“No, no, no! You haven’t got it right!” So says the exasperated piano teacher to his young student. “You just haven’t got it right!”
Actually, it’s the same thing he says every week. It’s not that the kid isn’t doing what he’s told: he’s holding his hands on the keyboard the way he’s been taught; his fingering on the piano keys is exceptional; his sense of rhythm impeccable! And what’s more, the boy has memorized the assigned piece perfectly, hitting all the proper notes flawlessly and with deadly accuracy. It’s just that for all this technical perfection, the end result has revealed all-too-clearly that the kid’s heart is simply not in it.
Oh, he’s playing a sort of music, alright, but it’s not the kind of music that will start voices singing or set feet to dancing. In fact, all he’s really doing is boring everybody, including himself! So the teacher says it yet again: “You haven’t got it right,” because he knows that if this music was played the way it’s supposed to be, with heart and feeling, spirits would soar and there wouldn’t be a still foot in the house. But here goes the kid again – 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 – with a performance that’s full of method but absolutely no magic!
Actually, when you think about it, the Pharisees were a lot like that.
You see, as religious leaders in Jesus’ time, the Pharisees believed that righteousness was simply a matter of “getting it right;” that in following every law, statute and tradition exactly to the letter would be found the key to their salvation. And to their credit, they worked very hard at this endeavor: they were, in fact, amongst the most learned and spiritual men of their time. They knew the law backward and forward and were thoroughly devoted to following that law perfectly; to the point of excluding anything or anyone who would get in their way of doing so! In fact, it was said at the time that you could always recognize a Pharisee by his black eyes and bruised face; this was because he was so intent on preserving his own righteousness that as he walked down the street, he’d refuse to even look at anyone who might interfere with his quest for perfection. So he’d close his eyes while walking along; and consequently smack right into walls or tumble into ditches!
The reality was what with so many confusing and contradictory laws in the Jewish canon, to say nothing of their very humanity, there was no way these Pharisees could ever achieve the perfection they were seeking. But like the frog in the fable, so intent on the glory of his own reflection in the pond that be became oblivious to the world around him, not only had the Pharisees failed to see the futility of their quest, they’d also become rather self-righteous about the effort! Simply put, the Pharisees were satisfied to revel in the abundance of their own imagined goodness!
So… when it happened that Jesus was talking to some people who, as Luke puts it, “trusted in themselves that they were righteous,” the Pharisees provided the perfect object lesson! His parable is a study in contrasts; pointing up the difference between two men, both of whom, we’re told, “went up to the temple to pray.” The first is, of course, the quintessential Pharisee; whose words at the temple are less a prayer than a loud and pompous tribute to his own importance: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…” followed by a litany of his own self-perceived righteousness: “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” Basically, these were words designed to remind everyone within earshot just how much better he was than everybody else within earshot; most especially the tax collector who had quietly slithered into the far corner of the temple that same morning.
Now, if it could be said that this Pharisee had done everything “right” as concerned the law, then it should also be noted that this tax collector had surely done everything wrong. As people in his profession at the time were wont to do, this Jewish tax collector had likely conspired with the Roman government against his own people. He’d probably made a comfortable living pilfering money and crops from his neighbors, and had lined his own pockets with much of the largesse due the Roman magistrates.
Moreover, here was a man who’d probably never, at least not voluntarily, set foot in the temple in his adult life. He’d certainly never tithed nor fasted; for him, the temple had always been a place – and a truth – he’d actively sought to avoid. But now things were different. Perhaps he’d begun to see the damage he’d done, the pain he’d caused by his own actions. Maybe that morning he’d looked in the mirror and suddenly realized what he’d become – sinful and unrighteous and unworthy of any forgiveness – and the truth of it was more than he could bear.
Whatever it was, he’d come to the temple that day to pray: trying not to be seen, his own eyes fixed to the ground; feeling so worthless that he can’t even bring himself to lift his eyes unto God! In fact, all he can summon the wherewithal to do is to beat fist upon chest and cry out in anger and shame, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” No fancy words, no eloquent prayers, no spiritual rationalizations nor legal bargaining; just a simple and completely heartfelt confession.
Funny thing about God, Jesus says to them. Given the choice between a Pharisee who does faith with all order and correctness, and a sinful tax collector who does it from the heart, God will justify the tax collector every time! Like the piano student we spoke of earlier, the Pharisee knows his technique and plays all his notes correctly, but there’s no real music there; it’s all style over substance, verbiage as opposed to truth: religion without the faith. Try as he might, he just can’t get it right!
