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The 20th Sunday After Pentecost; Luke 18:9-14

Back in the day when I was a parish priest in Scarborough I had a colleague who liked to get the Sunday School to act out parables when they were part of the Gospel instead of actually reading the text. He once told me about the problem he had with the Good Samaritan. Everybody wanted to play the hero, the Samaritan. Some rowdies volunteered for the robbers. Some shy kids had no trouble with doing the victim and the innkeeper; non-speaking parts. Someone was even willing to play the donkey. No one wanted to play the priest and Levite. He had to appoint (read force) two students, protesting loudly. Afterward he asked why no one wanted to play these two, and was told they were losers. Nobody wants to be a loser!

I suspect if we tried this with today’s Gospel, the tax collector would be no problem, but the Pharisee might be hard to cast. If he were merely conceited and self-righteous there might be takers, but the problem is the story makes it very clear that the Pharisee is a loser. Nobody wants to be a loser!

Everybody wants to be a winner, nobody even wants to play a loser! But isn’t that exactly what this parable warns us against? After all, what is the Pharisee, but someone who looks at another and judges himself better? And are we different, wanting to be winners, which means someone else is a loser. When we look fondly at ourselves, and find ourselves better than someone else, aren’t we being exactly like the Pharisee?

On the surface this parable is just a simple story, with a straight forward application. But as I begin to dig deeper, as we come to grips with the story, and wrestle with it for implications for us, it develops a slippery quality. As soon as I have it figured out, and know exactly how to act in order to be justified, the parable twists. As soon as I am certain of justification, as soon as I’ve got it, the parable tells me that I am deeply into sin. And as soon as I know myself, really know myself, to be a sinner, I am justified.

I suggest that this parable captures a seemingly paradoxical, contradictory pair of statements that are at the very heart of life. They are the very essence of the Christian faith. They are very simple. 1) I, you, and all of us, are sinners, miserable sinners, depraved sinners, with absolutely nothing to make us righteous in the sight of God. 2) I, you, and all of us, are saints, justified and righteous, and beloved children of God. And both those statements are absolutely true!

This parable is about the paradox of Law and Gospel. Law is that part of Christian doctrine which tells us how God wants us to live. It is doctrine which compels conformity to rules established by God, and convicts us of our inability to do so. The Law condemns, exposes us for the sinners that we are, and threatens eternal punishment. The Law kills, to quote St. Paul. Gospel on the other hand is doctrine which assures us that God provides for our salvation from the judgment of the Law, out of love for humanity. The Gospel tells of God’s grace. The Gospel is the Good News of Jesus Christ and his mighty work of salvation for humanity. The Gospel saves.

And yet Law is not replaced or made obsolete by Gospel. Christianity has not gone through the Old Testament scriptures and scissored out everything judged to be Law and only left Gospel. And the New Testament scriptures do not contain only Gospel. No neat separation of the Bible into Law and Gospel is possible; what may be Gospel to some may well be Law to others; what may be Gospel to me one day may be the harshest of Law on another. No, Law and Gospel stand side by side, equally strong, equally valid, in Christian doctrine. Both Law which kills, and Gospel that saves, are true and required for the Christian, and must be given equal importance.

Let us first look at Law in greater detail. It is tempting to look at Law as a set of rules, standards for right behaviour, with defined penalties for non-compliance; indeed this is often what is done by some individuals and groups. But Law is much more than that, being less about ordering of behaviour, and more about ordering of relationships. At the time when The Book of Common Prayer was the only liturgical book we heard, and even today at every traditional-language Holy Eucharist we hear the “Summary of the Law”

Hear O Israel, the LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

Indeed all the Law is summarized by this statement, and indeed all the Law is about our relationship to God and to one another. All the other rules, commandments, standards of behaviour are descriptions of how we would act if we really followed the two great commandments. Our transgressions of the Law are less the breaking of rules, than a refusal to first love God totally as demanded, and then to love our neighbour as much as we love ourselves.

And having alienated ourselves from God, having broken the relationship with God, the results are equally clear. We remain alienated from God forever, not by God’s choice, but by ours. We are the ones who break the relationship, and the Law tells us that it remains broken. Try as we might, it is not in our power to heal the relationship, to justify ourselves, to make ourselves right with God.

No matter how many good works we do, how many rules we follow, how righteously we try to live, it is of no avail. The more we try to justify ourselves, the more we are working for our own salvation and rightness with God, the more we sin. We sin, because by trying to justify ourselves we are selfishly working for our own good, we are trying to be winners, and thus we are loving ourselves more than God or neighbour. As long as we do something in the hope of pleasing God, or as long as we do something for someone in the hope of earning salvation, we are doing it for ourselves, not for God or the other. The very Law we are trying to follow kills us.

Gospel on the other hand shows us the way in which the relationship with God can be healed. It requires the recognition that we cannot heal the relationship, that it has to be healed by God. God has to make the first move. And Gospel tells us that God has made the first move, by becoming human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and as the human Jesus accepting the consequences of all of humanity’s sins on the cross. Gospel further tells us that we can rebuild the relationship with God by entering into a loving relationship with the crucified and risen Jesus, who is at the same time God and human. The Gospel, the Good News, is that God from whom we are irredeemably alienated, with whom it is impossible for us to have a just relationship, has provided for us Jesus Christ. Jesus, who lived, and died, and rose from the dead, and who still lives today, from whom we need not be alienated, with whom it is possible to have a just relationship. And Gospel assures us that Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, and God are one and the same.

We do nothing in this, God does it all. Our only response is to give up trying to find our own salvation, ceasing our efforts to make ourselves winners, and to be an empty vessel into which God can pour the faith which is the relationship with Jesus Christ. With that faith, with that relationship to Jesus, we are saved.

And what then of the demands of the Law. Being in relationship with Jesus Christ, we will want to love God, love neighbour, no longer because by doing so we will save ourselves, or make ourselves winners, but because we are saved and we love God. Loving Jesus Christ who is God, we will obey God as the way of showing our love. To be sure, we will fail, and that constantly, for we will still be imperfect humans, but we will fail in the knowledge that we cannot permanently harm our relationship to God. Indeed, Gospel saves.

Law kills, Gospel saves; we are losers, and we are winners; we are Pharisees, and we are tax-collectors. We cannot ignore either. Both sides of the paradoxical, contradictory statements must be accepted to be equally true.
If we accept only Law and ignore Gospel, at best we will live a life of legalistic rules. We will live a life in which the smallest of details will be controlled by our understanding of the demands of God. We will become slaves of the Law. It will be a life of despair and desperation, for now matter how hard we try we will know deep in our heart of hearts that we can never try hard enough, can never become good enough, to meet the total demands of the Law. Hearing only Law, without hearing Gospel, leads to desperation, and despair, and death.

On the other hand, if we accept only Gospel and ignore Law, we will have a life controlled by cheap grace. Without the Law the Gospel becomes a message that how we live does not matter, that everyone is saved anyways, that we might as well do whatever we want. Hearing only the Gospel, and not hearing the Law, deafens us to the demands that God makes of us, and reduces the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross to a permit for our sins.

Law and Gospel, loser and winner, Pharisee and tax-collector, must be kept together, balanced together, held in tension with each other. By itself, neither contains the fullness of the Christian message; together, they contain all that is necessary to salvation. Law and Gospel, balance them, hold them in tension. Know yourselves to be both losers and winners, Pharisees and tax-collectors. Law kills us, and Gospel saves us, daily, over and over, as we live in this tension of the Christian life.

God has given us both the Law and the Gospel! Thanks be to God!

Copyright ©2022 by Gerry Mueller