Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 25, Year C).
We should not be too hard on the Pharisee. I say that for two reasons. The first is that although the Pharisee is claiming for himself a high standard of pious observance, and while liturgical evidence from that era does suggest that the Pharisee is acting above and beyond the norm, his fasting, his tithing, and even his comparison between himself and the tax collector is not that far beyond the pale, for that religious context.
The second reason why we should not be too hard on the Pharisee is that if we are hard on the Pharisee, if we regard him too strongly, too rigorously as an undesirable example of loving God, if we decide we are not like this Pharisee, then we are replicating the error ourselves that Jesus invites us to avoid. In too strongly and too rigorously condemning the Pharisee, we do to the Pharisee exactly what the Pharisee did to the tax collector. It is a bit of a trap laid for the too pious among us, and we must avoid it. Remember, God has a wicked sense of humor.
We again have straight teaching, or straight theology, provided in this Lesson. We are to emulate the tax collector, not fall into the trap of the Pharisee here described. Does the tax collector compare himself to others? He does not. Does the tax collector expect his own religious habits, whatever they might be, put him into favor with God? He does not. Does the tax collector do anything except call himself a sinner and ask for mercy? He does not. This is straight teaching, straight theology: “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
How often do we hear in the Gospel of Luke the theme of humility in our religious life! Time and time again we are told of its central importance to Christian religion. We cannot worship, praise, love, or even recognize God properly without humility. The opposite of humility is Pride, the first of the Capital or Deadly Sins, and the pattern for all the rest of them; the pattern of how we separate ourselves from God. Pride forgets that we are creatures, and so pride upends and distorts the right relationship between God and His creation, without which we cannot hear His voice, and if we cannot hear His voice, we cannot delight in His will nor walk in His ways.
No matter how religiously active we are — attending Mass every Sunday and holy day; saying daily the official prayers of the Church, morning and evening; devoting ourselves to loving the world around us according to the Bible and the apostles’ teaching (and make no mistake, those are the basics of the Catholic life to which we profess obedience in the Sacrament of Baptism and in the Creeds of the Church) — if our religious life leads us to a sense of elitism, of any sense of superiority over the less-religious and even the non-Christian, then all that religion is for nought. If we turn the activities of the religious life into idols, then through these activities we do not glorify God, but ourselves. If we feel about our religious life that, “You know, God, I do enough,” the Gospel is telling us, “in fact, you must do still more.”
Our religious life should be so active, so constant, so all-encompassing, that at the end of every day, we have no other words for God except those of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Yes, this is a high bar, yet it is nothing but the command of Our Lord to His disciples: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
To become more perfect — that is, more holy and humble, more God’s instrument in this world as well as the next — we must possess the gifts of Faith, Hope, and Charity. We ask God to increase these gifts in us in our Collect today. What are we talking about here? These gifts are potentials in every human being. When God formed us, knit us together in our mother’s womb, he made us in His own image. What that means is that programmed by God into our very DNA, and never lost to us despite our sin, is the potential to realize and make manifest Faith, Hope, and Charity. These are virtues, called the “three theological virtues.” In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul speaks of these in the thirteenth chapter: “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” The greatest of these is Charity.
Over the course of its two-thousand-year history, countless words and many long tomes have been written by Christians about the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity (or Love). And yet, do we understand what is meant by them? I suggest, based on my own observations over the last eight years, that the Church today does not understand the theological virtues well enough. These virtues are important enough to be singled out by Saint Paul, and central enough to be prayed for in our Collect, which like all Collects in the Book of Common Prayer expresses Catholic doctrine as understood in the Anglican tradition.
Over the next several sermons, I will be focusing on these theological virtues in light of the appointed Readings from Scripture, asking the two fundamental questions, asked by the first Christians on the Day of Pentecost, and therefore the two questions that lead to Christian enlightenment: What does it mean? and What should we do?
But lest anyone think I intend some sort of showing academic exercise whereby I flex my scholarly, intellectual muscles, let me spoil the ending for you right now: through a proper and orthodox understanding and, it follows, embodiment in our lives of the gifts of Faith, Hope, and Charity — and they are gifts from God, completely unearned and unmerited through any action we might perform or thought we might have — our recognition of our sinfulness increases, and our acknowledgement to God for the need of His mercy deepens profoundly. In other words, proper understanding and embodiment of Faith, Hope, and Charity align us not with the showy Pharisee, but with the realistic and humble tax collector, for all who humble themselves will be exalted. Let us pray:
Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.