11 October 2016

The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 26, 30 October 2016

Track One:
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Psalm 119:137-144

Track Two:
Isaiah 1:10-18
Psalm 32:1-8

II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Saint Luke 19:1-10

Background: Sacrifice – What was sacrificed?
There is a great deal of concern in the codes governing sacrifice that there be a level of purity in the animals that were sacrificed. They could not be blemished or damaged in any way, including being castrated. They were to be considered clean, which allowed mainly for bulls and oxen, cows and calves, sheep, lambs goats and kids, along with turtledoves and pigeons. The animal was required to be at least seven days old. Sacrifice, however, was not limited to animals. Bloodless sacrifices included the offering of flour or grains, wine and oil. At most sacrifices frankincense and salt were used, and in some instances leaven or honey. Of most importance, however, was the blood that was a product of the sacrifice. The blood was life and nephesh (soul). Blood would be sprinkled on the altar, or in some instances was smeared on the horns or side of the altar. In each sacrifice the following acts or gestures were followed: a) the laying on of a hand or hands, b) the killing, c) receiving the blood, d) bringing the blood to the altar, e) sprinkling the blood, and f) the burning of the sacrifice.

Track One:

First Reading: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you "Violence!"
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrong-doing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous--
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

I will stand at my watchpost,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.

The initial verses briefly introduce us to Habakkuk, and then are followed by the argument that will inform the remainder of the oracles recorded here. What the prophet observes is the injustice of Judean culture, and he complains to God that he is forced to witness it. Verse one of the second section, could almost be read sotto voce to the audience – what will God do? You may want to go a read the whole of chapters one and two, for the initial complaint of Habakkuk is followed by a response from God in which God reveals plans for the punishment of Judea. That, then, is followed by another complaint on the part of the prophet.

There is a subtext here, one of waiting. The prophet must stand on the wall and await God’s word to him. What follows is to be committed to writing, so that more than casual hearers to understand. There is a desire for clarity, for God urgently wants the people to understand the entirety of his vision. The vision retains a certain hope – and it is valuable enough that one should wait for it. The audience is seen as two types of individuals – the proud and the righteous. We should, however, not leave off at the descriptor; “the proud” for there is a further definition as to their true makeup. “Their spirit is not right in them.” One commentator described this as a “faintheartedness” a weakness that would abandon any waiting upon the Lord. The word that is connected to the righteous one is the word “faith.” This one will wait for what God has purposed.

Breaking open Habakkuk:
1.          What is Habakkuk’s grievance against God?
2.          What is God’s grievance against Judah?
3.         What is Judah’s hope?

Psalm 119:137-144 Justus es, Domine

137  You are righteous, O Lord, *
and upright are your judgments.
138 You have issued your decrees *
with justice and in perfect faithfulness.
139 My indignation has consumed me, *
because my enemies forget your words.
140 Your word has been tested to the uttermost, *
and your servant holds it dear.
141 I am small and of little account, *
yet I do not forget your commandments.
142 Your justice is an everlasting justice *
and your law is the truth.
143 Trouble and distress have come upon me, *
yet your commandments are my delight.
144 The righteousness of your decrees is everlasting; *
grant me understanding, that I may live.

The commentator, Artur Weiser, is no fan of this particular psalm, calling it “a particularly artificial product of religious poetry.”[1] Its verses endlessly circle around their love of God’s law, which may account for Weiser’s final comment on the psalm as a whole,

“On the other hand, however, one cannot fail to realize that a piety such as is expressed in the psalm, according to which God’s word and law take the place of God himself and his wondrous works (v.13), are even worshipped (v. 48) and become the source of that comfort which as a rule is bestowed upon man by the divine saving grace (vv. 50, 92), carries with it the germs of a development which was bound to end in the self-righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes.”[2]

So what are we to make of our liturgical selection this morning? The speaker identifies so closely with the words that proceed from the mouth of God, that those who do not follow them are considered “enemies.” Perhaps that particular phraseology was enough to have the framers of the Revised Common Lectionary to ally this psalm with the Habakkuk text. The remainder is a panegyric on the Law of God, with a concluding prayer requesting wisdom.

