Literally Loved

Rev. Sarah Buteux
October 27, 2013
Luke 18:9-14


Is there anyone here who is a stickler for good grammar? My father is. I received very little formal grammar training in school, but at home things were decidedly different.

At home, if someone asked, “How are you?” the correct response was “fine,” not “good.” God forbid one mistake an adjective for an adverb.

In our house, if you really wanted help you needed to ask my Dad if he would help you, not if he could help you. Proper use of the word would typically resulted in immediate assistance. If you asked if he could, however, he’d happily acknowledge that yes, indeed, he could if he wanted to.  Then he would walk away, leaving you hanging.

It visibly pained the man to stand at any express checkout line reserved for those with ten items or less. The only time I ever saw him yell at George W was when he said nuculer rather than nuclear. Don’t get my Dad started about moot points or begging the question. And God help you if you used the word between if what you should have said was among, used me if you should have said I, or used the word like, like you know, that.

So imagine my (admittedly somewhat sadistic) delight when I learned that the Webster, Macmillan, Cambridge, and Google dictionaries are now officially sanctioning the use of the word literally to mean its exact opposite. Literally, of course, means something that is actually true: “Literally every house on the block was wiped out by the hurricane.”

But, thanks to a proliferation of people using the word literally for emphasis - “I was so impressed at the car show, my head literally exploded” – (really? Because your head looks pretty good to me) the word literally can now mean “figuratively.” That is, it’s now officially ok to say, “I laughed so hard I literally died,” even though there’s no way you could say that if it was literally true.

This happens with words. Awful used to mean “full of awe,” nervous originally meant vigorous, Cute used to mean shrewd, decimate originally meant “to kill just one in ten,” and the word friend, at least before facebook, was really just a noun and definitely not a verb. But life happens, things change, and words that once meant one thing, over time, can come to mean quite another. Take our story for today.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, “said Jesus, “one a Pharisee and one a tax collector.”

How many of you, whether you’ve heard this story before or not, had some sense of the character of these two men – be it good or bad - from that very first line?

Do the titles of Pharisee and tax collector set off any warning bells in your head? Good, because they certainly would have set bells to ringing in the heads of people 2000 years ago. When Jesus said: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector,” the people in the crowd would have had a very strong reaction to those two characters. They would have gotten all excited.

“Ooohh,” they would have said, “you preach it Jesus.  You tell it like it is.”  Only their response probably wasn’t anything like yours. When Jesus told them about the Pharisee’s prayer:

'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.'

I have to tell you, the people would have fallen all over themselves praising the Pharisee. Yeah. “That’s right,” they would have said. “Those Pharisees, they are such good men.”  “The best we know.” “They are the ones who practice what they preach.” “I wish I were as good as a Pharisee.”

It would have been obvious to the people who the hero of this story was, because the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were the very definition of holiness.  They worked incredibly hard to follow the Torah right down to the last detail.

If they erred at all, in was on the side of caution, going above and beyond what was expected. They were loved and esteemed amongst their own people, people who wouldn’t have even been thrown off by the tone of this particular Pharisee’s prayer, because that was just how you prayed.

In fact, to this day, observant Jews – at least the ones who are men - begin their morning prayers by saying: "Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, for not having made me a gentile. Blessed are you for not having made me a slave. And blessed are you for not having made me a woman."

Yup. It may sound a little egocentric, classist, and misogynistic to us, and - well, it is -  but this type of prayer, where you thank God for what you are not, is actually the sort of prayer people like you and I engage in all the time too.

I mean honestly, who here hasn’t at one time or another thanked God that you are precisely who you are as opposed to being that other person, over there, in aisle 2 with the screaming baby, or that guy on the other side of the highway who just got rear ended?

Thanking God for escaping a difficult fate is actually pretty standard practice. “But for the grace of God…,” we say, and friends, that is precisely how the people would have heard the prayer of Jesus’ Pharisee in this parable.

