Pharisees, tax collectors, and spirituality gone bad

October 18th, 2022

Joel 2:23-32. I’ve never warmed up to Joel much – certainly not in the way Peter did in the first ever big important Christian sermon in Acts 2, which lifts our text as key to understanding Jesus! It’s easy to play on “sons and daughters, old men and young men, even servants” – launching us forward toward “neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female…” But it’s that all these will “dream dreams.” I hear preachers now veering toward “dream,” Martin Luther King-style. In Scripture, a dream is something God uses to reveal what God is about to do. It’s not an eloquent vision, or sorting our your anxieties while asleep. Joel envisions something we don’t quite expect to unfold.

He alludes to a “Teacher of righteousness,” which was picked up in a big way at Qumran. It’s dicey to take today’s reading out of context: it’s sunny and optimistic, but only because the sense is that Joel’s dire threats and summons to radical repentance have, shockingly, worked. The people are imagined as having turned, finally taking the Day of the Lord seriously, gifted thereby with healing and restoration. Hans Walter Wolff provides two stellar comments: “Not only will earlier conditions be restored; they will be exceeded.” And, “The pouring out of God’s spirit upon flesh means the establishment of new, vigorous life through God’s unreserved giving of himself to those who, in themselves, are rootless and feeble.”

It’s a scary text, moon-to-blood stuff. Of course, change is scary. Joan Chittister, in The Time is Now, shows how the prophets “chose courage. They chose to stake their lives on what must be rather than stake their comfort, their security on what was.” Joel prevents us from shrinking the Gospel to mere personal salvation. It’s a whole new world.

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18. Paul poignantly looks back as he nears the end of his life. So moving. What’s to come? Not a pot of gold or a luxury cottage on another continent. It’s “the crown of righteousness,” maybe like those orphans in Cider House Rules, bidden goodnight by Dr. Larch with the words “Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.” Paul’s Greek tense here indicates his being sacrificed is already in process.

Luke 18:9-14. Spirituality gone bad! The pious man refers to himself 5 times in just 2 verses! Indeed, he is praying “with himself,” talking to his true favorite person. And utterly secular, if Charles Taylor’s massive tome’s theme is adopted – that the “secular” is whenever we see meaning with the self rather than beyond the self.

Luther launched the Reformation in reply to theologian Gabriel Biel’s dictum, “Do what is in you.” What is in me is brokenness, a self shackled to sin and self, and inability to do God’s holy bidding. How lonely is the effort! Notice this Pharisees is “standing by himself.”

This guy’s attitude was also criticized by Jewish writers, like Josephus and in the Babylonian Talmud. No one likes it when holiness slides into self-righteousness which slides into despising others.

Then there’s the tax collector, the “moral equivalent of a leper” (N.T. Wright). Luther’s despair, in striving to be holy enough, is a later echo of the shameless plea of the tax collector, who cannot even raise his eyes. Humility is faith, humility is the need for and reception of grace, mercy requiring nothing but humility. These 2 are of utterly divergent social situations, one admired, the other despised, one of fair means, the other probably wealthy. 

“The prayers of the two men are even more a contrast than their social station” (David Lyle Jeffrey). 

The contrast is such a laughable caricature that we might lose the point. I’d fix on how thankful the pious one is that he is “not like others.” Thank you Lord I’m not sick like those guys, that I don’t think wrong politically like those guys, that I have children and grandchildren unlike my friend Bob. Pity is the core of such prayer – or judgment, neither in sync with the heart of Jesus. Prayer is never comparative in nature, tone or content.

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