Do Justice (Luke 18:9-14) from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.
Luke 18: 9-14
9Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked down on everyone else with disgust. 10Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a Tax-Collector. 11The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words: “God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else - crooks, evildoers, adulterers - or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.” 13But the Tax Collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather he struck his chest and said, “God, show mercy to me, a sinner.” 14I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.
This is the word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.
I do not yet know the joys of parenthood, and one of the many of reasons I am somewhat wary of those “joys” is the often repeated truism that children are a grandparent’s revenge.
I have no doubt that my parents will love and adore their future, hypothetical, grandchildren. But I have had that awful curse placed upon me, “One day I hope you have a child that is just like you.”
Now my Dad, when my brother and I were very small, did as many young parents do, and called the ones who raised him for advice on a regular basis. Usually the calls were practical. You see, in addition to having raised two sons, my Grandfather is also a medical doctor, and basically knows everything. But on occasions, my loving and patient father would find himself caught in a battle of wills with myself or my brother, and one such event called for a telephone conversation. It’s a conversation that has passed into legend in our family, the time my Dad called Granddaddy and said, “Daddy, my son is the most stubborn, pertinacious, bull-headed person I have ever met.” There was a long pause, and when my Grandfather replied, it began with a sigh, and ended with the grateful prayer, “There is Justice.”
There is justice. We talk about it as a state of being, a trait of the kingdom of God, and in the context of our Micah passage, something we do. God has shown you what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice... The Lord requires you to do Justice.
Justice, when you get what’s coming to you. Justice is when one acts rightly, one is rewarded, and when one acts wrongly, one is punished. We take it as a law of nature that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When the bullied kid turns around and knocks the bully down with one good punch, that’s justice. Isn’t it? We start off in a place where if we are the victim, that means we get to hit back. We didn’t start this fight, but we will finish it, and justice will prevail.
And from that understanding of our own righteousness, we come to Luke’s gospel. Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous. Now if y’all are anything like me, as soon as I read that phrase, someone popped into your head. The other political party, the other sports fans, the other social circle, the other, the other, the other, always the other. They’re the ones who look down on everyone else with disgust. They may have the high ground right now, but Justice is on its way.
Jesus begins his parable, “Two people went up to the temple to pray.” Ooh, two people, I’m in the second group I bet, the one that turns out to be right all along, because I’m one of Jesus’s good followers, a faithful disciple, I’m convinced that I’m going to end up on the right side of these two people: A Pharisee and a Tax Collector.
Now we know that the Pharisee’s don’t often end up as the good guys in the stories Jesus tells, so much so that we’ve forgotten how radical these stories are. The Pharisees are the leaders of the faith community to whom Jesus is preaching. In Luke 13, just a few chapters ago, they warn Jesus about a plot against his life. Pharisees aren’t the bad guys by a long stretch. They are the leaders in maintaining their cultural identity in the face of an occupying Roman government.
The tax collector, on the other hand, is the man who stands between an oppressed Jewish people and the occupying Romans, not as a protector of the people, but as one who benefits from the injustice of the system the Romans have imposed. He’s not a popular guy in town. The tax collector sells out his own people to the powerful empire that has Israel under its thumb. He may not be the bad guy, but for the people to whom Jesus told this parable, the tax collector is certainly working for them.
Y’all, I’m going to be honest. In this story, I’m the Pharisee. Maybe that’s why I want so badly for him to be the good guy. Listen to his prayer: “God I thank you that I’m not like everyone else - crooks, evildoers, adulterers, - or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give a tenth of everything I receive.” He’s thanking God for making him an exceptional example of what a faithful follower of God looks like. What else could I want but to be a model Christian, following Christ’s call to love as we have first been loved? I want to be good. Thank you God for giving me the opportunity to go to school and learn about your Word, Thank you God for putting these people in my life so that I could hear your word speaking through them. Thank you God for not making me a crook, an evildoer, an adulterer. Thank you, God, for helping me to do justice.