Breaking open Psalm 119:

1.     What do you think is the best part of the Bible?
2.     The worst?
3.    How does it influence your life?


Track Two:

Second Reading: Isaiah 1:10-18

Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation--
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.

The reading from Isaiah includes portions from two separate pericopes, all of 1:10-17, and one verse from 1:18-20. Both show evidence of the rib pattern that we have seen before, an invitation to a legal dispute. In verse 2 of this chapter we witness the court being assembled, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear O earth, for YHWH is speaking.” Verse 10 continues the dispute that is addressed now to the people who are characterized as residents of Sodom and Gomorrah – such is the severity of the accusations that will follow. The question is basically one of importance and standing. Is it the Word of God that directs the lives of the people, or is what they do ritually that makes for righteousness. God’s apparent attitude over these various holy assemblies and ceremonies makes for an unambiguous answer, “I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.” For a point of comparison, you may wish to refer to Amos 5:22ff. and to Jeremiah 7:21ff., where the two prophets reject the whole sacrificial system. Others understand this to be an argument particular to the situation in which Isaiah and the people find themselves. As lookers on from a later time we might find the particularity argument more convincing – that is Isaiah’s true work here, to center the people once again in what God truly desires. Here we find the prophet’s usual messianic view: “seek justice,” “defend the orphan”, and so on.

Our liturgical selection includes verse 18 of the next section. In it we begin to hear words of reconciliation, “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord.” There is some negotiation that needs to happen but we already know the outcome, for the sins of the people are about to be erased by a generous and gracious God. There is one condition raised, and unfortunately it lies beyond the liturgical selection of the reading from the lectionary. You might want to consider it, however, or even append it, “If you are will and hear.” Here is the operative behavior, the one that is striven for – apprehending God’s word and then acting on it.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.     How does God look upon your offerings?
2.     Why is God disdainful of Israel’s offerings?
3.    How is your worship worthy?

Psalm 32:1-8 Beati quorum

     Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, *
and whose sin is put away!
2      Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, *
and in whose spirit there is no guile!
3      While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, *
because of my groaning all day long.
4      For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; *
my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.
5      Then I acknowledged my sin to you, *
and did not conceal my guilt.
6      I said," I will confess my transgressions to the Lord." *
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
7      Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; *
when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.
8      You are my hiding-place;
you preserve me from trouble; *
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

We have a psalm that celebrates completed actions on the part of God and the speaker: transgression, confession, and forgiveness. The details of the psalm reveal a certain level of textual difficulties, and so we need to rely in the central themes outlined above.

Breaking open Psalm 32:
1.     Do you have sins that are difficult to leave behind?
2.     How do you confess?
3.    Do you hear God’s forgiveness?

Second Reading: II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.

To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Following the proper address that begins the letter, we begin a prayer of thanksgiving. In it we understand what it is that Paul wishes to address with the people of Thessaloniki. Thus we can expect the letter to address the love and support that the members of the congregation have for one another, their steadfastness during persecutions, and a hoped for worthiness.

Breaking open II Thessalonians:
  1. For what is Paul thankful?
  2. What are your works of faith?
  3. Why does Paul boast of the people of Thessaloniki?

The Gospel: Saint Luke 19:1-10

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."

Is wealth a blessing or an obstacle to faith? It is this fundamental question that Luke has been circling around over the last several chapters. The latest of these encounters involves us with Zacchaeus, a wealthy tax collector.  This blog spent some time introducing us to the office and social status of this class of people in the discussions about Proper 25 (see Pentecost XXIII, Proper 25). Now there is an encounter with Jesus, and we wonder what direction it will take. The draw of Jesus is palpable, and we wonder what it is in Zacchaeus’ life that attracts him to Jesus.  There are efforts that he has made to rectify the misdeeds of the past, “and if I have defrauded anyone of anything.” What is unspoken here is that he has defrauded and stolen, who he is indeed a sinner, not just presumed to be a sinner.

