Sermon for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 25)

Text: Luke 18:13-14
The tax collector stood at a distance and would not even raise his face to heaven, but beat on his breast and said, “God, have pity on me, a sinner!” “I tell you,” said Jesus, “the tax collector, and not the Pharisee was in the right with God when he went home.”

Unworthy Beggars

Two people were in church on Sunday.  One, a lifetime member of the church, frequent teacher of the Bible, a member of the church council, he prayed, “God. I thank you that my parents brought me to church and taught me the Bible.  I thank you that I have such a strong commitment to your church.  I give 10% of my income before tax, volunteer to help community aid organisations who support the poor and homeless, and sponsor several children in overseas countries.”

There was another man seated near the rear of the church.  He looked a bit out of place compared to the well-dressed church attenders.  His unshaven face, tattoos, leather jacket and body piercings set him apart and no-one sat near him.  It was clear to everyone else he was different – maybe a gangster, a drug dealer, a violent bikie.  He had been to the church a few times before but didn’t hang around afterwards simply because nobody had asked him.  He was lousy at prayer; didn't really know which words to say.  He simply muttered, “God, I’ve messed up badly.  I’m sorry.”

Both went home after church.  Frankly, the Bible-believing Christian, member of the board didn't get much out of the service.  Something was missing.  Nothing in the service touched his heart.  Oh well, perhaps next Sunday.

The other man stayed seated in his pew long after the benediction, crying, overcome with joy, or grief, he knew not which. He couldn’t explain what had happened to him during the service. All he could say was, “God loves me.”

What are we to make of this parable of Jesus about the Pharisee and the sinner?  We could talk about prayer – what is a good prayer and what is not.
We could talk about pride and humility.
We could talk about self-righteousness and repentance.
And any of these would be good themes but it’s clear that this parable was intended to shock the listeners.  If anyone within the community of Judaism was to go home covered in the grace and righteousness of God it was not the tax collector (or in my version – the leather jacketed, tattooed, body pierced, unshaven, drug dealing gangster).  His life is too offensive, too corrupt, too irreligious and too unacceptable compared to the other church goers.  Jesus does the unexpected and shocks the listeners saying that it was this so-called low-life in the story who is right in the sight of God as he made his way home that day.

He was totally unworthy, undeserving of any favours from God.  He realised that there was an impenetrable wall between God and him.  It was a wall of misspent opportunities, failure, guilt and a wasted life. And yet in spite of his unworthiness he received the best gift that he could possibly have been given – the love of God. He came to the realisation that there was no wall too thick or too high that God's love for him could not penetrate.  And he was blessed.

This parable is more about God turning upside down who is in and who is out of the Kingdom of God.  This is about God’s grace more than anything else. 

As Christians this is not a new theme to us.  We hear about it often and we abuse it often when we accept it without considering the cost or celebrating what it gives.  We undermine grace when we act as if what we have done and who we have been have earned it.  So every now and then we have to be shocked by the realisation that Jesus offers grace to people we wouldn’t.  He accepts the unacceptable, welcomes the unwanted, shows mercy to the merciless, and forgives the hardened sinner.  As the divine unfairness of grace hits us again we are struck by the fact that we have a loving and merciful God.

Today we mark the history changing event called the Reformation.  Two days before he died, Martin Luther wrote, “We are beggars, it is true.”

What an odd way to sum up a life – especially his life!  This is a man who stood up to kings and councils and corruption, challenged sixteen centuries of tradition in the church and survived.  This is the man whose scholarly translation of the Scriptures shaped the German language and whose courage reshaped the geography of Europe.  Surely at the end of his lifetime he would have something to boast about, something to crow about to his friends, and to God.  But that's not the case.  Along with the Apostle Paul who regarded himself as the worst of sinners, all he had to say was, “We are beggars, it is true.”  Before God these men knew that their accomplishments did nothing to wipe away their failure to be what God wanted them to be.  They were still sinners in spite of their greatness and prayed with the tax collector, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." 

Martin Luther stands in a long line of beggars.  A beggar is a person who has nothing to give or to bargain with.  A beggar has nothing to offer, nothing he can boast about.  He can only receive gifts from the kindness of someone else.