He is the good guy in their minds. He may not be perfect, but not for lack of trying, and he is certainly better than a tax collector, especially a tax collector who is going to pray at the temple, because any tax collector on his way to pray at the temple isn’t just a tax collector, he’s a fellow Jew.

Now for those of you who don’t know all that much about the dynamic at work here, let’s just say that no one really likes tax collectors to begin with, but back in Jesus’ time a Jewish tax collector, at least in the eyes of his fellow Jews, was the worst kind of tax collector of all because he was a sell out.

The man in today’s parable is obviously a bad guy because he makes his living by skimming as much as he can off the top of the taxes he collects from his own people for the sake of their enemy,  the evil Roman Empire.

He bleeds his own people dry, strengthens their oppressor, and makes himself rich in the process.

Traitor. Scum. Bottom feeder. Opportunist. You couldn’t say enough bad things about a tax collector in Jesus’ day, and believe me, people tried. So when Jesus says:

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!'

The people would have responded, “yeah, he should be so lucky.”  “I wouldn’t look up either if I were him.” “He should beat himself:  he’s a crook, a thief, a liar and a traitor.” “So what happened to him Jesus?”

“I tell you,” Jesus said, “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.

“Uh Oh,” the people would have said. “Bray, bray, back up the donkey. Gosh that isn’t where I thought he was going with this. Is that where you thought he was going with this? Shoot. That Jesus, he’s just always turning things around.”

And he was.  That is what Jesus did best.  He turned the tables on people’s expectations so effectively and so consistently, that if you look up the word “Pharisee,” in your dictionary now you will find, just like the word literally, that the second definition completely contradicts the first.

“Pharisee: 1. a member of an ancient Jewish religious group who followed the oral law in addition to the Torah and attempted to live in a constant state of purity. 2. A hypocrite.

Amazing, is it not; the power of a story like this to reshape the very meaning of words? But even more amazing is the response this story elicits in us, because I think if we are honest than our first reaction when we hear Jesus’ conclusion is to distance ourselves from the new bad guy.

I don’t want to be like the Pharisee now. In fact this story has had such an impact on our consciousness that you already knew you didn’t want to be like the Pharisee whether you were familiar with this story or not, which unfortunately kind of takes the punch out of it.

So much so, that when I sat down to write this sermon my first thought was that I needed to update it in some way; come up with modern day examples for Pharisees and tax collectors that would recapture the surprise of Jesus’ original story.

I played around with some ideas like: the oncologist and the lobbyist for big Tobacco stood up before congress... A Prius and a Hummer pull up to the same light…. A BP executive walks into a bayou bar…. I toyed with names like Stewart and Hannity, O’Reilly and Colbert. I thought about maybe using Obama and Boehner, Cruz or Reid, to make a point. But then thought, no, no, no, don’t make it political, this is about morals.  This is about righteousness.  Seriously, we’re talking good vs. evil, here…pinstripes vs. red socks.

Or should I say, red sox vs. pinstripes?

(And yes, I know the Red Sox are going to the World Series, or are they already in the World Series? Yes, a fact that riles my father even more than misplaced commas.)

But let’s say we were going to rewrite the parable using the Yankees and the Red Sox. How would you do it?  How would you structure the story? Who would you set up as the good guy who is really the bad guy who you think you want to be like but you actually don’t?

Do you get where I’m going with this? I went round and round in my head trying to figure out just how to frame this before it hit me, you can’t do it.

You can’t modernize the parable by picking out new really bad good guys, or really good bad guys because the moment you do, you become that which you are trying hardest not to be.

In plain English: we all want to be good. Right? We all want to be humble and repentant like the tax collector, rather than self-righteous and hypocritical like the Pharisee.

We don’t want to be condescending and look down on other people the way he did, except that the moment I say I don’t want to behave like that self righteous, hypocritical, condescending Pharisee - guess what? - I am looking down on someone. I may hide it well, but deep down, and I’m speaking personally here, this story has taught me that I am self-righteous, hypocritical, and condescending.

