Once there was a pastor who lived near a Title-Max title pawn and passed that title pawn every day. And everyday, as the pastor would go by, he would think what a scourge it was on the city and what a blight it was to the people who had to see it. He thought about what kind of vampires must have come up with the idea for giving people a loan for their car title, explicitly overlooking bad credit, no credit, and bankruptcies; and directly marketing to people who have no hope of getting a loan anywhere else.
If these title-pawn services were looking to help people in need, people really at rock bottom and desperate for a helping hand in an uncertain hour, they would probably at least, in the interest of transparency, be forthcoming about their interest rate.
When you go to their website and livechat with a representative named Charlene, however, they absolutely refuse to disclose the interest rate associated with a loan. It is nowhere on the website and when you ask explicitly they will only give you the address for their nearest office and, promptly, Charlene terminates your livechat session. Which tells you everything you need to know about the interest rate.
So these two men come to church on Sunday: the pastor and the Title-Max branch manager.
The pastor comes to pray: “Thank you God for helping me live the life you have called me to. Thank you for saving me from pursuits that would ruin my life and hurt other people. I thank you that I’m able to tithe and give of my resources. I’m thankful to have a robust prayer life. I’m thankful to be able to serve in the community. Thank you that I am not like this title-pawn manager.”
But the title-pawn manager comes to pray and stands far off beating his chest. He can’t even look up, but hangs his head saying, “God! Be merciful to me, a sinner!”
And Jesus says: “the Title-Max Manager went home justified and in the right relationship with God rather than the pastor, because all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
And Jesus, as they say, drops the mic.
If Jesus were to tell his story set in our own time this is how it might go.
Originally, he told his story to some people who trusted in themselves, that they were righteous, and regarded others with contempt.
There is no doubt about it then. As they were hearing the story, they would’ve identified right away with the Pharisee (or the pastor in our retelling).
Pharisees were upstanding people and the one in the story doesn’t seem to be saying anything in his prayer that is untrue: Because of his religious devotion he would’ve fasted, tithed, and lived a life focused on God.
How shocking then that the Pharisee is not lifted up as the example of how life ought to be lived.
And this newer telling of the story might get at how vilified and hated the alternative character in the story would have been back in the day.
First century tax collectors gouged the poor to enrich themselves. The tax collector would pay the Roman Empire a set amount for the privilege of gathering whatever he could squeeze from the people in his neighborhood. And while he would’ve been personally responsible for the money his district owed, he would be free to collect as much MORE money as he liked and anything above what he owed to Caesar would be personal profit.
These tax collectors were especially despised because they employed people to do their dirty work for them so they didn’t even have to look at the people from whom they were collecting money face to face.
So as surprising as it is that the Pharisee is not lifted up, it’s even more surprising that the tax collector is lifted up as the example.
Jesus’ surprising story is one of REVERSAL.
The Title Max manager goes home in right relationship with God and the pastor goes home empty handed.
God reverses what we might expect:
The exalted will be humbled and the humble will be exalted.
I wonder if we could rewind this story to the place right before we hear the ending and right before we hear what happens to each of the characters, if we would find ourselves identifying with one of the men more than the other.
We may see ourselves as religious insiders who feel very at home in worship, in a Bible study, praying, and talking about our faith…or we may see ourselves as uncomfortable with this whole church thing, only here because of family pressure, or a sense of obligation.
We may see ourselves as people who have been too proud…or people who have known that our past is littered with disappointments and mistakes.
We may see ourselves as ones who kept ourselves separate from “certain kinds of people” with whom we wished not to associate… or we may see ourselves as people who have separated ourselves from others by breaking relationships and hurting others.
We might identify with one of these men over the other, but the truth is we are both of these men.
We have been both, and we are both.
Dr. Martin Luther diagnosed the truth of our human condition with the Latin phrase: Simul Justus at Peccator. That is, we are simultaneously saints and sinners.
Simul justus et peccator means that a Christian is at the same time both righteous, justified by God’s grace, and a sinner, in need of God’s forgiveness.
Not only one or the other, but both at the same time.
The doctrine of simul justus et peccator is not an excuse to say ‘Well, I’m a sinner so I might as well go out into the world and do what I want,’ or to continue in sinful acts without putting up a fight, but instead, it helps us understand that our inner struggle to remain faithful to God is real. And that God’s grace and kindness to us are just as real.
Relying on the goodness of our behavior or despairing because of the brokenness of our behavior…both of these are wrong!
Relying on Christ – this is right! This is our hope! And this is God’s gift!
So in the end, we are invited to see this story Jesus tells, much more than being about the pastor or about the title loan manager…as being about God.
Through Jesus we see: God is in the business of reversing fortunes. God is in the business of hearing us when we cry out to him in despair. God is in the business of forgiving sinners.
God loves and forgives judgmental pastors, and Charlene and people who have hurt the vulnerable, and God forgives you and me, because of Jesus Christ and for his sake.
God loves us and forgives us. But to really experience it, and taste it, and let it animate our life we have to learn to love and forgive others.
As Jesus says earlier in the Gospel of Luke, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.”
How good that our Lord walks with us and promises to help us.
If time and money were no object I’d say let’s all meet later this afternoon at Richmond International Airport and fly to Tel Aviv, catch a bus to Jerusalem, and then hire a cab to take us through the border checkpoint to the old town of Bethlehem.
We would go to Manger Square out in front of the Church of the Nativity, which was commissioned in 327 and is built over top of the cave in which tradition says Christ was born.
Standing out in Manger Square you see the huge church made of imposing rock that covers the landscape. But the only entry door, while it’s is wide enough for several people to pass, is only as high as you waist.
It is called the “Door of Humility” and to enter, no matter who you are or your life circumstance, you must kneel. You must humble yourself. It requires you to physically, intimately genuflect in realization of whose birthplace you are visiting, and it also calls to mind His own humility.
Our Lord, who is One with God the Father Almighty, stooped to walk this way with us in kindness.
And e still comes to us in the most surprising of places: in water poured, in bread broken, in the handshake of peace.
He still comes to he most surprising people….sinners and saints, like me and you.