The tax collector, on the other hand – uneducated, unsophisticated, and as openly sinful and utterly despised as he was – was getting it right: placing himself wholly in the love, care and forgiving grace of God. No deals made, no litany of empty promises, no assumptions as how God might respond; just a singular moment of prayer and utter humility before the Lord without pretense or any false sense of self-attained righteousness. It’s faith… the kind of faith that leads to true righteousness; that is, in humility as opposed to the sort of self-involved blustering exhibited by the Pharisee! As Jesus himself puts it, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I love this parable; and I must confess that after several weeks preaching on all the subtle nuances found in the Statement of Faith, it’s refreshing to sink our teeth into a story that’s so beautifully direct and to the point! I mean, after all, in just a few scant verses Jesus not only calls out the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, he also manages to turn any distinction we might make between saint and sinner upside down and inside out! This is the kind of text that just begs for us to make some comparisons to the “Pharisaically Correct” of our own time: you know, the smarmy TV evangelists, the holier-than-thou “pew sitters” in the congregation (remember Dana Carvey’s character of “The Church Lady?” That’s the type!), the smiling Christians with the ready backlog of convenient moralisms that apply to everyone around except for them! Truly, it’d be very easy to start pointing fingers here; except that the trouble with such finger pointing is that, like most of Jesus’ parables, this one has a disturbing way of pointing back at you and me!
You see, truth be told, a lot of us are more like the Pharisee in that story than we might realize; like them, we too work very hard at “getting it right” where life and faith and righteousness are concerned. I suspect that’s – in part at least – what brings a lot of us to church on a Sunday morning: this inner desire we have to get a handle on how faith ought to fuel the course of our daily lives. And that’s not a bad thing; our being here today ought not to be some casual or un-considered act, but rather an intentional effort to address the challenges of lives lived in devotion to Jesus Christ. By our worship we are strengthened and empowered to do all the good and “right” things that faith requires: “to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God (!)” doing all these things joyfully and for the right reasons; and, might I add, feeling good for having done so.
And that’s all well and good; except that if we hear what Jesus says to us in this parable, it’s clear that what we should be doing is forgetting all the “good” we’ve done, hit our knees, and pray with all our hearts for every bit of mercy we can get! That’s the truth found in this parable, friends; it’s a wake-up call for any of us who figure that righteousness can be achieved solely by following the golden rule. Forget the exaltation of your “doing unto others,” says Jesus; for such self-exaltation can only lead to humiliation. What we need to understand… first… is that we’re each and all sinners in need of God’s mercy. It’s only by being humbled in that knowledge that we can ever hope for the exaltation we seek!
Now, does Jesus mean for us to walk around with eyes cast downward, beating our chest in self-humiliation? No, I don’t think so; after all, by the grace of God in Christ we are forgiven of our sin: we are not meant to live life as martyrs of unworthiness! But I do think that what Jesus means for us to understand in this parable is that righteousness before God comes down not to all that we we can do, but rather to what it is we can’t.
It’s our human condition, beloved; that we’ll do everything we can in this life to gain acceptance and love, healing and wholeness, peace and salvation, and yet ultimately come to discover that we cannot do it all. Hospitals, institutions, prisons and graveyards are filled with people who thought they could do it for themselves; people who trusted wholly in their own righteousness, people who went to absurd lengths to achieve it and yet failed every time. It’s a hard truth, but within it is found good news: that it’s only the grace of God that we are justified and redeemed; only by God that we are lifted beyond the mire of sin and guilt and isolation to be shown what true love and true life really is. It is God, and God alone, who brings us to righteousness.
Oh, make no mistake, we are still called to do the work… we still follow the laws… and we strive to walk the walk of the righteous. And that’s because in faith, friends, there’s a song that needs to be played; a song with its own very unique melody, rhythm and rhyme. Now, if we were to, say, sit down at the piano to play this song by ourselves, I have no doubt that eventually we’d get the chords and the notes worked; and we might even manage to do a verse or two on our own – but for all the effort, I can tell you that it still won’t be right… that it won’t be music. We need God to help us get it right; we need to let God be the second set of hands on the keyboard, so that when the music starts, voices will sing, feet will move and hearts will soar.
And what a song that will be…
Thanks be to God who joins us in the music.
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry