Gratitude Gone Wrong
9 He 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. 11 The 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' 13 But 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!' 14 I 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.”
This is the gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, O Christ.
Today is Reformation Sunday and any of you who have been through elder training or confirmation or our new member class know that in the Reformed church our motto is, “Reformed and Always Being Reformed” - this saying acknowledges that we are a tradition that believes in an active and living Spirit that calls the church to be dynamic and adaptive and flexible in times of change… Or in today’s case, flexible in times of bird infestations. So perhaps there was no more appropriate Sunday for us to have to vacate the sanctuary walls than Reformation Sunday so we can be reminded that is us, the people, gathered in together by the Holy Spirit, that truly make up the body of Christ.
In this way and more, Reformation Sunday offers us an opportunity to explore our identity as Reformed Christians. For those who need a refresher: “Reformed” is the umbrella term for any church that follows a system of Calvinist doctrines - this includes any congregation with the word “Reformed” or “Presbyterian” in its name. We’re close cousins with Lutherans and Methodists but if any of you grew up in those traditions you’ve probably picked up on some subtle differences.
The 60 second history lesson for today is that in the 16th century a group of faithful Christians, Martin Luther and John Calvin among them, took a look around the church and realized something wasn’t right. While their reading of Scripture led them to believe in the power of a sovereign God who was Creator of all the universe, “Maker of Heaven and Earth”, they noticed that within the Catholic church there seemed to be some leaders who had let the power of their office go to their heads.
These corrupt religious leaders seemed to have forgotten what would become the foundation of Reformed theology: that only God is God, and we are not. And in their struggle to remember this these corrupt leaders had begun act as though they somehow possessed God’s power and led others to believe that they somehow had the authority to decide who was in and who was out. Who was forgiven and who was not. And Luther and Calvin just weren’t going to have that.
And so a revolution - or a Reformation, to be specific - began. The primary reform of the church being that it was time to cut out the intermediary. Those priests and bishops were all well and good but not if they were going to abuse their power. So, central to Luther and Calvin’s theologies was the idea that none of us, not even the most pious and faithful of us, is God. Only God is God. And the only one capable of mediating between God and human beings is Jesus Christ. So to this day we Reformed Christians believe Christ alone has the power to decide who is in and who is out. Who is forgiven and who is not.
The Consequences of the Reformation
That was good news to all those who were worried about where they stood in relationship to God, but it did somewhat complicate things. Because with this new understanding it meant that some changes were going to need to be made in the life of the church. Hence the our motto, “Reformed and always being Reformed, according to the Word of God.”
Being Reformed meant that if the only true mediator is Christ and I’m being told to not rely on someone else to interpret Scripture for me, then I’m going to have to sit down and read the Bible for myself.
Now if you think about the timing, the printing press invented in the 15th century then Reformation in the 16th, it makes sense that more and more people were learning to read and Bibles were being produced in a way they never had been before. So, in that sense, this challenge to study Scripture for yourself was becoming easier to embrace.
But if any of you here have ever attempted to read the Bible cover to cover on your own you know how hard that is. Which is why it came to be that the Reformed church began to encourage the study of Scripture together.
It followed that the role of ordained leadership in the church started to take a different shape. What had been priests as mediators of salvation in the Catholic church became Ministers of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church. To this day, our primary responsibilities are preaching and teaching (“teaching elders” we were even called for awhile), drawing people together to study Scriptures - we do this in worship but also in Bible studies and Sunday School classes so that you can gain insight from each other’s experiences and bring in historical references and discern together what we believe and how the Spirit is calling the church to act - it is how the Holy Spirit continues to reform us.
All of this is a beautiful thing - no mediator but Christ, no better way to seek Christ than Scripture, each of us members of the “priesthood of all believers”, called to educate ourselves and discern how the Spirit continues to Reform us to new ways of being faithful in a changing world. I am so grateful to be Presbyterian and I bet you are too and that gratitude is pleasing to God - until it becomes gratitude gone wrong.
