Ask anyone to describe “the church” and you’ll get a variety of answers.
But, no doubt, top of the list would be – those do-gooders who keep telling us how bad we are – those “righteous know it all” who are living in the past and complain every time we try to move into the future.
They complain against Same Sex Marriage – they object to euthanasia – they complain about abortion – you name it – they complain against it.
Ask Christians what they think about the state of the world and most likely, top of the list – you’ll hear how evil and depraved the world is.
The old stereotype image of the world – sex, drugs and rock and roll – is still how many Christians describe the “outside” world.
And sadly we are seeing growing polarisation in our world where the church and Christians are growing further and further away from the world.
And that should worry us.
Not because those people aren’t going to church but because we are failing in our mission to the world.
One of the central teachings of Luther during the Reformation was his teaching of the 2 Kingdoms.
And what was pivotal in this teaching was that both Kingdoms belonged to and were governed by God.
He called them the Kingdom of the Left and the Kingdom of the Right – not to be confused with our political divisions of the Conservative Right and the Liberal Left.
God’s right hand kingdom is where he governs through the Church – through Word and Sacrament – through grace, mercy and forgiveness.
God’s left hand kingdom is where God governs through law and order – through the governments – and even though this is a secular rule it is still God’s, not Satan’s.
If we don’t understand the world that way – that both kingdoms belong to God – then we create a divide and attribute the other kingdom to Satan and, really, we don’t care what happens to them.
We start to have this “wait till your father gets home” mentality in that we become comforted knowing that we are going to heaven and they will have to answer to God on Judgment Day.
And we almost take joy in believing that the likes of Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, Suddam Hussein will be punished in hell for the evil that they did in their lifetime.
We might even “hope they rot in hell”.
We start to sound a little bit like the Pharisee – God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.
Tax-collectors were on the wrong side religiously, politically, and economically,
He is an unlikely prototype to hold up, just like last week where a widow is held up as the prototype of prayer.
This is the second of two parables in a row about prayer with fairly unconventional role models.
The first was the persistent widow in last Sunday’s reading (Luke 18:1-8).
She was a most unlikely example as a teaching aid: widows were at the bottom of society, without power or voice, and yet how powerful was the voice of that widow!
She taught us about persistence in prayer.
In today’s Gospel, another dimension of prayer is addressed, the heart of prayer:
The Pharisee’s prayer is about praising himself and his works and his own goodness.
He has it all figured out, and things come together rather nicely for him.
In contrast we have the tax-collector.
The Pharisee far outshines him in his religious observances before God.
He doesn’t need to tell God about all he has done.
Surely God, who is all knowing and all seeing has surely noticed how good the Pharisee is.
Actually, there isn’t much need for God to do anything in the life of this Pharisee except to agree with him.
So Jesus uses an unexpected example to teach his audience a lesson.
The tax-collector pours out his heart and buries himself so deeply into voicing his deepest anguish – awareness of his own weakness, failures, and sins, that he doesn’t even notice the Pharisee, let alone compares himself to him.
Probably not that dissimilar to Luther who tried to be like the Pharisee before God – I have translated the Bible into German – I have slept on a bed of straw, when I have sleep – I gave up being a successful lawyer to become a monk – and yet Luther didn’t find that peace he was desperately seeking.
How do you find your peace with God?
The tax collector throws himself at God’s feet begging for his mercy even though he doesn’t deserve it.
And that’s what mercy is – undeserved grace from God.
So too did Luther – in fact the last words attributed to Luther before he died were “We are beggars. This is true”
Jesus teaches a lesson about God’s mercy in accepting the sinner, the tax-collector, instead of the apparently holy Pharisee.
What does this say about us?
How do we present ourselves to God?
Do we present ourselves to God confident that we have done the best we can – or at least we not like others who profane God’s name?
Maybe we don’t do that publicly but in our hearts what do we feel about ourselves in our relationship with God.
When we hear about the depravity in the world – the conmen – the drug addicts – the thieves and liars – the abusers – do we feel somewhat good about ourselves and proud that we have led a better life than that?
Or do we come before God as beggars – have mercy on me Lord, a sinner.
So what was the problem with the Pharisees’ prayer?
Did he lie about his goodness?
Did he do things that were wrong?
The problem was, according to the Pharisee, he had done everything right.
So what else could God do for him?
He had no need for God – and that was the problem.
The problem was that he acknowledged everything he did that was right – but he failed to acknowledge before God where he had not done everything God demanded from him.
Where God had said to love the Lord with all your heart – and also to love your neighbour as yourself.
So the answer is not for the Pharisee to stop doing all the things he was doing but to acknowledge that before God he was still a sinner so that God could shower upon him his grace and mercy.
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector may have looked poles apart when it came to the good works they were doing.
But when it came to what God expected from both they were identical twins.
Whichever side we are on – the Pharisee or the Tax Collector – we all have common ground and a dependence on God’s grace and in desperate need of his mercy through forgiveness.
No matter what divides us we have a shared prayer that unites us – `God, be merciful to me, a sinner! This is our shared recognition before God – that we are all sinners, but we all belong to God.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
All glory to God. Amen.