“God, thank you. Thank you that I’m not like those people: the misers, the slackers, the people who only show up on Christmas and Easter. I’m here every Sunday. I sacrifice my time to serve the community. I pledge to the stewardship campaign every year, and I know I give more than half of these people ever will. So God, thank you.”
This is what the first man in today’s Gospel might sound like if he were standing here now.
The implicit antisemitic bias in Western Christianity might make us hear “Pharisee” and think, “Ah, this is a story about Christianity vs. Judaism—faith vs. works.” But that’s not really what’s going on here. For one thing, both of the characters in the story are Jewish! This Pharisee’s problem isn’t that he’s an observant Jew. He prays! He fasts! He gives a full 10% of his wealth to God! These are all really good things—things that God commands and calls us to again and again in the words of Scripture.
They’re issues of stewardship—the same sorts of things we talk a lot about this time of year, as we hear witness talks and gather in pledges for next year. How do we spend our time? Where do we put our energy? What do we devote our resources to? These questions are important. It matters how we choose to answer them. And by all appearances, the Pharisee today is making the right choices.
And that’s great! Jesus isn’t saying don’t do this stuff. But in telling us this story, Jesus is showing us that even though the Pharisee is doing the right thing, something is missing from why the Pharisee is doing it… why he fasts and prays… why he gives so much… Why does he give his time, his talent, and his treasure like this?
Why do any of us give, for that matter? Motivations are complicated things, and your mileage may vary, but I know it’s really easy for me to say yes to volunteering my time, to lending my expertise, to donating my money, because “that’s what Good Christians™ do.” Why do it? Because God tells us to. I might rush to sign up for every service opportunity I see. “We’re supposed to help others. And it feels good to be recognized as a devoted volunteer.” I might try to publicly donate a large sum of money (if I weren’t a seminarian and actually had money to donate. “We’re supposed to give our resources for the service of God’s mission. And it’s impressive when they put your name on a plaque or a monument.”
Giving our time and our talent and our treasure is good. We are supposed to do it. And recognizing that service and sacrifice isn’t bad at all. But I know it’s easy for me to fall into acting like our Pharisee friend today without even realizing it. He’s obeying God’s commandments; he’s doing the right thing. But he’s doing it because he’s supposed to. He’s doing it because it looks good. He’s doing it so he can stand on a pedestal and look down at people who didn’t give or serve or pray as much as him.
And what Jesus is saying with this parable today is that when we do that—when the reason we give and serve is to tick a box or get recognition; when we trust in ourselves and look down our noses—we’re missing the point. We’re missing the point of the commandment to give and to serve. And we’re missing the blessing that comes with that giving and serving.
See, the tax collector in the back isn’t a quote-unquote “good person.” He didn’t tithe or fast or give alms like the Pharisee. He fell way short of the mark. And he definitely didn’t deserve an award. But he did get one thing right: he recognized that he depended entirely on God; he recognized that he needed God’s mercy and love. And it’s because he humbles himself like this that Jesus lifts him up as an example of righteousness.
We only see the humility aspect of this in the Gospel reading. But Epistle today shows us the blessing here more fully: Paul is reflecting on the challenges in his ministry, up to and including his looming martyrdom. Despite all these challenges, Paul is uncannily confident there is a prize for him at the end: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness.”
But unlike the Pharisee, Paul’s sense of accomplishment doesn’t rest on his own laurels. Paul isn’t being awarded the crown because he’s given and served so exceptionally on his own. The crown of righteousness he describes is promised to the lowly and the broken—to those who long for the Lord’s appearing and God’s justice, The crown is for the humble, who know they can only give because they’ve first received, who know they can only love because they’ve first been loved, who know they can only hope because they’ve been given hope.
Paul sees the entire offering of his ministry as a generous gift of mercy from the God he completely depends on. Paul only gives so radically because he knows he’s received it all from God. And that delights him. He gives as a response of loving gratitude for the tender mercy and care which he knows he needs and which God has freely given. Paul is able to pour himself out like a drink offering because Jesus Christ first poured himself into Paul like the abundant rain that Joel talks about today. Paul pours out his life for the sake of God’s mission as an expression of thanks for the very blessing of life.
This is what Jesus invites us into today. The opposite of this Pharisee isn’t cowering fear or self-flagellation,and it isn’t abandoning giving and serving. It’s giving and serving out of love—out of gratitude for the mercy God shows us—for the gifts that God pours out upon us each day. God has promised to pour out his Spirit on all flesh: on my flesh and yours. And I think we can see it happening, if we look at what God is doing here at Ascension, what God is doing in each other’s lives. We’re being drenched, beloved. Slowly but surely, we’re being drenched in the Spirit.
And that’s why we give. That’s why we pledge. That’s why we pour out our time, talent, and treasure. Not because we have to or because we’ll look good if we do. We give and serve as a grateful response to the love that Christ has shown us, is showing us, and will show us daily, until he comes again.