Stop Pledging! Now do I have your attention?
Today’s Gospel from Luke continues the string of challenging Gospels we’ve been hearing from these last several weeks. These Gospels have focused on Jesus turning the status quo on its head.
A few weeks ago we heard proclaimed “you cannot serve God and wealth.” Today we hear, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” We hear about the Pharisee and the tax collector; the one favored and the one despised. But, who is it that goes back to his home being justified, being forgiven and made righteous in God’s eye? When we look at this parable through our own societally constructed lens, it makes absolutely no sense. But, society and God do not see eye to eye on the truth of the Gospel reality. The justice we understand in our society, the justice of the Pharisee, is not the same as God’s justice.
There are real fundamental differences between the Pharisee and the tax collector. It seems, at least for me, it is much easier to be the Pharisee than it is to be the tax collector. The Pharisee says, “God I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” How easy is it for us to lift ourselves up, to be proud of all that we have done. “God I thank you that I am not like those people: immigrant people; gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people; undereducated people; people who use the community market.” While I hate to admit it, I am guilty of thoughts like these – of the spiritual pride that Jesus is condemning in this Pharisee. And I would bet some of you are too.
This Pharisee is entrenched in the societal norms and values of his day: of power and privilege; of status and money; of having rule and control over others. He is locked into the systems of social and economic competition and the hierarchy of honor and prestige that favors the dominant and powerful. Just as we heard last week with the unjust judge, this system – through the power of prayer – is reversed.
So what about this tax collector? Tax collectors are not known to be the most – let’s say – upstanding citizens of the day. They were seen as collaborators with the hated Romans, unscrupulous, dishonest, greedy. Not the sort of person we assume to be justified by God. But the tax collector – a devout man – offers a very simple, yet deeply profound prayer. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He is beating his breast, unable to look away from the ground, and all he can say is, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The simplicity, candor, and complete and absolute trust in God, make this the perfect prayer. The tax collector knows that no matter how sinful he has been, he can still be the recipient of God’s mercy. This tax collector goes home being justified, being made right with God, because of this prayer. He is willing to stand before God without any excuses, without any pleading or deal making, with only a single request – God’s mercy. What a beautiful example of faith and trust in God. Now we do not know what happens to the tax collector after this encounter in the temple, but that does not matter. This parable is only concerned with the tax collector’s trust in God’s mercy. If the tax collector can find mercy before God, if the tax collector can find the faith and courage to stand openly before God, what is our excuse? What could possibly come in the way of God extending mercy to us? Extending mercy to me and to you?
This tax collector relies completely and totally on God, while the Pharisee thinks that he has reached his status point – his achievements – on his own accord. The Pharisee prays about all the things he has done: praying, fasting, tithing. The Pharisee might as well be saying, “Hey God! Look how awesome I am!” The faithful tax collector is ashamed of what he has done, and his prayer to God is one of forgiveness and mercy, not prideful boasting. The greatest sin in this parable is not the collective actions of the tax collector, but the pride of the Pharisee. The Pharisee has fallen into the sin of arrogance because he has attempted to exalt himself above others, even above God. And, we hear what happens to those who exalt themselves.
Having looked at the Pharisee and the tax collector, I want to go back to my opening statement. Stop pledging! There is nothing like a little shock value to get the blood flowing in the morning.
As a Church for the last few decades we’ve created the words pledging and stewardship to be synonyms. “How is your parish with stewardship? Is everyone up to date with their pledge?” Stewardship is about a lot more than filling out and keeping up with a pledge card. Stewardship is about a way of life. Stewardship takes a lot more than ten percent, it takes one hundred percent of your life. Now don’t get me wrong, making a pledge is an important thing. Pledging is how we fund the budget, how bills are paid, how staff are paid, and how ministries are funded. But, we cannot stop there. If all we do is pledge – even if we have reached the important milestone of the tithe – we are not living into the lives God has called us to. If we find ourselves saying, I pledge or I tithe, and I attend Church we are just like that boastful Pharisee. When we think of stewardship as pledging and only pledging, when we do it because we have to, this becomes no different than paying country club dues.
Stewardship is an attitude; it is a way of life. Living as good stewards, we do not give of our talent out of a sense of obligation, but we give out of a sense of joy. Out of the sense that everything we are, everything we have, our entire being is a gift and blessing from God. When we understand stewardship as a way of life, when we give thanks and praise to God for all the good gifts we’ve received, then this time together, the monetary offerings we make, the sacrifices of time and talent become holy things, not obligations to make us feel good or to assure ourselves that we have paid our dues.
Everyday I receive a meditation from Richard Rohr, author and Franciscan priest. His meditation from yesterday speaks more profoundly than I can about the importance of not following in the footsteps of the Pharisee – the importance of not thinking to highly of ourselves:
Why does the Bible, and why does Jesus, tell us to care for the poor and the outsider? It is because we all need to stand in that position for our own conversion. We each need to stand under the mercy of God, the forgiveness of God, and the grace of God – to understand the very nature of reality. When we are too smug and content, then grace and mercy have no meaning – and God has no meaning. Forgiveness is not even desired. When we have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, religion is always corrupted because it doesn’t understand the mystery of how divine life is transferred, how people change, and how life flows.
It seems to me that we have a choice. We can be the Pharisee or we can be the tax collector. We can be good pledgers or we can be good stewards. We can trust in ourselves or we can trust in God.
What does it mean for you to be the Pharisee? When do you boast of yourself instead of boasting in God? When do you fail to rely on God’s grace and mercy? When do you come before God praying, be merciful to me, a sinner?”
I invite you to open yourself to God, to receive the gift of God’s grace and mercy. I invite you to join me at the altar to receive the most blessed sacrament of our Lord and Savior. I invite you to join me in making our prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”