20th Sunday after Pentecost: Insiders and Outsiders
First Reading: Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
7Although our iniquities testify against us, act, O Lord, for your name’s sake; our apostasies indeed are many, and we have sinned against you. 8O hope of Israel, its savior in time of trouble, why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveler turning aside for the night? 9Why should you be like someone confused, like a mighty warrior who cannot give help? Yet you, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name; do not forsake us!
10Thus says the Lord concerning this people: Truly they have loved to wander, they have not restrained their feet; therefore the Lord does not accept them, now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins.
19Have you completely rejected Judah? Does your heart loathe Zion? Why have you struck us down so that there is no healing for us? We look for peace, but find no good; for a time of healing, but there is terror instead. 20We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord, the iniquity of our ancestors, for we have sinned against you. 21Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake; do not dishonor your glorious throne; remember and do not break your covenant with us. 22Can any idols of the nations bring rain? Or can the heavens give showers? Is it not you, O Lord our God? We set our hope on you, for it is you who do all this.
Psalm: Psalm 84:1-7
1How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! 2My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God. 3Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young, by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my king and my God. 4Happy are they who dwell in your house! They will always be praising you. 5Happy are the people whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way. 6Those who go through the balsam valley will find it a place of springs,for the early rains have covered it with |pools of water. 7They will climb from height to height, and the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
Second Reading: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
6As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
16At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! 17But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. 18The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Gospel: Luke 18:9-14
9[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Today’s sermon tells a parable of two men, seemingly different from each other but in the Temple of God. It made me think of the concept of yin-yang. Share what you think yin and yang stand for with your neighbor. Think of the picture of a circle with two tear drops of opposite colors hugging each other.
Wikipedia explains yin-yang like this, “Yin and yang (/jɪn/ and /jæŋ/) is a Chinese philosophical concept that describes opposite but interconnected forces. In Chinese cosmology, the universe creates itself out of a primary chaos of material energy, organized into the cycles of yin and yang and formed into objects and lives. Yin is the receptive and yang the active principle, seen in all forms of change and difference such as the annual cycle (winter and summer), the landscape (north-facing shade and south-facing brightness), sexual coupling (female and male), the formation of both men and women as characters and sociopolitical history (disorder and order).”
Let us pray. Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer.
As we have traveled to Jerusalem this Pentecost we have heard parables about being invited to a banquet, people wanting the best seats, and people wanting to be excused due to home responsibilities. We’ve looked at the rich man and Lazarus and the eternal line between heaven and hell. Heavy stuff. We’ve also seen ten lepers pleading for mercy and being healed and a poor widow, standing alone, seeking justice from an indifferent legal system. Jesus assured us that the God of the universe does not deal with his chosen like that unjust judge who just wanted to silence the irritation. We ended last Sunday saying, “Thank you, Lord!” The kingdom of heaven is not like the kingdom of this world! We are not objects of yin and yang to keep the cosmos balanced!
Today Luke jumps right in to another parable as Jesus looks at his audience and realizes many are not taking his words personally and seriously. Jesus talks about two men who have come to the Temple to seek God in prayer. One is an “insider,” a religious man, part of the religious establishment. This man was in the Jewish system but it could be you and I who are here today in God’s house, not visitors but members, bringing our souls into the light of God’s word. The other man is an “outsider,” someone condemned by the system, a “sinner.” We don’t know exactly what his sin was that weighed on his soul but he might have been a modern day IRS worker, or an ICE employee, a scared police person who shot too quickly, or maybe just a woman who had a teenage abortion and she still feels guilty. We don’t know the specifics of these two people but we know that Jesus tells the parable to people like you and me, an audience. On the surface, it looks like yin and yang but there is an underlying question of justification. Our text says,
“Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
Have you ever been tempted to think, “There but for the grace of God, go I,” as someone burdened with mishap passes you? The difference between saying that phrase and thanking God that you are not unfortunate like someone else, is dangerously close to the self righteous man in the parable. On the surface, it looks like our “insider” is praising and thanking God for all the blessings and good fortunes he has experienced. But on closer inspection, it appears he is patting himself on the back while thanking God that he, the person, has made wise choices, invested wisely, tithed properly, raised good children and is leading a clean, respectable life. His eyes are looking at himself in comparison to others. He is claiming self for his righteousness and not looking to God. Maybe he is not a murderer but neither does he acknowledge his hate and envy and jealousy to another. He has tried to do his best and love his neighbor as himself. Still the focus is on his works, not God’s grace. One of the pillars of the Reformation celebration next week will be “Grace Alone.”
Like Job’s friends, it is also easy to assume that a person experiencing trouble, like the “outsider” standing on the fringes, has done something wrong or that when “the insider” experiences problems it is the “insider’s” own sin that needs to be dealt with. Unfortunately most of us have those skeletons in our closet that we don’t want others to know about as we come to church. I don’t know what was going on with our “insider” that drew him to the Temple but I do know that often I hold back the tears when I come to church. Likewise it is easy for the evil one to convince me that I have offended God when life throws a curve. God must be teaching me a lesson that I didn’t learn last round. I beat myself up and blame myself. When I get into this mind-set that is similar to our “insider”, I may not be praising God for how wonderful I am but I am equally looking at self for how miserable I am compared to others.