Jesus reverses the social situation by inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ home – a presence that on-lookers take in with a certain amount of umbrage. Zacchaeus recognizes what has been done, not only in his “confession and repentance” but also in Jesus’ reverse invitation – thus the joy. The story concludes with a realization about wealth. It doesn’t make up for the man’s physical challenges (he was very short), nor does it provide a sense of security and well being to Zacchaeus. Jesus perceives Zacchaeus’ true wealth in his apparent faith that supersedes his status as a son of Abraham.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How does your wealth govern your life?
2.     How do you honor those who are in need?
3.    How is Jesus your guest?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Weiser, A. (1962), The Psalms, A Commentary, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, page 739
[2]Weiser, page 740f.

05 October 2016

The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25, 23 October 2016

Track One:
Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65

Track Two:
Sirach 35:12-17, or Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
Psalm 84:1-6

II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Saint Luke 18:9-14

Background: Publicani
In the parable that is told in today’s Gospel we see the typical villain in the person of the tax collector, an effective contrast to the super righteous Pharisee. Who were these tax collectors, and why were they so vilified. Tax collectors were essential private contractors who were mandated to collect the various imperial taxes in a region or province. Tax collection was not the only area in which the empire used private contractors, with some military work being given over to contractors as well. These publicani were titled such because they were about the business of public works. In general, the system worked, with some examples of abuse and bad behaviors. The problem was, at least in the Roman experience, that there was no effective legislation or legal code that controlled this aspect of the government. During the reign of Augustus, the quiet of the pax Romana allowed for a population that didn’t question government practices and procedures. All was proceeding too well and too effectively. Those in power benefited from the private contractor system, so certain untoward practices were allowed to continue or overlooked.

The situation in Palestine was different, however. Here the tax collection represented not only the need of the empire to tax its various peoples for the benefit of public works within that province or region, but more to the point represented the Roman government as oppressor and illegal occupier. That was the base line thinking. In addition to these traitorous acts against the Jewish people was added to premium exacted by the collectors on the base tax requested by the empire. Thus they were seen as greedy and dishonest. The Roman historian Livy (ca. 34 BCE) agreed. He writes: “Where there was a private contractor, there was no effective public law and no freedom for the subjects.”[1] Thus a popular portrayal coupled with the politics of occupation and suppression results in a model of sinfulness that Jesus uses effectively in his parable.

Track One:

First Reading: Joel 2:23-32

O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in the Lord your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain, as before.
The threshing floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will repay you for the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent against you.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again
be put to shame.

Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.

Joel writes to a people quite happily resettled in the land of their fathers and mothers. The period of exile has since long passed, and the enemies of the people are more concentrated in weather conditions and natural enemies, such as the locust. Thus in the initial verses, the prophet recalls the many blessings of prosperity and abundance that have accrued to the people. When the great Day of the Lord comes, the people will be “never again…put to shame.”

The second half begins with the promise of the spirit, a pericope made popular in Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, quoted in Acts 2. Having assured the people not to fear the Day of the Lord, now the prophet asks them to anticipate its coming. The initial statement, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh” seems to indicate a universalism that mirrors developments in Jeremiah and Isaiah. Not all agree about this, however, seeing the limitations in the subsequent verse, your sons and your daughters.” Regardless it is its use in Acts that does expand the understanding to include peoples outside of the covenant peoples. A messianic stage has been set, first by abundance, and then by the gift of the spirit. There is an expansion of meaning in the inclusion of women in the promises of the spirit, and the inclusion of the aged and slaves as well. The final verses underscore the dreadful nature of the coming day. Any possible unfaithfulness needs to give way to a desire to “call upon the name of the Lord.” Finally we have an echo of Isaiah’s remnant theology. “And among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.”

