Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
March 10, 1999
Never, Never Give Up.
that has run through my three sermons, if you've been here before, is
the element of surprise that is always a part of memorable truth. I've
been suggesting that familiarity not only breeds contempt, it also breeds
dullness and apathy. When a story goes exactly as you expected, we tend
to take it for granted, not make too much of it. But when a story takes
an unexpected turn, when suddenly we find ourselves confronting the unanticipated,
that has a way of arousing our attention. Those truths have a way of making
a more lasting impression.
suggesting that Jesus understood that principle 20 centuries ago, because,
again and again in his favorite vehicle of teaching, which is the parable
story, he would start out in a very conventional way and then suddenly
startle people by the direction his truth took. [It reminds me of] that
wonderful African-American who used to talk about slack-jawed amazement
as an appropriate response to some of the surprises that are found in
Jesus' parables. On Monday, I tried to identify the most familiar, perhaps,
in which Jesus shockingly said that a Samaritana social outcast,
racial half-breedwas really more godly than those who worked for
the Temple, a priest and a Levite. Yesterday, I talked about the shocking
way that a vineyard owner chose to do what he did with his great affluence.
But I dare say neither one of those had quite the shock value of the one
that I want to talk about today. It's remembered only in Luke's Gospel,
and this is the way that Jesus said it:
Two men went
up to the Temple to pray; one a Pharisee and one a tax collector. Now
the Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that
I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like
this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.
But the tax collector standing far off would not even lift up his eyes
to heaven, but beat his breast saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
God be merciful to me a sinner.
I tell you, this man, the tax collector, went down to his house justified
rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled
and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
off here with two individuals who would have been well known in first
century Palestinian life. Everybody knew what a Pharisee was. They were
the most devout people in the culture. The word Pharisee comes from a
root that means pure, and that was their utter passion. They were so anxious
to live up to God's ideals, they took the Law of Moses seriously. They
were the pillars of respectability. They were considered the very best
folk in all of that population. They were the ones at the very pinnacle
of moral achievement.
person was at the opposite end of the social scale. Nobody was despised
more than a Jew who had become a tax collector. This profession was the
unique creation of the Roman way of governing. The Romans were very wise
in not overly antagonizing citizens when they conquered a country. Rather
than send in some foreigners to collect taxes, which is always very disagreeable,
they would find opportunistic natives, people who lived by the creed,
"In order to get along, go along." Then they would give them
the ominous task of collecting taxes from their own people. It was very
lucrative financially, but it carried a high social liability, because
naturally the people in a conquered country despised some of their own
who had sold out to the other side and had gone to work for the occupation
forces. So there was nobody that society thought less of than this tax
collector. No one that society thought more of than this Pharisee. [They
were] two people whom everybody Jesus spoke to would have quickly understood.
no surprise at all when Jesus says that the Pharisee went up to the Temple
to pray. That was something Pharisees did all the time. And there is really
no surprise in the form of his prayer. Because you see, these people were
good and they knew they were good, and they didn't mind letting everybody
in hearing know about it. So when he describes himself as not being like
other peoplenot an extortioner, not unjust, not adulterous, certainly
not like this tax collectorwhen he says I tithe everything I get
and I fast three times a week, he was really describing the rigorous kind
of life that he was living as someone faithful to the Law of Moses.
So it was
not surprising at all to have the Pharisee where he was or praying as
he did. And it was a mild surprise for Jesus to say that a tax collector
would be in the Temple. These were people that did not usually come to
religious confines, and they were certainly not known for their contrition.
Maybe in the dead of night the tax collectors had uneasy consciences,
but they were not in the habit of letting anybody else know that they
felt badly about the way they were abusing their own people. So to say
that a tax collector had dared to come into the temple and was in such
abject contrition, that really was a measure of surprise. But that was
nothing, nothing compared to the earthquake of shock at the thing Jesus
then says; he dares to affirm that the tax collector went down to his
house more in the favor of God than this very pillar of respectable religious
piety. Talk about turning the world upside-down; talk about taking conventional
religious wisdom and standing it on its head. I can imagine a gasp went
up from the people who first heard Jesus tell this story. They could not
believe their ears. Jesus is saying that a tax collector, who has abused
everything that we call moral, was more pleasing in the eyes of God than
the Pharisee, who has done everything right from the beginning of his
life. It was utterly unthinkable.
I want to
pause and say that I can understand that initial reaction, because on
the surface, it does sound like Jesus drifted off in a kind of moral relativism.
Are we to conclude that it doesn't matter how well and how faithfully
and honestly we live our lives; that it is of no consequence to God that
this one had done all of these things, whereas this other person had done
almost nothing but just come in and say, "Oops, I'm sorry,"
and, "Let's let bygones be bygones. [It has been said] that you can
tell that religion is important to a person if it affects two aspects
of his lifehis stomach and his pocketbook. Most people don't take
religion, their faith, seriously enough to let it [affect] their comfort
zone. And to take that special kind of potency that is involved in money
and to voluntarily give 10 percent of that to something else
was a man whose faith really did mean a great deal to him. He was as rigorous
in the way he disciplined his body as some marathon runner, and he was
wonderfully, wonderfully faithful to that business that is called tithing.
