Sermon October 24: “Living Inside Out”

Rev. Stacy Swain

“Living Inside Out”

Romans 12: 1-3; Luke 18:9-14                                              

 A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray.  One went up because it was the right thing to do; the other went up because it was the only thing to do.  One went up not expecting much because not much was needed and one went up hoping beyond hope, so vast was his need.    

 Now going up to the temple in Jerusalem, the epicenter of the Jewish faith in the time of Jesus was not something to be taken lightly.  The Temple was huge and more than a little intimidating.  According to scholars, “King Herod rebuilt the temple as a kind of one-up- man-ship on King Solomon who had built the original temple that was razed by the Babylonian invasion 570 years before.   As an expression of his egomania, he created a 35 acre platform surrounded by 16 feet thick walls upon which the enormous complex of the Temple sat.  Stones used to create a platform were said to be 30 feet long and weighed up to 50 tons.” Eight gates led to the platform’s surface where huge courtyards surrounded by elaborately painted colonnades.  The outer courtyards were open to curious Gentiles but the remaining enclosures, as one got closer to the enormous, gilded Temple itself, were reserved for Jews only.  Women were permitted up to a certain point.  Men could go a little further but then they had to stop just before the steps that led up to the sacrificial altar.  In that Holy space, only the priests were allowed.   On the far side of the sacrificial altar arose the great columns of the Temple where deep within dwelt the Holy of Holies — the place where the very Glory of God resided. 

To go up to the Temple was a big deal, for not only was there nothing like it in all the ancient world, but also and most importantly, because going up to the temple meant coming as close as any human could to the actual power and presence of God.

          Now when Jesus introduces the parable by saying two men went up to the temple to pray, he does not mean that the Pharisee and tax collector slipped into the back pew and muttered a few words.  Scholarship tells us that no one would go up to the temple for private prayer unless they wished to present a private sacrifice of their own.[1]  Prayer and sacrifice were inextricably linked in the Temple theology of Jesus’ day. Praying, therefore, meant bringing forward a gift to God, usually in the form of an animal, handing the gift to the priest, who carried it up to the inner courtyard. To pray, meant to lift up the words of your heart while the priest slaughtered the animal and took the blood, the life force of the animal, and offered it to God almighty, maker of heaven and earth, giver of all life.  It meant saying to God, I give you this life so that you will give me new life.  It meant praying “Please Lord, take my sins so that I may live!” 

 It is in this context that Jesus situates today’s parable and its power hinges on the listeners’ expectations of the temple and those worthy enough to be there.  Hearing that one of the men that went up to the temple to pray was a Pharisee would have made sense.  But the other was a — tax collector?   That would have been scandalous.

  For you see there was no one more despised than the tax collector.  Tax collectors in Judea were Jews hired by the Roman and charged with delivering to the Roman authorities a certain payment extracted from the people each year.  Tax collectors were notoriously corrupt often exacting far more than Rome demanded from their fellow Jews and keeping the balance between what was paid and what was owed to Rome for themselves.  Tax collectors were seen as defilers of Jewish Law and tradition, scandalous lackeys of Rome.

 Those listening would have been outraged enough by the presence of the tax collector but they must have been absolutely dumbfounded when it was the tax collector who went away justified that day.  That just does not make sense and that is the point.   Jesus is exploding the notion that titles and labels, external constructions, can define who we really are in our heart of hearts and that they can dictate who is and who is not worthy enough for God’s grace.   

 This is radical teaching indeed for I would argue that even after 2000 years of living, we are no more free from judging the worthiness of ourselves and those around us based on demarcations of wealth, race, class, job titles, the list goes on and on.  Just say the word doctor, lawyer, minister, house wife, immigrant and I bet a host of associations leap into mind. We look at someone and we cannot help but quickly sort them through a thousand filters until they drop neatly into some category.   Have you ever wondered when we want to get to know someone the first question we have a tendency to ask is “what do you do?”  Getting the answer to that question, we feel gives us the most information to understand just who it is we are dealing with.  

