. Who, in all of this, was the free person? Who was the one who was really liberated? The Pharisee had put the fence of the law around himself, and it had constrained him in many ways and made him feel self-sufficient. But the one who was truly free, truly liberated in this story, was the tax-collector who came in a spirit of confession.
This is Black History Month, and throughout I read some of the theologians who have influenced what is known as Black Theology. One of them who died a couple of years ago was the great James Cone, an American writer who dealt a lot with slavery and the issues of people of colour, who struggled under the burden of that slavery. He was also a Christian and concerned about the relationship between people who were slaves and the Gospel.
Andrew Prevot, in a wonderful article about him, said the following about his view of slavery, prayer and freedom.
“Cone distinguishes several features of the slaves’ particular way of contemplating and glorifying this God. He argues that in their prayers and hymns, they bore witness to a God, who created them as beloved and beautiful children, who promised to liberate them like the Hebrews of old, who entered in the most radical solidarity with them through Jesus’ suffering and death. Who gave them hope through the glorious event of the resurrection, who freed them from the bonds of sin and despair, and who presently empowered them in their historical acts of resistance against the demonic powers of the slave system.”
Cone made the connection between the prayers of the slaves, who had, like the tax-collectors, been pushed down and subjugated, and the freedom that they found in Jesus Christ.
Remember, you can't read the parable without remembering the one who told it, and the one who told it was Jesus Christ. By lifting up this tax-collector, by recognising his merciful desire to come to God, his willingness to bare his soul before the Lord and to rely on the grace of God, this is the one who was justified.
Jesus’ ministry was always the ministry of explaining the freedom that comes from humbly coming into the presence of God. We are not sure how God sees us completely. Maybe we don’t really want to know the full story, but what we do know is, that when we come humbly into the presence of God, and we do so in a prayerful way, his loving, justifying and faithful response to us is there in the storyteller, Jesus of Nazareth.
A little confession on these cold winter mornings is a good thing. Amen.