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Sermon based on Luke 18:9-14
In our home, David III and I often have ongoing discussions about movies we have seen. These conversations often go like this, “Which movie did you like better?” Discussions over the years have centered on Marvel and Star Wars Movies where we are usually in agreement. One particular movie where we disagree as to which one we like better is the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory compared to the remake done in 2005. I prefer the 1971 version starring the late Gene Wilder, as Willy Wonka while David III prefers the movie starring Johnny Depp as the main character. In both movies, Willy Wonka was a reclusive owner of a famous candy factory who starts a global craze when he offers five children a tour of his factory and a lifetime supply of Wonka candy. In order to be one of the five children you had to find a golden ticket inside the wrapper of a Wonka Bar. Eventually five children get their hands on these golden tickets including a young boy named Charlie who becomes the hero of the story. Each of these five children with golden tickets in hand venture to Wonka’s factory for a tour. They sign a long contract expecting their lifetime supplies of candy. Throughout the story, one by one each child breaks their contract by breaking the rules somehow. One falls into a river of chocolate, another eats something she’s not supposed to eat. Each child wants to take possession of something they believed they were entitled to receive.
That storyline, that theme, that idea of having a golden ticket and a spirit of entitlement somehow has a familiar ring in our culture and society. Sometimes we tend to think that way about our faith and our religion too. Sometimes we think we’ve got that golden ticket and we’ve got that binding contract with God that states we get certain things, and that we have earned certain rights. We see in our gospel lesson that one person felt entitled to proclaim their faith and devotion to those around them in an effort to prove to others that they appeared to be less faithful and devout. Perhaps we have been around someone who acts this way. No matter what issue or cause they may support they set themselves up to be the center of attention.
We have an example of someone like this in the Bible. Two men went up to the Temple to pray. The first was a very good man, a Pharisee who was a keeper of the rules. He was respected and a true pillar of the community. A Pharisee was a member of the Jewish faith set apart to maintain and interpret the laws of the Old Testament. Some would consider them to be zealous about keeping the oral laws and traditions pure. They were the pious ‘church-goers’ of their time attending every study and rigorously sought to obey every law of faith. Pharisees knew how to pray. In fact, they applied themselves to the art of prayer. We today have grown accustomed to thinking negatively of them as soon as we hear their name. However, Pharisees were highly respected in their community. As we study our lesson this morning, we need to see them as honored members of their community in order to fully understand this parable. Translated into modern language the Pharisee’s prayer would have been something like this, “Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people, robbers, crooks, adulterers, or heaven forbid, like a tax collector. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.”
In these first few verses we see the Pharisee and his self-righteous behavior in action. In his prayer there are a few things that capture our attention. Notice that there are no thanks offered to God, rather a long list of personal achievements. The Pharisee had “I” trouble. Notice how many times in his prayer that he used the pronoun “I.”
God, I thank thee,
That I am not like
I fast twice a week
I give tithes of all that I get
Jesus offers an interesting response to his prayers. He said these prayers were not enough. He said this Pharisee and their words of prayer were not important. Jesus thought the Pharisees prayer was a farce. Jesus appears to be saying, that the Pharisees actions were not enough. Thanks, but no thanks. What in the world could be wrong with this picture? The Pharisee prayed. He thanked God there in the Temple. He was correct in his evaluation of others coming to pray in the Temple that day. The Pharisee was faithful. The Pharisee did not lie, fasted and gave a tithe to the ministry of the Temple. The Pharisee sounds like and is a pretty good person. We are left to ask the following question concerning Jesus’ reaction, “When are thanks not enough?” Jesus gave a clue to understanding this answer in the ninth verse. He told this parable to those who “trusted in themselves.” Thanks are not enough when the basis of our trust is only in our self. For the Pharisee, their life and faith were centered upon the person the Pharisee saw in a mirror. The Pharisee in one sense really had “eye trouble” because they could not see their own arrogance and lack of humility.
Speaking of humility, the story is told that back during those days when an ice cream sundae cost much less than these days that a young boy entered a soda shop. A waitress put a glass of water in front of him and asked for their order. “How much is an ice cream sundae?” he asked. “Fifty cents,” replied the waitress. The little boy pulled his hand out of his pocket and studied the coins he was holding. “How much is a plain dish of ice cream?” he inquired. More people were waiting to order at other tables and the waitress was growing impatient ready to move on to customers who might actually order a meal. “Thirty-five cents,” she brusquely replied. The little boy again counted his coins. “I’ll have the plain ice cream,” he said. The waitress brought the ice cream, put the bill on the table and walked away. The boy finished the ice cream, paid the cashier and left. When the waitress came back, to wipe down the table she noticed neatly beside the empty dish, were two nickels and five pennies. The young boy could have had a sundae but chose to leave the waitress a tip. From that point on, the waitress learned to be a bit more humble and treat everyone with respect, from the youngest to the oldest customer.