I’ve studied, this parable many times. But this time around I noticed something new. You see, in general, throughout the gospels Pharisees aren’t looked upon in a favorable way. To be a Pharisee is to be one of the bad guys. Jesus’ opponents. But I want you to listen as I give you the 60 second history of the Pharisee and tell me if there isn’t something that sounds familiar here…
In Jesus’ day there were several Jewish religious parties, and the Pharisees were known as being of a more progressive persuasion. I’m not talking about liberal or conservative, what I mean is that the Pharisees, more so than any other group, believed that the Torah (the Scriptures) shouldn’t simply be controlled by the priests.
In fact, the Pharisees believed that worship was about way more than just priests performing sacrifices within the confines of the temple. Instead Pharisees were huge proponents of education - they themselves were trained scholars but also believed Torah existed so that it might be read in light of reason and our personal experiences in order to apply the Scriptures to contemporary issues. (Starting to sound familiar?)
And, they didn’t think the study of Scripture should necessarily be confined to an elite group of people. Their understanding of faith was far more open. Almost 200 years before the temple was destroyed in Jerusalem they were trying to democratize the Jewish religion because they believed that the Torah should be taught in a way that would help all people keep the law and that the religious leaders had a responsibility to make it accessible and possible for all.
Again, sound familiar?
In short, the Pharisees were the first Reformers.
The specific pharisee we encounter in today’s parable is a product of a people who sought to worship God deeply in the best way they knew how. We can assume he had spent years of his life pouring over the Scriptures, that he’d been shaped by a community that was educated. They were passionate about engaging the Torah’s teachings in their lives and the world and leading others to do the same. I imagine this pharisee truly is grateful for all his faith community has offered him.
But somewhere along the way, things went wrong. And that gratitude turned into what John Calvin himself names as the primary sin: pride.
“Thank you God, that I am not like other people.” the pharisee says.
“I fast - I tithe. Thank you that I go to the right church. Thank you that we are educated enough to know what Torah really teaches so that all I do is pleasing in your sight.”
Meanwhile, off in the corner, ashamed to even raise his eyes to God stands the tax collector. Perhaps he’s never dared to even enter the Temple before. We can assume he has little to no religious training and likely does not spend much time with Scriptures.
But he knows something the Pharisee seems to have forgotten. That only God is God. And he is not. And he knows that his life is one hundred percent and then some in the hands of the God he is begging for mercy.
The Reformed Church Today
I love being Presbyterian. I loved being part of the Reformed family of churches. I loved and now find myself loving again formal theological education. Sitting in Sunday School classes and Bible studies and even just having theological conversations with all of you is one of the greatest blessings of being in ministry.
But that gratitude can easily turn to pride. It can lead us to believe that because we read the Bible a certain way or understand our relationship with God a certain way that we must be right. And an attitude like that can keep us from being in relationship with others who may have a lot to teach us about the life of faith.
The parable of the pharisee and the tax collector reminds us of that fine line, between gratitude and pride. It calls us to a posture of humility, knowing that no matter how well or how often we do the work of discipleship, only God is God. And we are not.
It matters as we leave these temple walls and go out into the world. As one of my favorite teachers once said, being Reformed means that when we enter a room “We know we are not God. We know that nobody else in the room with us is God. Therefore, we enter every conversation with humility and we enter every conversation knowing that the person in the room across from us doesn’t have all the answers either. Recognizing we are not God gives us the opportunity to relate to one another in humility and challenge.”
We are children of the God who created and now calls us - seeking, growing, with a lot to learn and a long way to go. It is the one who places themselves in a posture of complete and utter humility, the tax collector, (not the Pharisee who thinks he has it all figured out) that is held up as the model of faith.
In the church, and in the world, this is how we must also approach one another. How different our society could look if we were to all embrace this posture of humility - perhaps we Reformed Christians are being called to pave that path. We are Reformed and always being Reformed, called to be open, called to change, called to offer our gratitude to the mysterious Triune God who is always at work within us and for us. Thanks be to God - Amen.