Would any of us really pray the opposite? “God, please make me more like that other sinful person.” This Pharisee is grateful to God, which is not a bad place to start, but his gratitude is that he can do justice on his own, without God’s help. I’ve heard so many of our private prayers that are bargains with God. “Oh God, if you’ll heal this person, I’ll never speak badly of others again.” “God, if you get me out of this, I’ll never ask you for anything again.” They’re all variations of the same theme, “God, if you give me grace this time, I promise not to need it quite so badly.” When we pray like this, we are saying to God that we are righteous enough that we can somehow pay God back for what God has done for us. “God, I need you to solve this problem for me, but I can do the rest on my own.” Like a willful child crying out that I can do it, even if I clearly cannot, I walk into this church a Pharisee, wanting to stand on my own two feet. Wanting to be the one who stands against the injustices of the world. Grateful for the opportunity and ability to Do Justice as God requires, wanting to do it all by myself.
But then there’s that other character in this story. The Tax collector is burdened by the oppressive system in which he is a participant. He knows he benefits from the way things are right now, and he knows that his people are suffering, and that he has a hand in it. He is not acting justly, because Justice means that he is no longer on top. He has raised himself up by doing business with those who are occupying the promised land. Justice means that our unrighteous tax collector must fall. Jesus doesn’t deny or excuse the sins of the tax collector. They are still sins. We don’t get any indication that he lives his life differently after he goes to temple to pray. His prayer is simple and heartfelt, “God, show mercy to me, a sinner.” He knows he is not worthy of God’s mercy, he won’t even lift his gaze, but all he has left is the hope that maybe, maybe...
Maybe, as one theologian wrote, “God’s justice gives people not what they deserve, but what they need.”
We do not need to have our righteousness confirmed. We do not need for God to make us happy and fix all our problems. We do not need God to bless us with wealth and power. Because while we may be the Pharisee, wanting to be the one who does the right thing, and wanting to be able to do what God tells us we should do, we are also the Tax Collector. We benefit at the expense of others.
Two complicated characters, the one who does everything right and has convinced himself that he is righteous, and the broken sinner who cannot will himself out of his unjustly won position and knows how badly he needs God’s Grace. Sometimes we’re one, sometimes the other. It’s not cut and dried. It’s not black and white. But it is simple. God’s Grace is what justifies us, not our “righteous living.” God’s grace, as simple as that.
So then do we do nothing? Give nothing? Do we let God’s grace fall upon us without a response? What do you think? God has shown you what is good. God has shown us grace, A grace that we poor sinners need, not the righteous condemnation we so richly deserve. The call to action, the call to “Do Justice” cannot be ignored. To paraphrase James Cone, “What could love possibly mean in an unjust society except the righteous condemnation of everything unjust?”
But the story about my father and Granddaddy didn’t stay with us because Daniel and I were his revenge. The story is important to us because his sigh was colored with a grin that recognized my Dad’s struggle as a new father, and his prayer spoke comforting words that the love we share is stronger even than our stubbornness. There is Justice, and it comes out of the free gift of God’s grace. God is loving, slow to anger, and quick to forgive. God’s justice begins and ends with grace. God’s righteous love is relentlessly transformative, and to resist that transformation is to resist God’s love.
So we start with God’s irresistible grace, given freely to undeserving sinners such as ourselves, and from there we are empowered to act. Not because we are no longer sinners, but because we know that when our feeble attempts to enact God’s justice fail, that God’s grace is there to take up the slack, the little we are able to do only goes to show what God is capable of doing. We lift ourselves up, praying about ourselves with these words, “God, thank you for making me so awesome.” We give money that keeps the lamps in the temple burning, money that goes to feed the poor, we rely on our gifts and abilities to convince ourselves that we are righteous.
And in those moments we find ourselves brought low again, standing at distance, unable to meet the gaze of our loving heavenly father, beating our chest and saying “God, show mercy to me, a sinner.” Having made ourselves low, God lifts us up and transforms our pained groans into hymns of praise. For the justice of the Lord flows down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
As we see God take our fallen efforts and reshape them toward justice, we know that we cannot use the gifts God has given us to buy our way into God’s good graces. It is God’s good Grace that has bought us. And in that grace, we are empowered to do what God has shown us is good: To Do Justice, Love Kindness, and Walk humbly with our God.