Based on Joel 2:23-32, 2Timothy 4:6-8, Luke 18:9-14
The last Sunday of October is traditionally celebrated as “Reformation Sunday”. It is a good time to stop and remember where this form of Christianity originated. Church history states that on October 31,1517, in Wittenburg, Germany, a Roman Catholic priest named Martin Luther nailed a paper containing a set of 95 opinions of what was wrong with the Church to a church door. These “theses” of Luther’s were an academic exercise in rhetoric, challenging all who read them to come and debate him face-to-face on some or all of these ideas. Those not able to come to him were challenged to send written opposition to these 95 ideas that Luther believed the Roman Catholic church (the only Christian Church in the West at that time) needed to heed to be in concert with scriptural teaching.
Now it is unlikely that Luther actually nailed the paper to the door of the church, but it is the case that Luther’s opinions began a process in the Church that would ultimately lead to the schism known as the Protestant Reformation. Luther would be excommunicated four years later because he was asked at the Diet of Worms (a Church meeting in the city of Worms) to recant his position on the Church’s policies. He looked at the Pope, Holy Roman Emperor and other assembled dignitaries and humbly stated the following, “…Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils,” he said, “for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything….”
Luther went into hiding, protected by a powerful German prince. He continued to agitate and during his 10 months in seclusion he translated the Bible into High German. His revolutionary ideas about reforming the Church led to a movement that created many new doctrines in the Christian faith – that which came to be known as Protestantism, of which the Lutheran and United Methodist expressions are just two.
Our scriptures today guide us toward a humble trust of God and God’s word like Martin Luther possessed. The minor prophet Joel reminds Israel of God’s redeeming and salvific power. Likewise, the short reading from 2Timothy has the writer leaning into the promises of God as his ministry comes to an end. Jesus teaches us about having a humble self-insight and the honesty to come before God and repent – which in this case results in justification for the sinful tax collector. Let us go now to God to ask humbly to be given the faith to trust our God and to live fully into God’s teachings…
The minor prophet Joel is repeating the words that the LORD has given him in response to an exhortation for the people to return to God. Starting in Chapter 2, verse 8, the prophet says, “…Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing….” As we pick up our reading, God is showing just how loving the LORD can be: “…The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten,…” God promises to fill them until they are satisfied and that they will no longer be put to shame. In fact, God will pour out the Holy Spirit upon the people so that they will prophesy, dream dreams and see visions, and that “everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved”.
The writer of 2Timothy is winding up the letter in the style and voice of the Apostle Paul. The writer is encouraging and exhorting Timothy to fight the good fight and to finish the race with faith. The writer fills in Timothy on those who have remained faithful and those who have fallen away or done harm to the cause of Christ. The writer expounds on the fact that his humble faith and trust have been rewarded as he has been saved by the Lord for his heavenly kingdom and rescued from every evil attack.
Our Gospel reading opens with the following introductory sentence: “…He (Jesus) also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt….” In many cases we are left wondering to whom Jesus is speaking…that is clearly not the case here. Jesus speaks in a targeted fashion to those persons surrounding him that were elevating their holiness above others. The Pharisee and the tax collector couldn’t have been more different in their station in life. However, each were looked at by the average Jewish citizen with some level of distrust. The tax collector worked for the occupying Romans…but so did the Pharisee in the way that the Temple ran in accordance with Roman dictates and puppet governments. One man was being painfully humble and honest about who he was and what he was doing while the other neglected to account for his sins.
The priest, Martin Luther, came to trust what he read in scripture over what he saw the leaders of the Church doing in his day. Martin saw the Church failing to be obedient to the making of disciples and being a place that improved community life. He was especially convicted by the selling of “indulgences” which purported to be able to buy someone’s way into heaven. It was a trick played on unsuspecting believers to get them to part with their hard-earned money in order to build the wealth of the Church and its officials – and to build ever bigger and more opulent Cathedrals. Luther saw the hardship these policies created and he struggled mightily with the fact that it was a heresy in direct contradiction to what he read in the Bible.
Jesus saw the need to change the Temple’s behaviors in his time as well. Again, was he seeking a new movement into Christianity, or was he just trying to agitate enough to get the leadership to repent and follow the teachings of the Torah? Like the prophets before him, Jesus stood in the space of that rhetoric and called out to the faithful and to those who had lost their way to repent and rejoice that the kingdom of God had indeed come near. Prophets were always calling the people and the leaders to return to their better selves and to put away the self-centered and hypocritical decision making that had led them away from God’s Commandments into their own heretical understanding of the Torah.
Jesus is always trying to reach those whose trust in themselves leads them to believe that they are “holier than thou” and who have thus elevated themselves above others. Look at the two characters from the Gospel parable again. One is a Pharisee – a leader of the Temple who, if his prayer is truthful, leads a faithful life of fasting and tithing. The other is a tax collector who is stuck in a job that is scorned and ridiculed by all. A job which demeans him and all those who are indebted to him. A job which he couldn’t give up because it would devastate his family and reduce him to slavery. He knows without a doubt that he is a sinner in need of God’s mercy and redemption. He beats his chest and humbles himself – not even daring to look up in the direction of God. He has nothing to do but to trust that his God is indeed gracious and merciful, slow to anger and steadfastly loving to those who should otherwise be punished. Jesus teaches that this deep understanding and humble trust led to the tax collector being cleared of all sins (was justified) by God.
We live in a time where many trust in their own righteousness and treat others with contempt. In order to get back into a justified relationship with God, we must gain the self-insight to humbly acknowledge our sins and repent. We must understand that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God and therefore must put our trust in a God who will be gracious and merciful to us, as God has been to those generations past. John Wesley’s teachings call us to be humbly convicted by Scripture when it is informed by reason, experience and Church tradition, to seek to live ever more in love with God and with our neighbors, and to trust that when we work with God then we will live into our preferred future. When we find ourselves so convicted, then we can repent and learn to humbly trust our God who is merciful and gracious and seeking to justify all of us so that we might all be saved. Amen and amen!