PROPERS: PROPER 25, YEAR C
TEXT: LUKE 18:9-14
PREACHED AT HOLY TRINITY, PENSACOLA, ON SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 27, 2019.
ONE SENTENCE: Shedding burdens is an integral step in the practice of giving.
Years ago, when I was first out of seminary, I was serving a small congregation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The congregation was much smaller than Holy Trinity is today.
I was invited to offer the invocation at a luncheon meeting of economic development representatives from across Mississippi. There were probably 100 people in attendance.
The speaker at that luncheon was Steve Forbes, publisher of Forbes Magazine, and son of the late billionaire, Malcolm Forbes. As it turned out, Steve and I were seated next to each other at the head table. Steve and his father were noted for their yacht, which was named Capitalist Tool.
He and I had a pleasant visit during lunch, he gave a very good speech, and we went our separate ways. I gave it no further thought.
A couple of weeks later, I was working in my church office alone. Due to security concerns, I kept the outer door locked.
I heard a knock on the door and went to open it. It was a UPS deliveryman with a package for me. After I signed for it and took it back into my office, I noticed it was addressed to me, with a return address from Forbes Magazine.
I opened the package and inside was a note from Steve and a tie… with a pattern of the words, Capitalist Tool. I chuckled, and thought about the gift.
A few days later, I told my secretary that I had an idea: I would write Steve a thank-you note and tell him that he obviously had misunderstood me. What I had asked for was a tithe.
I never wrote that note.
+ + +
Today’s gospel is auspiciously timed – right in the middle of what most churches observe as stewardship season.
Jesus describes two people going to the Temple in Jerusalem – one a highly-respected religious leader, a Pharisee, and one a despised sinner, a tax collector.
You know the story. It is very familiar. The Pharisee ostentatiously beats his chest, proclaiming for all to see that he – unlike this tax collector – is righteous and follows the jot and tittle of the Mosaic Law. His purposes are to proclaim his own righteousness in a very public way and, using today’s terminology, to cast shade on the tax collector.
But the tax collector – a despised person among the Jews – stood off to the side and begged God: “Be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Jesus proclaims that the tax collector, rather than the pious Pharisee, stood justified before God.
So often, this story is conflated in our minds with a similar passage, the Widow’s Mite, the story of the rich man who gave generously to the Temple treasury, and the poor widow, who gives only two small copper coins. Jesus proclaims that the woman – and her meager offering – are much greater than the rich man’s gifts, because she gave out of her poverty.
Today’s passage is, indeed, about that selfless, humble giving. And it is about so much more.
Hear the opening words of this passage again: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…”
The challenge Jesus lays before us is that we should not rely on our own righteousness, and that we should be humble in all that we do.
+ + +
There is another story from scripture which illustrates this point well. It is the story I grew up calling The Rich Young Ruler. Hear it again:
17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is[a]to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him,[b] “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:17-27)
We tend to think we know this passage well. If we take it literally, we see the tremendous difficulty associated with a person “of means” entering the Kingdom of God. There would have to be some sort of intervention.
But there is an ancient interpretation of this passage, dating back to at least the ninth century. That interpretation shed some significant light on this passage – and has a strong resonance with the Gospel lesson today.
Jerusalem, of course, was – and is – a walled, fortified city. It was built that way to protect against invaders. There were several gates in the city walls, which allowed travelers to enter. At night, those gates would be closed, to secure the walled city.
But… but… so the interpretation goes, at least one of the massive gates had a small, narrow door which could be opened for those wishing to enter the city at night. That small door was called the eye of the needle.
It seems that in order for a camel to enter that narrow door, all its burdens had to be taken off its back. Only when all the burdens were removed could the camel come through the narrow door.
The same is true for us. That is what the gospel lesson today is saying to us. When we approach this altar, when we say our prayers, when we listen to someone else’s stories, when we reach out to connect with another person – we are to set aside our burdens, our cares, our presumptions about ourselves, our pride – and become vulnerable as humble Children of God.
When you offer your gifts – whatever they may be – with such a sense of reliance on the grace and mercy of God, they are like a fragrant offering to the Holy One.