“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Luke 18:13
I was driving down the Turnpike on Friday morning, headed to meet with some colleagues near Princeton. That’s when I saw it. A giant billboard with this question in big, bold letters: “Are you preparing to meet Jesus?” The question was accompanied by a simple but stark visual: the readout from a heartrate monitor, showing the ups and downs of a beating heart followed by the flatline that indicates death. The message seemed to be something like “You’d better get your act together in some specifically holy way, or else you’re going to die without measuring up to Jesus’ standards.” The sign didn’t say exactly what would happen if Jesus found you wanting, but the suggestion was that it wouldn’t be pleasant.
Maybe it was because Reformation Sunday was on the horizon, but my immediate thought was, “Martin Luther would have some things to say about this message.” Let’s interrogate that billboard a bit. First, the billboard assumes that we have to die to have an encounter with Jesus – when, in fact, we encounter Jesus in all kinds of ways. We encounter Jesus in the waters of baptism, where he promises to be with us always. We encounter Jesus in the sacrament of Holy Communion, where he promises to show up every single time, closer to us than the bread stuck in our teeth or the wine dripping off our tongue. We encounter Jesus in every person we meet – every single person, formed into flesh and blood by God to be exactly who they are.
Having never died myself, I can’t say exactly what it will be like to meet Jesus after death. But I know this – we don’t have to wait until death to know that Jesus is with us. Jesus is always coming to us, reaching out to claim us again and again – even when we are doing our best to avoid him.
The second assumption of the billboard is that we have to do something to prepare for an encounter with Jesus. We have to measure up. We have to make sure that we have answered the right questions with the right answers. And if we don’t prepare adequately, then our very soul could be at stake. But the people who paid for this billboard have missed the message of Romans 3: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…”
That passage from Romans – and so many other places in scripture – tells us that, left to our own devices, none of us can measure up. All of us have sinned. All of us have fallen short in our own individual, sometimes creative ways.
And yet we are also released from that sin by the grace that only God can give. The book of Romans says we are “justified by God’s grace as a gift.” And we don’t have to prepare to receive a gift. We don’t have to earn it. That gift of grace means that we are defined neither by the worst things that we’ve done nor by the best things we’ve failed to do. We don’t have to worry about being measured on some sort of holiness scale and found wanting. Justification before God means we have a freedom that only Jesus can provide.[i]
When we obsess about whether we are measuring up to some sort of divine standard, we can easily become like the Pharisee in today’s gospel. This religious leader stands there in the public square and boasts of his spiritual accomplishments: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers…I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’”
The thing is, the Pharisee was probably telling the truth. He most likely did pray and fast and give away his money. But he seems motivated by the desire to look good more than the desire to do good. He acts as if those spiritual commitments are part of a competition that requires him to out-fast, out-pray, and out-give the people around him.
But it would be the ultimate irony if we were to hear today’s gospel, and say, “Thank God I am not like that self-righteous Pharisee, bragging about himself all the time.” We all have that Pharisee within us. We all have some person or group of people that makes us say, “God, I thank you that I am not like those people…” (I know who those people are for me. You know who those people are for you.) We play the comparison game because it makes us feel better about ourselves, forgetting that God’s grace sets us free from the toxic game of spiritual scorekeeping.
I don’t want you to leave today thinking that we don’t do good works. Of course we do. We pray. We worship. We give money and food and clothing and shelter to those in need. But we don’t do those things out of fear. We do them out of freedom.
The tax collector gets it. He knows how people see him. The tax collection system was “notoriously corrupt.”[ii] One scholar describes tax collectors at this time as “slimy opportunists and collaborators, willing to victimize their own neighbors while assisting the occupiers.” They “upheld Roman interests at the expense of the people of God.”[iii]
We don’t find the tax collector boasting. We hear him offering a simple, straightforward confession: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Jesus says that the tax collector went home justified – restored to a right relationship with God, freed from the sin he has named. The people listening to Jesus would have been surprised by that statement. They would have preferred to see the tax collector as beyond God’s forgiveness. To know that he, too, could receive God’s grace as a gift – well, that was quite a shock.
Today we remember the Reformation – our Lutheran origin story of over 500 years ago when a monk named Martin Luther wrestled with the expansiveness of God’s grace. Luther couldn’t stand to see the church pressuring people to pay for salvation when he knew that it was a divine gift freely given. So he wrote his 95 Theses in protest, and he set off a firestorm that continues to reverberate all these centuries later.
Our Confirmation class has been learning a bit about that history over the last couple of weeks. We read a handful of Luther’s 95 Theses and worked to understand what they mean. And then the confirmands tried writing some theses for our time – some declarations of what people really need to know about God in today’s world.
Here are a few of those theses for today. (You can read all of them on the doors to the sanctuary.)
Don’t compare yourself to others because God loves us for ourselves.
Money is not what makes God love you.
No matter what, God will always love us.
You can always be forgiven for your sins.
God loves everyone and does not hate anyone.
God’s love is everlasting.
God’s love comes free.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