Aaron Burr [Leslie Odom, Jr.] finishes telling Hamilton’s story at the end of the musical:
“Now I’m the villain in your history…” (1)
Photo taken from the PBS Documentary:
Alright, for this Gospel lesson, we’ve got some catching up to do for those of you who may have missed last week’s Episode of Lutheran Story Time with Jesus and Rev. 2.
Last week, we heard a parable about a feisty little widow who continued to badger a judge who was a real piece of work. Eventually, because of her feistiness and her persistence, that judge gave the feisty little widow her way. You can read about that in the passage right before this one should you so choose.
Today’s passage is the one right after that one, and it begins like this:
“Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…”
This is lesson two.
After the passage about the widow you’ve got folks hanging in the back going, “Dude, I pray all the time and I pray really, really good.” In my imagination it’s not unlike your average seminary class on spirituality.
But this is our starting point: that persistence and feistiness alone won’t cut it and we better watch it if we think we’re good to go.
And so Jesus tells a different story for us today.
It’s the story of a Lutheran pastor and a loan shark.
No. Wait. Sorry.
It’s the story of a Pharisee and a tax collector. But I think that, in order to really understand it, we have to understand whom we look down on and whom we look up to — whom we tear down and whom we put on a pedestal.
See, I think that, often, Jesus tells these stories with profound truths with Good News about God, and we make them into good vs. bad stories about us.
So we read this story and we think, “Alright, Pharisee bad, tax collector good. Be like tax collector. Okay. Done.”
But that interpretation would have astounded Jesus’ hearers. Tax collectors weren’t good people. There is much more here than “This one good; this one bad. Be like the good one.”
Remember: the Gospel is a story about God.
So on one hand you’ve got the Pharisee.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, this Pharisee is clearly a jerk.
But, we might also call him a model churchgoer, even if he wasn’t the first person you’d invite to your cocktail parties. Pharisees were scholars of the Law. They knew their Bible. They prayed, fasted, gave money. They were reliable. They were no doubt indispensable members of the community. They’d be the ones who were in church every time the doors were open.
And this particular Pharisee is that one overachieving friend that everybody has that probably gets on everybody’s last nerve, but they also show up when you really need them and you know that your family or friend group couldn’t really do without them either.
This Pharisee comes in, stands by himself, reading his resumé off to God. And he says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” I mean, really, I’ve found myself saying this a lot this election season, but really — who says that? The Pharisee seems to think that God blessed him by creating him to be faithful, unlike that tax collector over there.
Yeah. About that tax collector.
Tax collectors were reviled, known for cheating the people. This is the guy in the neighborhood who has the shady job, who just might be taking advantage of innocent people, but no one is sure. You’re not sure whether you should hate him, but you’re pretty sure you should stay away from him.
The tax collector stays in the back of the sanctuary and he won’t even come forward. He offers a simple, quick prayer and gets the heck out of there: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
And we have no idea what happens after that. Maybe the Pharisee goes off to feed the poor, while the tax collector continues in his life as he is, either because he won’t or can’t escape the life of a tax collector. Or maybe he turns it around. We don’t know what happens after. This is not a parable based on actions, but prayers alone.
The simple truth is that both of these guys are sinners and it’s really likely that they both know it. But the Pharisee brags in self-protection, making his strong case for sainthood.
What the tax collector does is to fall headlong into the arms of grace. He knows that he can’t hide behind his accomplishments or his status, because everyone already sees him for what he is, so he might as well do the same. And in that way, he’s free. He goes home justified.
We have spent the entire election year dividing ourselves into groups and factions. Democrat. Republican. Third Party. Not Voting. We live in entirely different realities from our neighbors and our families. In our best moments, we try to understand that we all have failings, and that no position is perfect in our complicated world. In our worst moments, we point fingers and we thank God that we’re not like those people — and we align ourselves with the Pharisee.
This weekend I watched, with many others, the documentary on PBS about the musical Hamilton. And one thing struck me about the story that never had before — in this story of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, we are told from the beginning the Burr shoots Hamilton. Hamilton is our hero. Burr is our villain. At the end, Burr sings, “Now I’m the villain in your history…” (1)
But between the beginning and the end, we get to know both Hamilton and Burr. We hear them sing their hopes for the new nation and their tender hopes for their children. We hear from other heroes like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, who, in addition to helping to win our freedom, also, paradoxically, held slaves. They owned people.
The Hamilton documentary called the audience to hold these things together, because all of it is true. George Washington was a great man without whom we could not be free today. He also owned human beings. Both of these are true, and we cannot see history correctly if we do not see both.
No one is just one thing.
This should not offend us, because the same is true of all of us. We are all sinners. We are all saints. So, rather than label and dismiss each other and historical figures as the Pharisee did — as good or bad — we have a choice. I pray that we will make the choice in humility that the tax collector made: to see our own failures, and the failures of others, and throw ourselves and others into the arms of grace.
We can make our lives a story about us: a story about how we were always right, about how much we gave, how much we did, and how wonderful we are, or. Or we can realize that we are all flawed and in need of grace. We can make our lives and our church’s life a story about God, one that can be a great story independent of our failings, one where we throw ourselves headlong into the arms of grace. And the crazy thing about throwing yourself at the mercy of grace is that you allow others to do the same. When we stop building our own lives on our accomplishments, we may eventually stop feeling the need to berate others for their failings, entirely checking out of the merit-based system that bases respect on accomplishments.
When we make our lives a story about God, it becomes about the ways that God showed up — in that relationship, at this table, in that moment of love, in that moment of grace. In that moment of reconciliation. In that moment of hope. You can take off the pressure of having to create happiness for yourself based on what you can produce.
One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott writes, “If I were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.” (2)
Pharisee and tax collector are saint and sinner. One is a model citizen but a jerk to be around. The other is a shady professional with a humble heart that knows how to fall on grace.
But only the tax collector really gets it: he “is so ruined, so loved, and in charge of so little.”
The Gospel is a story about God. It is a story about how God redeems those three terrible truths of our existence.
“We are so ruined.
We are so loved.
We are in charge of so little.”
And in those three truths, we are free.
We are, as we said last week, a feisty little congregation so created and loved by God. But we are not loved because we are feisty. We are loved because we are Our Savior’s, because we are imperfect, ruined, loved, redeemed.
The Gospel is a story about God.
We just get to be a part of the dance. So let us gather around the table again, in feistiness, in prayer. And let us continue to see ourselves and one another in the light of grace around this table where we are so ruined, and so loved. Amen.
(1) Lin-Manuel Miranda et al, Hamilton: An American Musical, Act II, “The World Was Wide Enough,” 2015.
(2) Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Thorndike Press, 2012.