Years ago the Episcopal Church put out a bumper sticker that said, "If
you love Jesus, tithe. Anybody can honk." I think that the point
is that if our faith is really going to be significant, it's going to
show itself in the way we live comfort-wise and the way we live in our
stewardship. But most people, let's face it, don't let the church get
that close to the center of their lives.
I heard this
story once about two men who went out fishing one Sunday morning. And
one of them said, "You know my conscious is bothering me. I really
ought not to be here. I ought to have gone to church." The other
man said, " I couldn't have gone to church today anyway; my wife's
sick." Now that's the kind of lackadaisicalness that most people
have when it comes to their faith. And here is a man who was utterly differenta
Pharisee who had given incredible energies and discipline to his moral
development. Then here's [someone else] whom we know nothing about save
he was in a despicable profession and for some reason he had gotten into
trouble and therefore had come to ask for help. For Jesus to say that
this one is more favorable to God than the other really does perplex us
in terms of the way we have always seen the moral universe.
I think it
would be very easy to make a superficial reading of this parable and miss
the point altogether. We've got to look at something deeper than the performances
of these two people. I think if you would put a frame of reference around
this parable that suggests something about the divine, then maybe you
can see that instead of being shocking and instead of being moral relativity,
that Jesus was really touching on something profoundly significant for
all the living of our lives.
Now the thing
about God that is going to make sense of this parable is the simple statement
that "God is more interested in the future than in the past."
God is more concerned about what a person can yet become than what a person
used to be. And if you will take that frame and put it around the behavior
of these two men, then you may see that Jesus senses something in each
of them that was tremendously important.
had a brilliant past. He had up to that point done so many things right.
He had disciplined himself. He had taken the Law of Moses seriously. He
had a wonderful record as you look back over the life that he had lived
up to that point. But my sense is that at this mid-point, he made a crucial
mistake. He took his eye off the ultimate goal that God has for each one
of us, which is according to Jesus, that we should become perfect, complete,
full-grown, just as our creator is perfect, complete, full-grown. This
is the omega point toward which all of creation is aimed. God put us into
this world so that we could become totally and completely like God, to
share in his joy, to come to the fullness of our potential. That is the
great goal that God has for every one of us. The tragedy was that this
man, for all of his magnificent achievements, had taken his eye off that
ultimate goal, and, just as in my talk yesterday, had indulged in the
side-long glance and begun to compare himself to the way other people
were doing rather than to what it was that God had wanted to make of him.
When he took his eye off that ultimate goal, two very debilitating things
happened. First of all, he became contemptuous of other people because
they were not as morally developed as he was, and even worse, he became
complacent about his own unfolding. Can you imagine the Pharisee, having
prayed as he did in the Temple, walking out and saying, "There is
still much that I need to learn. There are still areas where I need to
says at one point, "Forgetting those things that are behind and reaching
forth for the things that are ahead, I stretch toward the prize, the high
calling of God in Christ Jesus." Now can you imagine, the Pharisee,
with a complacency that was borne of taking his eye off the goal, beginning
to say, "I still have room to grow."? Which means, here was
a person who had a past but tragically did not have a future, because
he had become complacent, and he had stopped growing.
On the other
hand, the tax collectorand we don't know any of the circumstances
of his lifehad somehow been knocked to the ground, had somehow been
brought to his senses, some trauma had happened that made him see how
absolutely, absolutely imperfect his life was. And out of that profound
sense of his own unfinishedness, of how far it was that he still had to
go, he came to the temple and honestly acknowledged where he was and did
that crucial thing of reaching out for the grace of God and asking that
God help him grow. Which is to say that, though he had nothing in the
past to be proud of, the tax collector was in a better stance to grow
toward the future than this proud Pharisee.
I think what
this parable says to us that is so important is that we [must] keep clear
why it is that we have been put in this world. I suggested yesterday that
the question, Compared to what? is so important. Compared to what you
were a year before you were born gives you the occasion for unbounded
gratitude. But compared to what God intends for you to become, there are
still miles to travel, and there is so much growth that is yet to be done.
If we have that sense that God wants us to become complete and full-grown,
and that the grace of God is the way we move toward that goal, then we
never indulge in self-satisfaction, we never become complacent and say
that there is nothing yet to learn or to do or to grow. We are in this
constant sense, like St. Paul, stretching forth to try to go on to that
place where God wants every one of us to be.
It is so
important to realize that those famous words at the last part of the fifth
chapter of Matthew, "Be you therefore perfect even as your father
in heaven is perfect," are a promise and not an imperative. It is
so important because in the Greek there, the future and the imperative
are spelled the same way. If you hear it as, "you've got to be perfect
in order to earn God's favor," you have missed the point altogether.
Hear it [instead] as the promise of what God's grace wants to make of
you eventually, hear Jesus saying, "If you will let the grace of
God into your life and keep acknowledging that you need that and that
you want to grow, then I promise you perfection, full-grownness, completeness."
