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Pentecost 23 Proper 26, October 24, 2010

Pentecost 23 Proper 26 C RCL October 24, 2010

Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65
2 Timothy 4:6-8; 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

This morning we meet the prophet Joel, whose ministry took place between 350 and 400 B.C.E., during the Persian Period. Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonia Empire, and, in 539 B.C.E., the people returned from Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and re-establish their lives. In contrast to someone like Amos, who was a dresser of sycamore trees and not an official prophet, Joel was a cultic prophet who was familiar with the temple and its worship.

Joel tells the people that there have been bad times in the past, but good times are now coming. The dark times could have been literal plagues of locusts or the attacks of armies which seemed like locusts in their numbers and destruction, but now God is going to bless the people with bountiful harvests.

And God is also going to send God’s spirit among the people. The spirit will enliven all people, men and women, people of all classes and walks of life.

In our epistle for today, Paul is about to die. He has passed on everything he knows to Timothy, his young student and disciple. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” Paul writes. Often spiritual leaders of that time compared our spiritual journey to an athletic event. Being a good follower of Christ demands the best we have to offer. We need to stay in shape spiritually through prayer, study, and action. As our diocesan mission statement says, we are called to pray the prayer of Christ, learn the mind of Christ, and do the deeds of Christ. Paul has done all this and more. He has persevered through imprisonments, shipwrecks, and other catastrophes, and he makes it clear that he knows that God has brought him through all these challenges.

Today’s gospel is a familiar story. “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” When we hear this, we bring to the story things we have heard about Pharisees, and we tend to make the Pharisee the bad guy. But we need to remember that when people heard Jesus say that one of these men was a Pharisee, they had a different view from ours. People of Jesus’ time knew that Pharisees, as one scholar writes, “were devoted to God’s commandments and…worked to discern how best to live and act faithfully in matters of everyday life.”(Audrey West, New Proclamation, Year C , p.252.) In Jesus’ time, people tended to see Pharisees in a positive light.

Tax collectors, on the other hand, were the lowest of the low. They often collected taxes for the Roman Empire, and they were viewed as collaborators with the occupying forces. They were also hated because they often became rich from collecting tolls from laborers and traders. In other words, the amassed their wealth on the backs of the poor.

The people of Jesus’ time would not have expected him to use a tax collector as a model of spiritual growth. This reminds us of the parable of the Samaritan who helped the man who had been robbed. The idea of a Good Samaritan would have been an oxymoron to people of Jesus’ time. Jesus’ listeners would have seen the Pharisee in a good light and the tax collector as a scoundrel.

The Pharisee tells God that he has done his duty according to the law. He fasts, he tithes, he does everything he is supposed to do. But he is full of self-satisfaction and judgment of other people, including the tax collector. On the outside, he may be looking holy, and he may be praying in just the right way as far as externals are concerned but he is oozing with arrogance. The tax collector, on the other hand, knows how people view him. He is aware that he has a long way to go on his spiritual journey. He is aware that he needs God’s help, and he is asking for God’s help.

Once again, as Mary sang in the Magnificat, the reign of Christ reverses the present social order:

He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
And has filled up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
And the rich he has sent away empty.

In Jesus’ reign, everything is reversed. Social status, wealth, worldly power, money, influence, all the things which are so highly valued in this world, mean nothing. The tax collector knows that he is despised and looked down upon. His prayer is real, He asks God for mercy. The Pharisee is doing everything right according to the law, but he is so full of himself that there is no room to let God in.

Prayer is not about flowery words or doing things the right way according to some external standard like the law. Prayer is about being honest with God, telling it like it is, and asking for help.

One of my favorite prayers is found on a poster in the bathroom at All Saints Church in South Burlington. The poster reads,

“A prayer to be said
when the world has gotten you down
and you feel rotten
and you’re too tired to pray
and you’re in a big hurry
and besides you’re mad at everybody

HELP!”

Over the years, I have found that this prayer can be reduced to its essence and be quite effective: Help!

Amen.

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