A Hospital for Sinners

Feast Day: Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22; Psalm 84:1-6; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

O Lord, open thy Word to us, and us to thy Word, that we know thee better and love thee more; for thy mercy and for thy truth’s sake. Amen.

I read a story this week about a 24-year-old man who became a billionaire overnight. Yes, his parents gave him nearly four billion dollars but still. Now, how absurd would it be if tomorrow he started doing the talk-show circuit boasting about how his fortune is all due to his hard work and diligence? To be sure he did graduate from the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania so no doubt he is a hard worker. But to take credit for what is clearly a gift and then on top of that to look down on the poor would be absurd. It would demonstrate the utmost sense of entitlement and pride.

I mean, forget about four billion dollars. We have received an inheritance of faith that includes the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. How could we think even for a second to trust in ourselves rather than in Jesus Christ? How could we think even for a second to look at anyone else with contempt rather than to fall down before him in adoration and thanksgiving?

This morning’s reading from the Gospel According to Saint Luke picks up where we left off last week. Last week ended with a question: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” This morning Jesus provides us with an image of the sort of faith that he hopes to find when he returns. And what does that faith look like? It looks like you and I trusting not in ourselves at all but rather trusting in God entirely. That’s what faith means: trust. Christian faith is trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation. Period.

The opposite of Christian faith isn’t no faith rather it’s faith in myself. This is a parable for everyone who trusts in themselves and in their own righteousness. I mean, that’s the problem with the Pharisee right? His whole disposition towards God and others doesn’t fit in the kingdom. “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, liberals, conservatives, or ever like this tax collector. I fast twice a week: I give a tenth of all my income.”

Prayer, fasting, almsgiving. All good things and all spiritual disciplines that Christians are called to practice. But what profit is it if your fasting and prayer serves only as a pretext for vanity and pride? You see, the Pharisee is keeping score and he trusts in himself. He thinks that his own religious and moral practice make him more worthy of God’s grace and mercy than those other sinners. He even begins his prayer with thankfulness as any good prayer is wont to do. But what is he thankful for? God’s faithfulness and mercy? No! His own faithfulness and obedience! He has exchanged his own acts for God’s acts as the object of his gratitude.

The contrast between the Pharisee and the tax collector couldn’t be more stark. The Pharisee presumes upon the grace of God, the tax collector does not. The Pharisee stands up by himself and thanks God that he is not a sinner like those other people, the tax collector confesses his sin and throws himself entirely upon the mercy of God. The Pharisee trusts in himself even to the extent of boasting, the tax collector trusts wholly in God’s mercy and grace.

What is my disposition to God? Do I stroll through life like the Pharisee? Self-possessed, presuming upon God’s grace, looking down on those I think are more sinful, convinced that what I need from God isn’t saving so much as an inspiring pep talk. Do I think that I am capable of loving God and loving my neighbour on my own apart from God’s help and that I am, in fact, already off to a good start? Or, do I come before God like the tax collector, trusting not in my own moral or religious obedience but wholly in his grace and mercy? “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Because look who goes home justified in the end. Look who goes home absolved, acquitted, freed, and healed. Not the Pharisee who thought he was basically a good person and who trusted that his own morality would save him but the tax collector who knew he didn’t have a leg to stand on, who didn’t attempt to justify himself, but simply trusted in God’s mercy. If nothing else Jesus is saying to you this morning, “Do not fear knowing yourself as a sinner for I am a friend of sinners.”

Who is Jesus to you? Is he the one who asks more than you could ever give? Or, is he the one who gives more than you could ever ask? The former turns the Christian life into a contest in which we always have to be keeping score and comparing ourselves to others. But the latter produces a harvest of gratitude, joy, and love that lasts. Because when we know God to be a generous benefactor then we are set free (justified!) from the need to keep score and prove how saintly we are. Instead, we can come before God with our sin and leave forgiven. Just like we come before a doctor with our pain and leave cured. I love how Pope Francis put it a few years ago. He said that the Church is a hospital for sinners not a museum for saints. Only sinners can know the joy of the gospel in the same way that only sick people can know the joy of being healed and made whole. That’s why Saint Augustine called repentance a “useful and necessary medicine.”

Where in the liturgy do we confess our sins? [Allow responses] Only after the proclamation of the word. You see, after the gospel is proclaimed there are only two fitting responses from us. The first is the response of faith: God you are who you say you are and I trust you. That’s what we’re saying in the Creed. The second response is, in the light of God’s loving-kindness, to fall down on our knees and confess our unworthiness: God I have done nothing to deserve your kindness, in fact, I am a sinner. Have mercy on me! And notice what happens next in the liturgy. It expresses the gospel. The very moment we confess our sin to God he forgives us, lifts us up, gives us his peace, and brings us to the table where he feeds us with his own flesh and blood.

So do not fear knowing yourself to be a sinner because Jesus Christ is a friend of sinners. Trust not in yourself but trust in him and you cannot go wrong. And if you want to boast, boast not in your own strength, wisdom, and power but in the strength, wisdom, and power of God that is revealed on the Cross. Boast of Jesus Christ in whom and with whom and through whom we have been made inheritors of the riches of God’s goodness and grace.

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