Too often in life we can be guilty of practicing “Golden Ticket Theology.” Some people’s golden ticket is status. They are certain that if they belong to the right group, they’re guaranteed a seat at the head table. This still goes on today. We often make assumptions about our standing, or the standing of other people based upon their associations.
Another golden ticket people can hold on to is pride. In the book, Becoming a Contagious Christian, a newly promoted colonel moved into a makeshift office during the Gulf War. He was just getting unpacked when out of the corner of his eye; he noticed a private coming his way with a toolbox. Wanting to seem important he grabbed the phone and began saying, “Yes, General, I think that’s an excellent plan.” He continued, “You’ve got my support on it. Thanks for checking with me. Let’s touch base again real soon, goodbye.” The private was standing at his door the entire time and upon hanging up the phone, the colonel asked, “And what can I do for you private?” The private answered, “I’m here to hook up your phone sir.” The late William Barclay, a renowned Biblical scholar once said: Pride is the ground in which all the other sins grow, and the parent from which all the other sins come. Pride can at times corrupt our relationship with God and lead to another golden ticket people often hold.
This other golden ticket is prejudice. Pride and prejudice are perhaps the easiest of temptations for us to fall into in life. Pride and prejudice can harm relationships, undermine faith and pollute prayer lives. Like the Pharisee we say to God, “I may not be perfect, but at least I’m not like so and so.” We’ve bought into the human idea of comparison and managed to transfer that to our theology. We look at the lives of others and believe that God should be grateful that at least we’re not like them.
Another golden ticket that is becoming more of a presence in the Church is a reinterpretation of Jesus’ golden rule. There are some who believe the golden rule is the following, “Those who give the gold make the rules.” The golden rule that I am familiar with and was taught from a young age comes from Matthew 7:12. No matter what Biblical translation we use, whether from the original Greek, King James or New Revised Standard Version translation the message of the golden rule is the same:
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you for this is the law and the prophets.
The golden rule sums up for us God’s entire way of life. God’s way of life is about outgoing concern for others. That is why Jesus later in the 22ndchapter of Matthew shares with us the two great commandments:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. And a second is like it you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:37-40)
God’s way is all about how to live the best life we can and the real golden rule provides us the best version to follow.
As we are reminded that this parable was told for the benefit of people who trusted in themselves, we should not go away this morning thinking that the Pharisee is the villain and the tax collector the hero. The actions of the Pharisee were worthy of emulation, they fasted, tithed worshipped, and prayed. The problem was that the Pharisee did these things for pomp and circumstance before God and humanity. The tax collector on the other hand was dishonest and corrupt. A tax collector was at the other end of the spectrum in Jewish culture. A tax collector would have been considered to be among the worst citizens. Tax collectors worked for the ruling Roman authorities. They were considered both extortionists and traitors. They were known for collecting more taxes than was owed and pocketing the difference. They were considered traitors because they served the occupying power of Rome. The redeeming aspect of this particular tax collector was their honesty and humility. Both the Pharisee and tax collector had failed to live up to the image of God. Through their examples we see that two things, our attitudes and actions, help determine the course of direction in our lives.
The late Viktor Frankl, a Holocast survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning once shared that while living in a concentration camp he remembered how some people would walk around offering comfort and even their bread to others. This made a lasting impression upon him. He concluded in his autobiography that while it appeared that all human freedoms could be taken away from a person, there was one thing left that the Nazi’s could not control, a person’s attitude. Our actions flow from our attitudes. Good attitudes lead to good actions and bad attitudes often lead to destructive actions.
The Pharisee led a good life but their attitude toward God was off track. The tax collector on the other hand, showed a humble attitude toward God but had not learned how to translate attitude into action. Who would we rather be more like, the Pharisee or the Tax Collector? For me the ideal would be to have the attitude of the tax collector with the actions of the Pharisee. Today however, we don’t have to be concerned about whether or not we are more like a Pharisee or Tax Collector. The reason we do not have to worry is because we are the recipients of God’s grace.
As we think of grace, during the building of the Golden Gate Bridge over San Francisco Bay, construction fell badly behind schedule because several workers had accidentally fallen from the scaffolding to their deaths. Engineers and administrators could find no solution to the costly delays. Someone suggested a gigantic net be hung under the bridge to catch any who fell. Despite the enormous cost engineers constructed and installed a net. After it was installed, progress was hardly interrupted. A worker or two fell into the net but all were saved and no further lives were lost. Ultimately, the time lost to fear was regained by replacing fear with faith that this net could catch those fallen workers.
God too has given us the safety net of grace through Jesus Christ who loves and respects all. As we continue to cross bridges in life, let us learn to let go of our golden tickets.
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
July 29, 2018