Each week, as I sit down to write this lectionary meditation, I look at the text to see if there is something that connects them in one way or another. After all, the creators of the lectionary have tried to some extent to bring some thematic unity to their choices. It doesn’t always work, but often something sticks out, something catches the imagination. As I looked at these three texts, which in some ways are quite distinct, a phrase stood out in two of the passages – the words “pour[ed] out.” In the Joel passage, the Spirit is poured out on the whole people, empowering and equipping them to bear witness to the things of God. In the passage from 2 Timothy, the author (assumed to be Paul in the text) claims to have been “poured out as a libation.” That is, he is being offered up as an offering to God. The words don’t appear in the Lukan parable, but consider the cry of the tax collector, he pours out his heart before God, seeking forgiveness. It could be that the Spirit is being poured out upon us, or it may be that the calling of God has led to our being poured out as an offering, or perhaps it is the need to pour out the heart to God so as to receive God’s gracious offer of forgiveness. Whatever is the case, we are being called upon to rest our lives in the hands of God.
If there is this common word usage, the passages themselves take us in different directions. Each is well known to many people of faith. The Joel passage has long been familiar to me as it has been used as a basis of Pentecostal theology. The second half of the passage serves as a foundation for Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, where he interprets the events of the Pentecost experience in light of this very text. In Peter’s mind (as presented by Luke), Joel’s promises of the coming of the Spirit upon the people of God so that young and old, male and female, slave and free might bear witness to God’s grace is being fulfilled. The first half has been used by Pentecostal preachers to suggest that the renewed Pentecostal experience of the 20th century is itself a fulfillment of Joel, and thus is a sign that God is winding things down. What had been lost, as Aimee Semple McPherson, declared in a famous sermon, has now been restored. Now is the time of the Latter Rain. Whatever our sense of the Pentecostal interpretation, there is a strong promise here that God is at work restoring that which is broken.
In the letter to Timothy, the author (named here as Paul) is reflecting on his own life, and acknowledging that the end is near. He has fought the good fight and has finished the race. He did what God had called upon him to do. He has no regrets, for he now awaits the “crown of righteousness,” which awaits all those who long for the appearing of Christ Jesus. Yes, it has been difficult at times – witness the report of the opposition and even abandonment by friends and supporters. But in the end, it doesn’t matter, because even if his human friends abandoned him – I picture the author identifying himself with Jesus on the night of his betrayal – the Lord has stood with him. Yes, the Lord has stood with him so that the message of God might be proclaimed to the Gentiles. He has been rescued from attacks by those who would do him evil, but now the heavenly realm awaits him, he is content, and so he can stop and offer praise to God for his glory.
The Lukan Parable is brief, powerful, and requiring a bit of caution as we approach it. The point of the parable is to address those who put their trust in their own righteousness, and not only that but treat others with contempt. Yes, this is a parable that challenges our tendency toward self-righteousness. “But, by the grace of God, goes me,” we might like to say. We think of this sentiment as giving praise to God, but does it really? Are we not suggesting that God somehow loves us more than the other, which is why we’re not down on our luck?
The person in this passage who goes home forgiven, after going to the Temple to pray, is a Tax Collector. As we all know, tax collectors have been despised since the beginning of time. For a tax collector to refer to the self as a “miserable sinner” would be deemed appropriate by most of us. This man, who has gone to the Temple, acts in a manner appropriate to one who has sinned. He dare not look up into the heavens, for that would be the height of arrogance. No, he bowed his head low, as a sign of his contrition for his misdeeds. He beats his breast as a sign of his grief at his actions in life, and asks that God would be merciful to him for he is a mere sinner.
The moral of the story is that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Or as Jesus says elsewhere, the last shall be first, and the first last. So, where is the problem?
Ah, yes, the problem with this text is that Luke contrasts the unrighteous, but forgiven Tax Collector with the self-righteous, but unforgiven, Pharisee. How often do we use the Pharisee as the example of the self-righteous, stuffed shirt, sort? Even with the best of intentions, we can slip into such usage, when in fact, despite the animus seemingly present in the gospels, the Pharisees were devout, broadminded, faithful, tithers even (who wouldn’t want a few of those in a church?). But, by focusing our attention on the “Pharisee,” as a member of a religious party, we might miss something much more important. As Ron Allen and Clark Williamson note in their lectionary commentary, this passage uncovers an attitude that is potentially present in all of us, “the ease with which we turn the love of God into self-adulation, the pride we take in our humility” (Williamson and Allen, Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews, WJK, 2004, p. 243). The parable then confronts us with an attitude that marks many of us, in which we turn God’s unconditional love into “a condition apart from which God is not free to love, a condition that, presumably, we have met but others have not.” The Tax-Collector, on the other hand, had no such allusions that he was the beneficiary of God’s unconditional love, and therefore he didn’t take it for granted or assume that he was on the inside already. Jesus commends him for his willingness to honestly pour out his heart before God, making himself more receptive to God’s unconditional love. May such be true for each of us.
By Bob Cornwall
Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)of Troy, MI and Editor ofSharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Holder of a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, he loves to write, having authored several books, with a book on the Lord’s Prayer due out in November. Besides contributing to this blog, he writes nearly every day at his personal blogPonderings on a Faith Journey, as well as contributing regularly to the Christian Century blogTheolog.