Can Good Works Count Against Us?
Epistle: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Gospel: Luke 18:9-14
When I looked up reassessment on the internet, I was quickly drawn to the process of determining property values for the purpose of calculating the real estate tax. If you want to protest your property tax, it needs to be based on a reevaluation, or reassessment, of the value of the property. You believe that the new assessment will show the current value of the real estate to be lower than the value used in computing your taxes. What is it worth today?
So I went to a new doctor this week. I find it interesting that there are some medical specialties that are only served by one practice in the entire area around Ottawa. If you are uncomfortable with that office, it is necessary to go out of town.
One of the things that happens when you start with a doctor who has never seen you - and does not know your story and history, they look at you with fresh eyes. They ask questions you have not been asked before. They make a fresh evaluation based on how you are now, not simply, what has changed recently.
The sense of being known in some detail by a stranger can be both a little intimidating, and comforting at the same time. If there was any perception that your previous doctor was not being attentive to your questions and complaints, you know that at least initially, a full reassessment is taking place.
The less comfortable side is that you are what you are, and it is hard to pretend otherwise. I might like to think, “My weight is a little higher than normal.” In truth, my “new normal” weight is higher than what I consider healthy, and it has been that way for several years now.
The scriptures this morning are familiar. We have heard both of these readings many times. The passage from Timothy often shows up in funerals, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” It seems a word of consolation for those who have demonstrated their faithfulness.
Good church people like us, often measure faithfulness by the reliability of our partners in the ministry of the church. Can we count on them: on their presence in worship, on their pitching in when we hit the Ham Dinner, can we count on their contribution so we can pay the pastor and negotiate a salary with the new pastor? Are they faithful to the church?
Now, we realize that faithfulness includes a lot of other stuff, but in the real practical life of the church, we know the marks of faithfulness. In those simple practical ways, we all carry the marks of a good Pharisee.
When I served on the Prairie Association committee for Authorized Ministers, one of the other members of the committee was a young, newly ordained pastor, who had been raised in the Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterians are very careful in saying what they mean, and meaning what they say.
As Presbyterians consider making changes to their rules, they take a good deal of time, often years of study and debate, to consider all of the possible implications. In doing so they create a good written record of the ideas that are being evaluated, and those ideas that are maintained, and those ideas that are discarded.
When my friend transferred from the Presbyterians to the United Church of Christ, he brought with him - a sensitivity to the written word and the written rules. When he came to the meetings of the committee on ministry - he was very careful to read the text of the Manual on Ministry for the United Church of Christ. He came to call himself our "resident Pharisee".
He was not making fun of the Pharisees. He was claiming for himself the careful attention to detail, and careful attention to the rules that enable us to be faithful and consistent. While in today's Scripture Jesus finds fault with the Pharisee, he does not find fault with all Pharisees, or find fault with all of us who want to play by the rules.
The tax collector in the story is an obvious sinner. He makes his living by taking money from the local people handing it over to the occupying army of the Roman empire. We have the opportunity to hear his prayer. His prayer is very simple, “Lord have mercy on me a sinner."
It is very easy for us to settle for the definition of faithfulness that looks like all of the good things the Pharisee pats himself on the back for. It's very easy to see ourselves in that light. This scripture acts as our new doctor, making a fresh assessment of our actual condition at the moment. We are what we are.
When Jesus says that the tax collector goes home justified before the Lord rather than the Pharisee he - is calling all of us Pharisees - to have a change of heart. Our behavior may not be so bad at all. But we need to be aware of our sins, and our need for God's forgiveness. We need to replace our pride in following the rules, with a humble acceptance of the grace God gives.
If we look back at the words of Paul to Timothy, one of the young men he mentored into being a pastor, he is very clear where are his power comes from. He says, “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, the Lord will rescue me from every evil attack.” The humility to recognize the hand of the Lord - even in the good things that we do - maybe especially in the good things that we do, is the key to being righteous in our prayer.
Jesus has been showing the disciples the signs of faithfulness throughout this whole stretch of the gospel. He has found faithfulness in places that the disciples would never consider looking. He is calling them to change their hearts, approach the Lord God in prayer with honest humility. Not demeaning the good that we do, but crediting to God, the power to do good. Giving glory to God, for the way God’s love fills the world.
So you are not off the hook. When God gives you disposable income, we should be moving towards that biblical tithe - not for the sake of patting ourselves on the back, but giving thanks to God. We should use spiritual practices - perhaps including fasting - not just to cut a dashing figure, but to help us keep God in the very center of our awareness.
Most of all, we have to learn from the failures of the duh-ciples, that the marks of faithfulness might well exist in those we believe are sinners, and misinformed. God knows what is in the heart of every creature. We did not receive a commandment to judge those around us. We were commanded to love our neighbors.
There is good news and bad news here. The good news is that we are loved and made welcome by our generous and loving God for who we are. The bad news is that a poor attitude, an inappropriate amount of self-pride, gets between us and God. The letter to Timothy demonstrates that we are called to run the good race, but to keep it clear - that the glory belongs to God alone. Amen.