Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Moralism vs the Gospel” (Luke 18:9-14)
October 23, 2016
When I was growing up I had all these expectations thrusted on me. I was supposed to BE a good boy and BE brave during my parents divorce. I was supposed to BE a good boy and get along with my new stepmom and her children. I was supposed to BE a good boy and do better at school, not get in trouble, go to church, read my Bible, pray, fast, BE successful, and of course always BE myself. I said the verb BE five times just then. That’s one time more than this Pharisee says “I” in his self-centered prayer. We all feel the constant pressure to perform and to BE something. What does this have to do with today’s gospel reading? This reading is so saturated with grace and simultaneously so dangerously close to the law that if the preacher or listener is not careful, we will moralize Jesus’ parable and rob it of its power.
Here’s how we can rob this parable of its power and miss grace. Luke gives us the explanation of the parable right from the start, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…” (v. 9). We are given a picture of two men. One has nothing to confess but only thanks God for how awesome he is. The other is a humble man who beats his chest in desperation and cries, “Mercy, have mercy on me.” A brief complaint of all modern translations. With the exception of the New American Standard Bible, all modern Bible translations have the Tax Collector referring to himself as “a” sinner, but the Greek has the definite article, “the” sinner. He doesn’t bother listing out sins because he is sin embodied. After we eavesdrop on the two men’s prayers, Jesus says the Tax Collector went home justified. So here is the application “be humble” like the Tax Collector and not like the Pharisee. Amen…isn’t that awful? Is that all there is to this passage? Is this another moralistic admonition to add to all the other things you are supposed to be in this life – be humble? What is going on in this passage and where is the gospel in it?
Again Luke gives us the key, in the last verse Jesus says that this parable is about justification – “the judicial act of God pardoning sinners, accepting them as just, and so putting permanently right their previously estranged relationship with himself” (JI Packer). If the Tax Collector is the one declared to be justified where does that leave the Pharisee? Why is he looked over? It could be because he’s got it all together. He fasts more than required by the Law; he tithes more than the law requires; and he apparently comes to the Temple to worship and pray. Despite his prayer, why is the Pharisee in desperate need of God’s justifying word? Because he has falsely claimed his goodness as his own, leaving nothing to God. If you have nothing to forgive why would you need mercy? He has fallen into the false theology that truly speaks to all our hearts “the theology of BE.” As I said earlier the moralistic reading of this text would exhort us to “be humble.” It could also say “be pious,” “be good,” “be anything BUT this Pharisee over here.” Boom! There is the heresy of “the theology of BE”. We think we are being pushed towards something good only to end up like that which we are trying to avoid. If you try to be like the Tax Collector you very well may end up a Pharisee, laying claim to a certain type of behavior and looking down on those who do not behave similarly.
This might be hard to understand when we are talking about a class of religious people centuries removed from our context. So let me illustrate it this way. A new show has recently come out that is receiving amazing reviews. It is called “This is Us” it’s on NBC on Tuesday nights at 9:00 PM (I wonder if I’ll get a kickback for this plug?) It tells the incredible story of three siblings (two biological and one adopted) and how their upbringing has consequences (good and bad) later in life. It parallels their childhood (late 70’s early 80’s) with today (they are now 36). In one of the early episodes Randall, the adopted child, is told by his mother “Promise me you’ll always be good.” What a terrible burden to lay on a child. As he grows up he becomes by all outward appearances not just good, but perfect. He is the perfect father, husband, son, boss, and is a very successful businessman. Except he can’t “always be good” like his mother asked and the promise demands too much. One morning, as his wife tells us, he woke up completely blind. The years of pursuing a theology of BE GOOD brought Randall to blindness. That’s why the Pharisee needs justification and why we need a justification that is not our own. The human need to self-justify leads to death. The only way we can survive being human is for God to save us. “The theology of BE” is so dangerous that in his famous book on preaching Bryan Chapell warns preachers to avoid the “deadly be’s,” which is the tendency for preachers to turn to moralism by telling his congregation to be better, spiritual, loving, etc. SO please, don’t accept from me or any other preacher “the theology of BE.” Don’t leave here today thinking, “how can I BE more humble?” Here’s a gentle gospel reminder that humility isn’t our own doing but God’s. The Psalmist declares, “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore, he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Ps. 25:8-9).
How do we resist “the theology of BE”? Trust that God is the one who justifies not you. Trust that the cure for self-justification is trusting in Jesus’ work on the cross. As St. Paul tells us, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:23-24).” Trust that this whole parable is about God’s saving work and not yours. Trust that mercy and goodness belong to the Lord alone and he gives it to you as a gift. Trust that Jesus’ work on the cross is better for you than anything you can do for yourself.