Our text goes on to say, though, that our “insider” holds the other in contempt. I may distain the downtrodden or I may distain the fortunate. I can reason that they have pulled strings, have inherited money to invest, have been blessed with talents and looks not mine or any other reasons for their success and my failure. It doesn’t matter. I am playing the comparison game to gage my value to God. The “insider” is not necessarily telling a lie. Perhaps he is seeing himself correctly. The problem is not his actions but that he looks at his works in comparison to other’s works to measure his relationship to God and uses his works to gage the actions of others. He lives in a yin-yang world that does not account for the presence and interaction with God.
…standing far off…
Standing on the fringes of the Temple is our second person, our second man, “the outsider”. He does not raise his voice in praise or thanksgiving for how wonderful he is but rather cries out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Like the lepers, like the widow, this person realizes that without God, he is lost. He needs mercy. He needs God’s grace. He has humbled himself to even enter the Temple. He too is being honest but rather than looking at the black column in the social register, he sees the red column of his life. His eyes are on only himself. This guy reminds us of the Prodigal Son. He too is one of God’s sons but has the moment of truth and knows he has just done life wrong.
Amazingly, though, the man does not repent and offer to pay back the people he has offended like Zaccheus. He does not beg to be remembered in Paradise like the thief on the cross. He does no remarkable deed indicating an unsuspected godly character like the Good Samaritan. This man simply turns his eyes to God and cries “help, mercy” from the back of the church. Jesus says that the “outsider,” not the “insider” goes home justified. This is a very shocking parable that defies our understanding and highlights our tendency to depend on our faith rather than God’s grace and mercy. On what basis could this man be justified? Our incredulity points to our expectation that justification must somehow be connected to our lives, our works. It is easy to reason that he has believed and so is justified. Immediately faith becomes a works. When my eyes shift from God to myself or others, I have stepped onto a slippery slope.
“…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled,
but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
God works outside our boxes and our expectations. He justifies “outsiders” who do not follow our religious paradigms for how salvation works. The man did not accept Jesus as his savior. He did not seem to repent. We do not know that he changed his life. We don’t know that he was even baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan. All we know is that he threw himself on God’s mercy, acknowledging his own sinfulness and helplessness. Parables only give us a glimpse into a slice of truth, not the whole truth. This parable clearly reminds us that humility is how we understand ourselves in relation to God. We are sinners. Like the people at the banquet who did not wait for the host to assign their seating and were warned to be humble, Jesus again warns us to be humble. God knows our lives and the big picture and will exalt us at the proper time. God is infinitely merciful and full of grace. Likewise God understands the challenges that the other person is facing and is able to work in ways we totally don’t expect. God is willing to bring into his family anyone, even people whom we might consider inappropriate. May we not have wandering eyes and gage our value by others but fall on God’s grace.
Two Men-Two Kingdoms
Through Pentecost this year we have been seeing through Luke’s eyes how Jesus differentiated between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of heaven. We stand in both kingdoms as we are born into this world and the cross opens entrance into the kingdom of heaven that is unseen but present, and yet to be revealed. Our two men in the Temple are in God’s world, I would suggest they are like the two kingdoms we stand in rather than a yin-yang sort of division which sees me as in one or the other.
As people living in the United States, it is sooooo easy to consider ourselves blessed, chosen, not like the impoverished countries of the Third World. We think we are protected by our faith. It is easy to become arrogant and distaining of others who are not wonderful like us. We can stand in the center of the Temple thinking that God is focused on us and become arrogant. We pat ourselves that we are not like the Baptist, having to build swimming pools in our churches. We are not like Catholics, having to go to confession and say repentant prayers. We as Americans have the right to life, liberty and freedom of speech and faith. We are dangerously close to holding attitudes like the “insider.”
The kingdom of this world creates hierarchies of riches, talents, power, education and so many other things by which we feel blessed to be part of and not like those “others.” It may be possible to see how the “insider” is the one looking at this worldly kingdom that he belongs to and at the same time to subtly despise those others not as equally blessed with this world’s stuff.
Meanwhile the “outsiders” who are immersed in war, famine, political intrigue and environmental chaos can only cry, “Lord, have mercy, we need help!” Perhaps they would not call themselves “sinners” but because of the woes of the present, the blessings sometimes fade. The Gospel touches their lives in different ways and they can speak to us if we are willing to listen. The kingdom of God is not geographical but spiritual, composed of people who realize they are helpless without the grace of God and his mercy.
Our God is so great! He works with those “insiders” in the system, calling them through the Gospel, through music, through fellowship into deeper relationship with him. He reminds them that they need not compare themselves to others to be valuable. He sent Christ to die for them even when they were sinners and “outsiders” to his grace. But it is also true that God’s boundless grace works to justify the “outsider” who stands on the fringes, pleading for mercy. He hears their cry and sees their plight. We are never outside his grace. He asks nothing but that we turn to him. As we humble ourselves, he will exalt us at the right time and in the right way. Life is not about balance but about focus…on God! Praise to his name!