Pentecost 23 | Proper 25(C) | Lectionary 30
Jewel on the Hill, Pastor Fred Kinsey
The Iron County Court House, was called “The Jewel of Iron County,” in rural, Iron County Michigan, where I once lived. Appropriately, it was built atop the hill, that the main street ascended towards, and could be seen all around town. Inside, the District Attorney’s office was the most plush and revered, for it symbolized the apex of justice for Iron County.
But over the past dozen years, the DA’s Office had had a string of corrupt Prosecutors who inhabited that lofty office. Not nearly as famous as Illinois’ jailed Governors, but none-the-less, notable in those parts. And now, a bright young new star was elected and installed, and he pledged to be different. He would uphold the good and the right, and in particular, he promised to go after the drug and alcohol problems that plagued the county. 8 out of 10 crimes of those housed in the county jail were related to drunkenness and drug abuse. This new Prosecutor talked tough, and he set himself apart from the bad guys, denouncing their lifestyle, and giving the impression that “he was glad he was not like those other people.” He appeared at community events, flag raising ceremony’s, service clubs, and ‘Just Say No’ to Drugs rally’s, at the schools. He was the model of justice and righteousness -- our Chief Prosecutor of crime!
Then one morning, in the local paper, the news headline read: “Iron County Prosecutor Arrested Buying Percocet® Outside Courthouse”! Turns out, the specially funded Michigan undercover cops, the Upper Peninsula Substance Enforcement Team, or UPSET, had been following a lead for months, which finally led them right to the #1 Lawyer and Prosecutor of drugs and crime for Iron County! The one who “trusted in himself that he was righteous, and regarded others with contempt,” our self-righteous Iron Co. Prosecutor, himself, had an addiction to pain killers, that he couldn’t admit he couldn’t control. So desperate was he, that he was lured into buying them from UPSET, just across the street from the Courthouse, ‘the Jewel of Iron County’, the ‘lovely dwelling place’ as the Psalmist refers to the Temple in Psalm 84, the people’s monument to righteousness, at the very top of the hill, the most visible spot in town.
In Luke’s parable about going to pray, the upright, and possibly uptight, Religious Leader [Pharisee] and a cheating Tax Collector, ‘went up to the Temple,’ ‘the lovely dwelling place’ of God. This magnificent Jewel of Jerusalem, recently rebuilt by Herod, was on top of the hill, called Zion, a beacon of righteousness. Luke’s readers would have been intimately familiar with these two characters, or at least their caricatures, and how Luke consistently describes them throughout his gospel. One has grown up in the faith, been a dutiful worshiper all his life, done all that was required of him. I don’t know about you, but I have friends like this! He worked hard at it, and couldn’t help reminding God in his prayer that he fasted not just once, but twice a week. He gave not only a tenth of his crops and livestock that was required by law, but tithed on all his income, an offering that went above and beyond his duty.
The Tax Collector, everyone knew, was the villain. Obviously! Everyone knew he worked for the enemy, the Romans, collecting numerous taxes that added up to a servitude and bondage to the Empire that was far in excess of the mounting taxes and fees that even we are familiar with as residents of the City of Chicago, Cook County, the State of Illinois, and the federal government, combined. And most of it, in the case of the Israelites, never trickled back to their benefit. Though, it’s true, most of those Roman tax collectors didn’t get rich either. To turn a profit, they had to skim a little here, and a little there, from the workers on the bottom rung of the ladder, and everyone knew it. The tax levy itself, went to Rome. But still, it was not an honorable way to make a living, and since no one likes to pay taxes very much in the first place, the tax-collector became a caricature of society’s hated ones, and were lumped in with the other outcasts and sinners.
Jesus exploits this understanding of Pharisees and Tax Collectors in his Parable, by reversing our expectations about trusting our righteousness before God. Even what is unredeemable in our eyes, may be found to be worthy of saving in God’s eyes. “I came to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance”, Jesus said when he called Matthew the Tax Collector to be one of his Disciples, earlier in Luke’s Gospel. Again in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, Jesus concluded, “there is more joy in heaven over the repentance of one sinner than in the 99 righteous”.
And so, there’s righteousness, and, there’s self-righteousness. “For all who exalt themselves,” said Jesus, “will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I have been to Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, all that’s left of that 1st Century Crown Jewel. The Temple itself is long gone, but there is still a steady stream of those who come to pray at the ruins of that remaining wall. All who come to pray, and you may have seen pictures of this, are separated in two – not for righteous and un-righteous, important religious leaders and sinful tax-collectors, but to honor Orthodox Jews who still worship, men on one side, women on the other. And never, when I was there, did I see any Jews, Christians or Muslims, praying in anything but a respectful posture – no boasting or blaming, but only sincere and heartfelt prayers.
Martin Luther – who we commemorate on Reformation Day, this Thursday, October 31 – described Christian believers as, “both saint and sinner at the same time”. And he was a firm believer that we ought to ask humbly for forgiveness and renewal daily. That we should, upon waking every day, make the sign of the cross, to remember our baptism, ask for forgiveness, and give thanks for God’s gift of a clean slate and the new life going forward.
The Iron Co. Prosecuting Attorney, a self-proclaimed saint, who forgot he was also a sinner, set himself above the law, apart from others he liked to look down upon, and ‘went down’ to the jail, in the basement of the Iron County Courthouse, to his new ‘home,’ not in the righteousness he once claimed and paraded around town in, but in utter shame. Having ‘exalted himself,’ he was now ‘humbled.’
The challenge for us, of course, is to notice that we rather like being exalted, ourselves, rather than humbled. And we might begin to believe that, things we do, even when we think they’re done out of humility, really, just might, justify us, at least a little, might make us a bit better than those who fail where we succeed. But, until we let go of that notion, the parable suggests, we will not ‘go home justified.’ This is why we have an opportunity for Corporate Confession and Forgiveness at the beginning of our liturgy, in this season. It is the first step in acknowledging our sins and humility before God.
And yet, if this first step is always in danger of turning back in on itself, towards self-righteousness, what can we possibly do as a people of faith? Is there a next step? It’s so hard for us to see as modern Christians in an era of Individualism, and in a post-modern world of relativism. But I would suggest that the answer lies, in realizing with Luther, and the Iron County Prosecutor, that we are not in control of our addictions, and must enter more deeply into living as community. The next step then, is to become an effective Christian community, to assume the larger responsibility of faith, and to transform our humility incarnationally, into ‘the righteousness of the Body of Christ’ for the world, living and working for justice and peace. Until then, we’ll just be prisoners to our own small righteousness. The world, it turns out, is really the judge of our righteousness. Maybe not as far as our salvation goes – that’s up to God – but as far as the image we project as the church, as the Body of Christ, to the world. Until we take this next step, we as an Assembly, will only work against our own vision and mission, and the face we present to our neighborhood – despite our best internal efforts – will not look all that inviting or welcoming!
We are saints and sinners at the same time – we are the jewel and apple of God’s eye, and at the same time, we are the tax-collector, beating our breasts in humility. We are a shining beacon on a hill, and, addicted to being on the take right across the street, in clear view of all. The good news is that, even what is unredeemable in our eyes, may be found to be worthy of saving in God’s eyes. When we accept who we are, locating our authentic identity in God, then we find we are poised to grow as an effective community, for the life of our neighborhood and world.