- The Washington Times - Friday, February 28, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 (UPI) — (This 96th installment of the UPI series of sermons is an an Ash Wednesday homily in which Gerald E. McDermott, an Episcopal priest and professor of religion and philosophy at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., reflects on righteousness and self-righteousness.)

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This sermon is based on Luke 18:9-14.

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Lent begins next Wednesday. It is a season for the self-righteous, meaning to some extent, all of us. This being so, we all need Ash Wednesday and Lent. This becomes clear when we look at the Pharisee in our text.

Jews did not think of the Pharisees as bad guys. They were thought of as people on a fast track to heaven. They fasted two whole days a week; they tithed and then gave offerings.

But Jesus criticized the Pharisees because they were self-righteous. The Pharisee in our parable compared himself to others: "God, I thank you that I am not like all other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector."

In other words, he tried to justify himself before God by measuring himself against other sinners rather than to God's sinless standard in the law.

The tax collector was a different kettle of fish. His fellow Jews despised him because they thought of him as a traitor, who had prostituted himself to the Romans, the ruthless pagan overlords.

What's more, his approach was dreadful. The Romans would tell him how much money he was to hand over to them — say $100,000. But he could collect as much as he wanted and keep the difference.

In the process he would threaten fellow Jews with turning them in for not following all the Roman laws, which were so numerous and punitive nobody could keep all of them.

The tax collector dared not look up; he beat his breast and said, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

Jesus says this man —not the Pharisee — went home justified before God.

What makes the tax collector righteous? It wasn't following all the rules. Instead what justifies him before God is his realization that he does not follow the rules. He is righteous because he knows he is a sinner — and that he can come to God only by God's mercy.

This attitude delights God! That's what Lent is all about: Knowing that we are sinners and in desperate need of God's grace.

The problem with us is that we are too often like the Pharisee. We consider ourselves righteous and look down on others who don't stick to the rules the way we do. We forget who we really are. As a result we don't understand God's mercy and just take it for granted.

This is where Ash Wednesday comes in. In the ancient world, ashes were a symbol of death because cities were typically burned by conquering armies. In the ancient and medieval Christian worlds, death meant standing before the Judgment of God.

This was a frightening prospect.

Therefore Ash Wednesday and Lent were a time to get ready to face the Judgment — not by trying to be a better person by following more of the rules more of the time, but by realizing who we are: sinners pleading with God, like the tax collector: "Have mercy on me."

How do we realize who we are? How do we stop thinking we like the Pharisee? How do we begin to understand God's mercy, as the tax collector did? How do we start to see things God's way?

Scripture gives us a simple answer: "Through the law comes knowledge of sin" (Romans 3.20). Only by looking at God's dazzling holiness, as found in the Bible, do we see how unholy we are.

There's nothing like an unhurried time in the Bible every day to make us able to say with sincerity, like the tax collector, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

Let me challenge you this Lenten season:

— Spend time each day in the Word. Don't just read a set amount — like a chapter or two. Ask the Holy Spirit to open it up to you. Then read until something speaks to you.

— Stop and meditate on it. Then pray it into your life.

— If you're already in the Word every day, do something else to draw you closer to God during Lent. Read a good Christian book alongside the Bible.

Or do something else to draw you closer to God these next six weeks:

— Spend a whole day in prayer.

— Confess the sin you've been hiding to a pastor or mature Christian friend.

— Join a group Bible study or prayer group.

— Help the poor, visit the sick and those in prison: Jesus says that when you minister to these, you minister to him and will find him (Matthew 25).

So for the next six weeks of Lent, let the prayer of the tax collector be our prayer as well: "God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Then we, too, will be justified before God.



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