I do divide the world up in my own head between the people I like and the people I don’t, the people I want to be like and the people I wouldn’t want to be caught dead with, the people I agree with and the people I think are idiots.  There are a great many people in this world who I respect and a number of people who I don’t. Here I thought I was a pretty good person, but it turns out I’m really quite judgmental. Yeah. Who knew?

Well, Jesus did. Jesus knew. His parable is so ingenious because it makes me want to be humble, but in the process of engaging with it, he gently teaches me that I am anything but. It’s brilliant.

It makes me realize why Luke didn’t have to specify who the people were in the crowd that Jesus was talking too. He didn’t have to tell us who the people were who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt,” because the truth is we’re all in that crowd, whether we realize it or not.

And so, in order to teach us that exalting ourselves at the expense of others is one of the silliest, most destructive, and ultimately pointless activities we can engage in as children of God, Jesus invites us all into the story and lets us do it all over again.

He reveals just how easy it is to judge and distance ourselves from one another in the hopes that we might see our sin, just as the tax collector did, and honestly repent.

Because, you see, you can’t honestly repent until you realize you need too.  You can pray.  You can come before God and thank him for making you as good as you are and leave it at that, or you can lay yourself open to the reality that no matter how good you are, you still have a long way to go.

Have you ever tried to forgive someone who didn’t know they had offended you? It’s pretty hard isn’t it.  Likewise, have you ever managed to apologize to someone you didn’t know that you had hurt? Probably not.

It’s very hard to receive forgiveness for sins you haven’t acknowledged, very hard to fix the things inside you that you don’t even know are broken.

Well, this story is so important because it helps us realize that deep down, no matter how good we are, no matter how hard we try, we’re all still at least a little bit broken and as a result we’re all still at least a little bit scared.

We want God to love us and we’re afraid there might not be enough love to go around. I think that is the real reason we put others down, whether we realize it or not.

We know, thanks to Hitler, that there are people way worse, and we all know – thank you Gandhi - that there are people way better.

Most of us would be content to be like a child of Lake Wobegone, (right Ralph?)  you know, above average. But what Jesus wants you to know is that you don’t have to play that game, because the game you think you are playing doesn’t even exist.

Dear ones, we are not in competition with one another for God’s love. We don’t have to impress God to get God to love us. In fact we don’t even have it in us to impress God because anything and everything inside us that the Lord approves of, he put there first.

God doesn’t love some of us more than God loves others of us.  God just loves us.

God sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, makes the sun to shine on the good and the bad.

So let us not judge one another, feel the need to compete with one another, or waste time comparing ourselves to each other, but instead let’s look around and give everyone we know a break.

The reality is that nobody’s perfect. God knows this and loves everybody anyway.

And God isn’t going to run out of love. There isn’t a limited supply of grace or forgiveness. The Lord’s acceptance is not being doled out on a first come first serve basis while supplies last. It is not a prize reserved for the most deserving.

It’s a gift…pure and simple… a gift freely given to anyone and everyone. To receive it, you need only acknowledge that you need it.

All Jesus is trying to show us today is that we do: the Pharisees and the tax collectors, the lobbyists and the oncologists, the Prius owners and the Hummer drivers, Comedy Central comics and Fox News correspondents, Democrats and Republicans, Yankee fans and Red Sox fans, you and me.

We all have issues. That is part of what it is to be human. And yet we’re all forgiven because that is part of what it is to be a child of God. You are loved… anyway. You are forgiven… already.

Literally loved and forgiven more than you could ever imagine.

Thank be to God.


Let us pray:

O Lord, forgive us, forgive us when we try to save ourselves by attempting to increase our own value by devaluing others. Forgive us if we think we must become more or you will love us less. Help us to see that it is because you love us that we are already valuable.

For Father, you alone are Holy. Mother, you alone are pure. Help us to overcome our tendency to judge others and so exalt ourselves. Help us to show love to one another no matter what. Make us a people who approach you with reverence and respect and joy over what you have done, what you are doing, and what you will yet do within us all, amen.