By Sharron R. Blezard, October 20, 2016

Lectionary Reflection for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt . . . Luke 18:9

Ouch, Jesus! Why do you have to shine your bright and penetrating light into my heart of darkness and brokenness, into the places I’d rather not discuss or even acknowledge? I mean, come on Jesus, for me to be right (or righteous) doesn’t someone else have to be wrong (or wretched)? I go to church, I put something in the offering plate most weeks, I
serve on a committee or two, and when I have extra time I volunteer to serve those less fortunate. I clean up pretty well compared to most folks, don’t I? Surely I pass the righteousness sniff test in a world filled with boors and louts and lazy miscreants.

The good religious leader in Jesus’ parable can easily be adapted for today—it’s a timeless role. All one has to do is peruse Facebook posts and Twitter feeds to see how human nature plays out predictably in the “best foot forward masks” so many of us project for the world to see. Who wants to be vulnerable and transparent at the risk of being exposed as inadequate or “less than”? We want/need to be part of the in-crowd. Human nature demands that there to be an outsider to justify embracing the status of an insider. We need someone to be more despicable in our eyes in order to hide our own failings and frailties. Somebody has to be the scapegoat, right?

Not so, according to Jesus, who consistently draws the circle wider and upends worldly ways of assessing righteousness, of who’s in and who’s out, and who stands justified in the Janna Allingham.cceyes of God. It’s not the thin veneer of religious insider who ends up meeting the righteousness requirement, but rather the vulnerable and self-admitted outsider who cries out for mercy and who humbles himself before God. It’s the self-admitted and humbled sinner who receives mercy and is elevated in the story.

It is so much easier to play the role of the insider and to curve in on oneself and one’s fears and insecurities. It feels less risky and ever so much more right. But this is not what Jesus desires of us. Jesus wants us to humble ourselves, to admit our failings and sins (no one is exempt!), and to lean fully on God for mercy. There is no room for bootstraps and lone ranger mentality in the reign of God. The preferential treatment and free-flowing mercy is dispensed lavishly and lovingly to those on the margins.

Don’t be mistaken. God hears all prayers. God loves this entire creation and proclaims everything good. God loves “Pharisees” and “tax collectors”, and God longs for all people to recognize their place in the divine arms of mercy and grace. The stewards of God’s mercy and grace, however, are the ones who recognize it for the precious gift it is and who aren’t afraid to plead for it. Knowing that everything belongs to God, is of and from God, and depends on God makes it much easier to live lives of grace-full wholeness and to extend God’s love and mercy to others. You see, the beauty of God’s mercy is that it’s wide and deep enough to include everyone in its reach. There is no need for lines of inclusion and exclusion where God is concerned because it is the divine desire for all to be held in the glorious grip of grace.
keoni cabral ccGo ahead then. Let go of the fractured need to exclude others and stand in better stead. Beat your breast in prayer—preferably metaphorically—and lean humbly into God’s open arms of forgiveness and mercy. You will find rest for your weary soul and radical inclusion as a child of God. Steward the gift of God’s mercy by allowing yourself to be bathed in it and then in turn leading others to it. Draw the circle wider to include those “other people”—thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax collectors, the whole ragtag beloved bunch. Prepare to be amazed at how God can redeem and exalt the brokenness of others (and you!).  Amen.

In Worship

A Life Poured Out: Consider in worship today lifting up lives of the faithful in your congregation, your community, and the world. Invite congregants to identify those whose lives have “been poured out” for the sake of the gospel. These “saints” can be living or among the saints in light. If you have a chance beforehand to collect names, create a word cloud to use for your bulletin. Alternately, create a word cloud after the fact for your Facebook page. Another option is to create some art to decorate a space in your sanctuary or to make a banner. Consider using paper or fabric “water drops” with names written on them to pour from a vessel or thread the water drops to make a mobile that resembles a waterfall.

With Youth

Invite the youth to consider who they are in this parable. Are they the Pharisee or the tax collector? Listen to their answers and reasons, affirming their voices and perspectives. If no one says both, be sure to share with them that we humans are both. Sometimes we look down on others on the margins–those who may not worship like us, keep the same kind of appearance or eat the same food. Yet, we are also the sinful one, the wretched tax collector who recognizes his need for God’s mercy. The key for us is to harness the transparency and authenticity of the tax collector and leave our inner religious righteous one in the dust. It can be tough to cultivate a spirit of humbleness in our culture where what you wear, drive, and the company you keep are matters of seemingly great importance. Facilitate a discussion about what it means to be humble as a teenager in your context. How does that compare with other contexts? What can we learn from teens in other places and life situations?

With Children

God comes to our Defense

In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he says “At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me.” All except for God, that is. Paul tells Timothy that the Lord stood by him and gave him strength so that he could share the good news. Paul has great confidence in the Lord to rescue him and care for him. This is good news for us because God will always be with us, too. If you have a story to share with the children about a time when you felt alone and deserted by your friends, please do share it. Hopefully, you like Paul, can tell them that God stood with you and stands with you today. Finish with a simple prayer like this one, and give each child a blessing, saying “Be strong. Be bold. Be blessed. God loves you and is with you always.”

Dear God, Thank you for always being with me–both in good times and bad times. Thank you for giving me strength. Help me to be brave to share the Good News of Jesus with others. In his name, Amen.

Photos:Ronnie, Jana Allingham, and Keoni Cabral, Creative Commons. Thanks!

About the Author

The Rev. Sharron Riessinger Blezard is an ELCA pastor currently rostered in the Lower Susquehanna Synod. She came to ordained ministry after teaching secondary and college English, working in non-profit management and public relations, and moonlighting as a freelance writer. See more posts by .

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