Breaking open Joel:
1.     What does the Day of the Lord mean to you?
2.     What does the prophet Joel hope for on such a day?
3.    What do you hope for on the last day?

Psalm 65 Te decet hymnus

     You are to be praised, O God, in Zion; *
to you shall vows be performed in Jerusalem.
2      To you that hear prayer shall all flesh come, *
because of their transgressions.
3      Our sins are stronger than we are, *
but you will blot them out.
4      Happy are they whom you choose
and draw to your courts to dwell there! *
they will be satisfied by the beauty of your house,
by the holiness of your temple.
5      Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness,
O God of our salvation, *
O Hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the seas that are far away.
6      You make fast the mountains by your power; *
they are girded about with might.
7      You still the roaring of the seas, *
the roaring of their waves,
and the clamor of the peoples.
8      Those who dwell at the ends of the earth will tremble at your marvelous signs; *
you make the dawn and the dusk to sing for joy.
9      You visit the earth and water it abundantly;
you make it very plenteous; *
the river of God is full of water.
10    You prepare the grain, *
for so you provide for the earth.
11    You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; *
with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase.
12    You crown the year with your goodness, *
and your paths overflow with plenty.
13    May the fields of the wilderness be rich for grazing, *
and the hills be clothed with joy.
14    May the meadows cover themselves with flocks,
and the valleys cloak themselves with grain; *
let them shout for joy and sing.

I like Robert Alter’s translation of the first line – enigmatic and somehow connected to Elijah’s experience at Horeb, “To you silence is praise, God, in Zion.”[2] What follows then is an expression of God’s greatness, and the ubiquity of God’s gifts. After words of trust, there is a rehearsal that is reminiscent of Joel’s description of God’s munificence and the abundance of Judah. The psalmist begins by reminding the reader of God’s control of these things – best seen in his victory over the waters at the moment of creation. From this point on water takes on a different role - the waters flow, drench, soften the ground, and bless the land’s increase. Suddenly the metaphor changes as the earth is clothed and draped in God’s blessings.

Breaking open Psalm 65

1.        How is silence both holy and beautiful for you?
2.        Where is there abundance in your life?
3.        What do you do with your abundance?


Track Two:

First Reading: Sirach 35:12-17

Give to the Most High as he has given to you,
and as generously as you can afford.
For the Lord is the one who repays,
and he will repay you sevenfold.
Do not offer him a bribe, for he will not accept it
and do not rely on a dishonest sacrifice;
for the Lord is the judge,
and with him there is no partiality.
He will not show partiality to the poor;
but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.
He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan,
or the widow when she pours out her complaint.

What is the etiquette of giving? This is what concerns Sirach in this reading. Some behaviors are shown to be out of bounds when offering a thanksgiving to God. One must not defraud the poor when making an offering, nor is it right to attempt to bribe God. The subtext here has been a theme of justice. It is a justice offered to the poor, to the widow, and to the orphan. Thus gifts to God are also the gifts we offer to others in the course of life.

Breaking open Sirach:
1.     What forms your giving to charity?
2.     To whom do you give offerings?
3.    Whom have your forgotten in your giving?


Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22
Although our iniquities testify against us,
act, O Lord, for your name's sake;
our apostasies indeed are many,
and we have sinned against you.
O hope of Israel,
its savior in time of trouble,
why should you be like a stranger in the land,
like a traveler turning aside for the night?
Why should you be like someone confused,
like a mighty warrior who cannot give help?
Yet you, O Lord, are in the midst of us,
and we are called by your name;
do not forsake us!
Thus says the Lord concerning this people:
Truly they have loved to wander,
they have not restrained their feet;
therefore the Lord does not accept them,
now he will remember their iniquity
and punish their sins.
Have you completely rejected Judah?
Does your heart loathe Zion?
Why have you struck us down
so that there is no healing for us?
We look for peace, but find no good;
for a time of healing, but there is terror instead.
We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord,
the iniquity of our ancestors,
for we have sinned against you.
Do not spurn us, for your name's sake;
do not dishonor your glorious throne;
remember and do not break your covenant with us.
Can any idols of the nations bring rain?
Or can the heavens give showers?
Is it not you, O Lord our God?
We set our hope on you,
for it is you who do all this.