That is where God is going to take every one of us, because the goal God
had in creating us was that we would share God's kind of joy and come
to the fullness of the measure of the stature of Christ. It is promise
and not demand that is the essence of the gospel.
I have an
Episcopal priest friend who used to teach at Virginia Seminary right outside
of Washington. He said one winter Saturday night his phone rang about
9 o'clock, and the voice on the other end of the line identified himself
as a young man who had grown up in the parish which the priest had served
some years before. The young man said that he was at the bus station in
downtown Washington and that he had gotten involved in the drug culture
in college and had dropped out, that he had used up every resource he
had known, and he was out of work, had no money and no place to go. He
said, "I remembered when you were our rector, and I remembered that
you were in the Washington area. Is there anyway, anyway, that you could
friend said that though it was Saturday night and he had much to do, there
was something about that plaintive call that lay deep hold of his compassion.
And he said, "If you will stay right there, I'll come get you and
you can spend the night with us." He drove through the snowy streets,
found the young man in a terrible conditionemaciated, drugs had
taken a terrible toll on himbrought him home and fed him supper.
[The young man] poured out the lament of how he had abused his life, and
my priest friend listened to him. Finally, my friend said, "Have
you ever considered asking Jesus into your life to help you with all the
things that you are up against?" And with that, tears came to the
boy's eyes and he said, "You know, I have been so far for so long
from ever even thinking in those ways, that no, I haven't even given that
any consideration." But then he straightened up and said, "You
know you are right. When I get myself together and when I get everything
back in shape, I'm going to start going to church again, I am going to
consider letting Christ come into my life." And my priest friend
said, "It'll never happen that way my son. We don't get ourselves
together and then go to Jesus. We go to Jesus in utter contrition and
need, and that's where the energy comes from to get ourselves together."
I think that
is why Jesus sensed that the tax collector really had more promise of
finally fulfilling the goal that God wanted than the Pharisee who had
done so well up to that point but had taken his eye off the goal. He had
let the side-long glance begin to distort his sense of commitment, and
he had stopped growing in the middle of his life, which is a tragic possibility
for every one of us.
ago, I played football for Hillsboro High School in Nashville. We never
did have a terribly distinguished season, but I'll never forget one of
the things our coach used to instill in us. He used to say, "Nothing
is more irrelevant to the final score than the score at half-time."
If we were ahead at half-time, he was always afraid we'd become complacent.
If we were behind at half-time, it was always the occasion to stir us
up. I'll never forget his saying, "Nothing is more irrelevant to
the final outcome, than the score at half-time." And I think that's
why Jesus said of these two, One went down in the greater favor of God
than the other, because at least the tax collector was aware of his need
and was wanting to grow by the grace of God. The tragedy of the Pharisee
is that he had a brilliant past, but because of his complacency, he had
no future. Whereas the tax collector had no past whatsoever to be proud
of (he was in kindergarten in terms of moral development; the Pharisee
was in the tenth grade), and yet his willingness to admit his need and
to grow meant that what is more important to God than anything elseour
futureactually had a brighter prospect for him than for this other
the word this morning is that we are to keep our eye on the goal. The
measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, that is what we were
put in history to become. It is the gift of grace; it is not something
you have to do by yourself. It is something you have to let the risen
Christ help you to become. "You shall be perfect" is the promise,
if you'll admit your need and how life is one unending experience of growth,
and let the grace of God take you to where he wants you to be. We don't
get ourselves together and then go to Christ. We come to Jesus, and that's
our only hope of finally achieving the measure of the stature of the fullness
Back in 1965
something happened that has never happened, I'm told, before or since.
There was a commencement address given at a university in the central
[part] of England that is remembered by everybody there verbatim. Can
you imagine? Most commencement addresses are easily forgotten. Most of
them are platitudinous, and you just sit there hoping to get through as
quickly as possible. But at one moment in history, a graduation address
was given that everybody there remembers word for word. The speaker was
Winston Churchill. By this time he was a very old man, very feeble of
body. He'd been asked to give this address, and they had to help him up
on the stand because he was so weak. In fact it was the last time he ever
appeared in public. When he was introduced, they had to help him to the
podium, and those there said that he stood there for a long time gripping
the podium. They weren't even sure he had strength enough to speak. But
then, they said, he lifted that great head of his and that voice that
had called England back from the very brink of despair during World War
II, that great voice said the last public words that he'd ever utter.
And do you know what they were? "Never, never give up. Never give
up." And with that, he just turned around and took his seat. They
said he was absolutely electric. If you know Churchill's career, time
and again he'd been knocked to the ground by failure. Time and time again
when it would have been easy to give up. Time and time again when he could
have become complacent. But he continued to press toward the mark for
calling of God and Christ Jesusand the reason I think Jesus said,
This man went down justified rather than that onewas that this man,
despicable as his past was, embraced the ideal of never, never giving
up. And my brothers and sisters, if he could do it with his kind of past,
all of us, all of us can. Never, never, never give up. Amen.
Copyright 1999 The Rev. Dr. John R. Claypool