 Now we use these external expectations to understand others but we too can become subject to them, ourselves.  We too can begin to understand just who we are by how those around us react to us until we become that which is expected of us.  We are told again and again who we are until it is hard not to actually become that which is expected of us.     It is hard to hold onto who it is we are deep in our souls when all around us people are reflecting images of who they think we are or expectations of who it is we ought to be.

 I had the strangest experience of identity years ago when my husband and I were living in El Salvador.  We lived in a very remote part of the country where transportation was difficult in the dry season and impossible in the rainy.  We would therefore spend months at a time in our village traveling out to the region’s capital only now and again for meetings.  It was after an extended stay out in the village that we had traveled into the capital for a meeting.  I remember being arrested by my image in a mirror.  We did not have a mirror in our home in the village, nor did others.  I had not seen an image of myself for months and I did not at first recognize the face looking back at me.  When did I get such long hair?  When did I get so many freckles?  Seeing my image again after such a long time, was so disorienting that I remember reaching up and putting my hands on my face to be sure it was, in fact me staring back at myself.    

I think that seeing ourselves as if for the first time, in the new light of God’s grace, is what Paul is getting at in his letter to the Romans.  He says, you may be known as Jew or Gentile, man or woman, slave or free, but however it is the world defines you does not really matter. Be not conformed by those titles.  Instead, live from the inside out, make of yourself a living sacrifice for in this way you will be transformed.

 The reason the tax collector went away justified that day even though he was a tax collector is, because while the priest was offering up the gift of the animal to God in the hidden holy space just beyond his view, the  tax collector was offering up himself, body and soul to God.  He was making of himself a living sacrifice, coming before God with a heart breaking and a need so desperate it felt as if his very life was at stake.  All eyes may have been on him, wondering why such filth was in such a holy place, but he did not care, all eyes may have been on him but his gaze was within, searching for God deep in his soul.    “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”  he cried.  Those words pierced the heart of God so purely that God’s compassion came flowing down upon him, anointing him with blessing, justifying him with the power of new life.

Now I do not believe for an instant that the Pharisee did not have a heart that in its depth did not ache as much as that of the tax collector.  Maybe in truth, his heart too was breaking, maybe he deeply desired to pray with the fervor of that tax collector.  Did he put the tax collector down because he was in such need of being built up? But he just could not bring himself to step out of his and others expectations.  He was a righteous man after all, right?   If he prayed like that, would people think there was something that he really did need from God?

 To be human in this strange and wonderful world is to have pain, need, and fear, —  to have a bone-deep desire to know and be known by God.  Some would say that sin is universal and that we are all in need of God’s grace.  Other would simply call it the challenge of living in an imperfect world.  Augustine famously puts it “Our hearts are restless until we rest in you, O God.” But however you want to talk about it the raw truth is that I do not think there is a single person here or anywhere that is not in need, is not in need of God.  The Good News is —  that however we came through those doors this morning; —  whether in our pride or in our pain, whether we are looking our best or have never looked worse, God is holding God’s breath to see what we will do next.  We may walk into the presence of God, but will we let God’s presence walk to the depths of our hearts?  Will we tear down the worldly constructions that define us for good or for naught and stand naked in our radical dependence on God?  Will we hand over not only the gift we have brought but our very selves as living sacrifice so that the power and presence that is the glory of God may anoint us; so that grace of God may transform us?

 It was late in the day when, the Pharisee walked back across the vast courtyard and down into the bustle of Jerusalem below.  As he did he caught a glimpse of himself in a window’s reflection.  He hesitated for a moment, adjusted his robe and then continued on his way.  The tax collector, who was coming along behind the Pharisee, suddenly froze in his tracks.   In the golden light of the late afternoon, he stood dumbfounded before his reflection until slowly, very slowly he raised his hands to his checks, just to be sure the radiant face that shone back at him was really his own. 

 How did you come up to church today?  But more importantly, how will you leave?


[1] Martin Goodman. “The Temple in First Century CE Judaism.” In Temple and Worship in Biblical Israel. Edited by John Day. ( TTClark: New York. 2007)p.461