Jeremiah begins with a lament that is followed by a divine oracle. It might serve you best to read the entire pericope here in order to understand the context of what Jeremiah is offering – thus begin at verse 1, and its depiction of drought. The question is “why is there drought – why this judgment against us?” So our reading properly begins with an admission of guilt and a request for forgiveness. It is God who is the actor here, not Judah. They are not made holy in their request for forgiveness, but rather are made wise in recognizing God’s generosity.

Breaking open Jeremiah:
1.     Where is there “drought” in your life?
2.     Is it because of something you have done or not done?
3.    How will it be relieved?

Psalm 84:1-6 Quam dilecta!

     How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.
2      The sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
3      Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.
4      Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way.
5      Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, *
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.
6      They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.

Here the psalmist longs in an almost erotic manner for the temple. The intensity of this language leads the reader to explore why such an emotional response? Even the smallest things of creation have access to the greatness of the temple, such as the small birds that nest in its stones. Thus humankind as well is made happy and is satisfied to be in the temple praising God. By doing such, everyone is a pilgrim making their way to the temple. It is ironic to invoke the pilgrim’s way (for we naturally think of the wilderness that leads up to Jerusalem) and then to make reference to a “place of springs.” The very nature of creation is seen differently when in the context of God’s house.

Breaking open Psalm 84:
1.     How do you really feel about going to church?
2.     How does the church afford you some level of comfort and satisfaction?
3.    In what ways are you a pilgrim?

Second Reading: II Timothy 4:6-8,16-18

I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Paul gives a reprise of his situation in describing life as a “libation,” an offering to God. He looks back at what he has done, and describes it to us in athletic terms, complete with the victor’s laurel wreath as a crown. And then he does not reserve all this to himself, but grants that all “who have longed for his appearing” will share in the victory and the reward. Paul also recognizes that he has, for the sake of the Gospel, stepped outside of his community and tradition. It is stated in the reverse, with the community having abandoned him. Thus he stands alone through his own decision or through that of others. He announces finally, however, that he is not alone – Christ stands with him as rescuer and savior.

Breaking open II Timothy:
  1. What does it mean to be poured out as a libation?
  2. What has Paul accomplished in his ministry?
  3. What are his expectations of Timothy?

The Gospel: Saint Luke 18:9-14

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' 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!' 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."

Jesus continues to teach us about the nature and truthfulness of prayer. In this parable he compares two lives – that of the hyper-religious Pharisee and that of the publican. At various points in the Gospel Jesus points out that under the Kingdom of Heaven things will be made new, turned around, seen in a new light. Thus it is here, for the prayers, which could be not more different, are indeed the opposite one from the other. One is self-indulgent and bragging, while the other is self-aware and suppliant. Even the placement of the characters underlines their difference. The Pharisee stands alone, separated not only by space but also by his sense of his own righteousness and superiority. The publican stands at the perimeter of things, not even allowing himself to gaze up into heaven. Thus the tables are turned for one who thought him first is now last, and visa versa. Human status, and the opinion of others hold no suasion in God’s kingdom. The vantage point of the Holy One of Israel is a great leveler.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How are you like the Pharisee?
2.     How are you like the publican?
3.    How is that reflected in your prayer life?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

[1]    Livy, History of Rome, quoted by Cavanaugh, M (2004), “Private Tax Collectors: A Roman, Christian, and Jewish Perspective”, www.taxhistory.org.
[2]    Alter, R. (2009), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton& Company, New York, Kindle location 5173.