Life in God’s Hands

tax collector and pharisee

The Pas Proper/Ordinary 30 – Pentecost + 20
Year C
27 October 2019

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
Psalm 84:1-6 pg 817
2 Timothy 4:6-8

God beyond our knowing,
we make you into an idol
to serve our own needs.
Humble our arrogance
by the strangeness of your coming
and the wonder of your mercy;
through Jesus Christ, the friend of Pharisees and tax collectors. Amen.

I have to admit that this has always been one of my favourite passages of Luke, and to find it assigned to what we recognize as Reformation Sunday is, for me, a special treat!

At the same time, as we remember the Reformation of Christianity, we can find parallels with the life and events of Martin Luther and his quest to find the love of God, as well.

Today Jesus shows us a Pharisee, and a tax collector.

We see both men are praying before God, both baring their lives before the one who, truly, knows each one of us at our best, and at our worst.

And we are able to see that each man presents himself as he knows best.

We see the Pharisee comparing himself to the people around him, and laying out a litany of how he considers himself to be apart from other people, and how he feels justified to stand before God.

He says: “‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’” (Lk 18:11b-12)

But perhaps the categories he chooses to compare himself against are too unrelated, too distant from his current circumstances. Perhaps he’s set the bar too low and so he’s not able to fail.

On the other hand, on the other side of the room, we find the tax collector. This is a man who, likewise, knows his place in the pecking order of society. Yet he also places himself and his life in God’s keeping.

“13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” (Lk 18:13)

Like the Pharisee he knows how far it is to heaven, to the grace of God, to the Mercy Seat of God Most High.

So, on one hand, we have the Pharisee: self-assured in his own sense of righteousness and in his righteous actions. On the other hand, we see the tax collector who knows intimately how far the journey to heaven is, and he knows there’s no way we can get there on his own, on our own.

And this brings up a number of thoughts, of philosophies on serving God, and so on. But today we celebrate the Reformation, so let’s see if Martin Luther’s time can help us see this in a different light.

I remember, when I was in university, I studied Early Modern Social History. We know this era as the Reformation, but instead of focusing on the large events of the day, we focused on the small, day-to-day, year-to-year events of people’s lives.

We didn’t focus on the building of St Peter’s Basilica, the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor, the invasion of the Turks, and the excommunication of an insignificant little monk called Luther whose life changed all of Europe.

Instead we looked at the life and the times of the people who lived in this era. What their lives would look like, what their medical system was like, and how they dealt with the issues that came their way, and how that coloured the talk of politics at the local level differently than in the halls of power.

We looked at the life of the everyday man, woman and child.

And in doing this, I discovered that the nursery rhyme Rock a Bye Baby was true, and that Ring Around the Rosy described the symptoms and the outcome of the black death.

I learned that Grimm’s Fairy Tales were based in reality, and that Bah, Bah Black Sheep is a children’s rhyme that is also a protest against undue taxation.

I learned that were told that they needed to earn their way to heaven through fasting, through works of charity, through the giving of alms, and through the buying of indulgences.

Through this, I discovered that the practices of the church had made the access to heaven something that could be commodified and sold/purchased.

And into this well run mess, we find Martin Luther, who wholeheartedly bought into the paradigm of his day, knowing all the while that he felt more like the tax collector than the Pharisee, although he belonged to a religious order.

And I thought about this, a lot, as I was processing my own fledgling call to ministry; and when Luther made his revelation, had his epiphany that there is absolutely no way in which one can earn their way into heaven, it made me pause, and it made me imagine life 500+ years ago, and this is what I saw:

Imagine a slushy, rainy, snowy day as we woke up to, yesterday.

Imagine streets of cold sucking mud, rutted with tracks from passing carts, and horses that also doubled as your sewer system.

The streets probably aren’t very wide, but that cold sucking sludge of a mud is about ankle deep, so it’s impossible to stay warm, dry, or even clean as we venture out into the day and the events of the day.

Now, as we’re already cold and damp and our feet are icy with mud and water, remember that our lives are not our own. Every breath of our lives, every beat of our hearts belongs to God, who because we are lowly sinful beings, can demand our lives at any moment.

And here is where I had my own epiphany. Here is where Luther discovered that God is a God of love, not a wrathful, vengeful deity hell bent on punishing humanity for the least slight much less the most egregious, horrific error.

So, I imagined myself, and I invite you to imagine along with me, to be part of this environment: cold, and wet, and mud besmirched.

And I imagined that my life is not my own, that it can be demanded of me without notice, so I imagined myself, kneeling in this lovely fall weather, in the ankle-deep, sucking mud, my head bowed, my neck barred, as if before a headsman, with the snow and rain falling on the chilled skin of my barred neck.

And I found myself repeating the words of the tax collector. “‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” (Lk 18:13b)

And if you let yourself linger there, for a few minutes, this is a very humbling experience.

But this is where we need to be to realize that God is a God of love.

This is where we need to come to, to understand that Luther, in his lifetime sacrificed his own wellbeing, his safety, and his lack of understanding of the love of God to grow into the reformer we celebrate today.

And he did this by reading the gospels, by standing up for injustice, and by letting go of his fear that he’s not worthy of heaven.

Yes, every beat of our hearts, every breath of our bodies belongs to God who picked each of us up, out of the muck and the mud, holds us to God’s breast, warm, and loving, and gives our lives back to us.

So we can look at the example Jesus gives us, today, of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple for the mercy of God.

God already loves us, he loves Luther, he loves those who Luther championed, and he even loves those who misplaced their efforts or seek to outdo each other in acts of charity.

At the same time, we are each given our lives to help make the lives of those around us better. I know my life is enriched because of each one of you, not just coming to service, but for all that you do, in your lives, to help love and support all of creation.

So, on this day, when Luther stuck his foot in the door of God’s love and mercy, a door that others wanted to keep locked for themselves, we celebrate that his efforts didn’t go unrewarded.

We celebrate his passionate revelation of God’s love that has changed our lives.

We see that God’s love has changed the lives of those in Luther’s day.

We are able to, like Luther, like the tax collector, embraces that change, that revelation that all God truly wants from each of us is to love God, to live out our baptismal promise in and to the world around us, and to treat each other with love and kindness, always.


About pastorrebeccagraham

A Lutheran minister serving an Anglican parish in Northern Ontario.
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