The New Testament is filled with stories of people with the humble spirit of a beggar.  A Roman soldier approached Jesus on behalf of his Jewish servant who lay paralysed in his home.  Jesus' response was customarily warm and brief, “I will come and heal him.”
“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.”  A Roman officer referring to his home as a beggar's hovel – too lowly for Jesus to enter – how amazing!

Not worthy.  Those words are almost a chorus on the lips of the beggars that we find on the pages of the New Testament.  When I say beggars I don't mean that they were poor in a physical sense, but that they were poor in spirit and realised they didn't deserve any favours from Jesus.  People like
Zaccheus the tax collector,
or blind Bartimaeus,
or the woman who suffered from massive haemorrhages didn’t want to ask Jesus anything only to touch them hem of his coat,
or the thief next to Jesus on the cross and many others who approached Jesus in humility aware of their unworthiness and simply called out, “Lord have mercy”. 

None of these people could hold up their lives and say, “Hey Jesus, checkout my faith and my good references.  Take a look at what I do in the church and how I go out of my way to help others.  Note my attendance at church every Sunday and how I tithe.”  For each of them, life was out of control.  The words of the tax collector could have been their words, “God, have pity on me, a sinner!”  These words of anguish indicate the feeling of totally unworthiness of any favour.  They indicate an overwhelming sense of failure and total reliance on Jesus. 

They were beggars with nothing to offer and yet each of these humble people ends up wealthier than they could ever dare dream.  They receive precious gifts of healing, forgiveness and the presence of the Lord. They receive grace upon grace. As surely as the exalted are humbled, the unworthy who come to Christ are exalted.

Some here this morning may remember Charlie Chaplin in his movie, The Immigrant.  Charlie plays the immigrant, newly arrived with not a penny in his pocket.  One scene shows him eating a huge meal in a restaurant, knowing all the time that he doesn't have a penny to his name. Between mouthfuls he notices a huge, burly waiter and three large bouncers pounce on a customer, beat him to a pulp, kick him, and then toss him out into the street.  Charlie asks another waiter what the man had done.  The waiter replies, “He was ten cents short.”

That's the way it is in our relationship with God.  Our sin leaves us at least 10 cents short and 10 cents short might as well be a million dollars.  We are not the people God created us to be and as soon as we are aware of that, we see that we stand condemned before God.  The only response we can make is the same as that of the tax collector, “God, have pity on me, a sinner!”  The tax collector, knowing that he is spiritually, morally and religiously bankrupt, with empty pockets and dirty hands, throws himself on the mercy of God.

The parable reminds us that even though our hands are empty, even though we are bankrupt of any virtue that we can hold to God and say, “Hey God, look at this!” God is always ready to fill our empty hands with his love.  We call it grace –unmerited, undeserved, free grace.  Don't worry about what you ought to say to God.  Listen to what God has to say to you. “I love you!  I forgive you!  Go in freedom and service!”

When we became disciples of Christ not one of us was able to say, “Look how good I am!” 

No, we came empty handed and God filled our hands and lives with his love and forgiveness, adopting us as his own, promising us the inheritance of eternal life.  At our baptism we were beggars but when we emerged from the waters of our baptism we were cleansed, washed, named, adopted; we are children of the king.  Our new status as a forgiven child of God is a gift that gladdens the heart of every beggar, big or small.  Because of God's grace we became the richest of all people.  There are lots of people richer in worldly wealth than we are, but in God's eyes we have all the riches we need.  
We come to the Communion table with empty hands.  We are beggars.  We have nothing to offer. We hold out our hands of faith and Jesus fills them his grace and assures us that we are his dearly loved children.  He gives us his Spirit who leads us to fulfil our calling to be who called and created us to be.

If we go home today ‘right with God’ it isn't because of our worship, the good feeling that the music gave us, the kind way we treated everyone at morning tea or whatever.  If we are blessed, or justified it is only as a gift of God.  We are beggars it is true – but in Christ the richest beggars in world.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
27th October 2013

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