This week, there are a few things to lay out before we dive into the Word.
Today is the first of three Sundays that we at Shepherd will reflect upon financial
stewardship as we prepare ourselves to make pledges, or at least estimates, of our
offerings for the coming year.
We will give these pledges during worship on November 24, and celebrate them with a
brunch together following.
On these Sundays, we will continue hearing from the gospel of Luke, including stories
we usually miss because of Reformation and All Saints.
What does this mean?
It means that when my Mom compares her pastor's sermon to mine, it won't be
based on the same gospel reading, and now she knows why.
Finally, today is Martin Luther's birthday; he turns 536, so let's start with him.
Luther kindled the Protestant Reformation with an insistence on the doctrine of
justification by faith, the beautiful and unbelievable and usually untrustable truth
that we are right with God only and completely because God says so.
We cannot earn or deserve or diminish God's grace; it is all gift and no reward.
This is excellent theology and terrible fundraising.
Luther unleashed this insight at a time when the church was busily granting indulgences
in exchange for monetary gifts—essentially selling God's forgiveness.
To be fair, it was a bit more nuanced and complicated than that, but most people didn't
know that, and almost everyone assumed, like our Pharisee, that their offering had
some kind of influence in heaven, that God noticed and cared.
The indulgence industry was fueling a rather ambitious capital campaign.
Perhaps you've heard of the Vatican.
St. Peter's in Rome was under construction, with significant funding coming from
indulgences, and friends, Michelangelo ain't cheap.
To have some rogue monk publishing that indulgences are unnecessary and deceptive
because salvation is free is not smart business.
Lutherans have struggled with stewardship ever since, thanks be to God.
The challenge is that stewardship does not begin with us.
It begins with a strange, frivolous God who justifies tax collectors and blesses
helpless children while ignoring the impeccable religion of the Pharisee.
It is hard for us to appreciate what a good guy he really is.
He fasted and tithed more than he needed to—twice a week instead of once, and
a tithe of his entire income, not just the required portion.
He kept himself at a distance from the tax collector to keep himself ritually clean,
separate, set apart, or to use the Scripture's word, holy.
He prayed a standard Jewish prayer of thanksgiving, which would strike none of his
contemporaries as unusual or arrogant, giving God the credit for his holiness and
thanking God, which is something the tax collector never does.
He is honest, loyal, generous, conscientious, educated, disciplined, faithful—a pastor's
He stands in absolute contrast to the scoundrel in the shadows, a pitiful sack of sin
carrying on with his desperate plea for mercy, sounding just like the pleas he
ignores multiple times a day when he shakes down his fellow Jews for tax money
they can't afford, money he passes on to the empire or keeps for himself.
He is a professional rogue, a thief, a traitor, a man who in a way commits daily adultery
against his own people.
And Jesus gives us not a whiff of indication that he repents or changes his ways.
He simply goes home right with God while the Pharisee does not.
Grace is patently and absurdly unfair.
In case you are having trouble getting your mind around this, the same way I do every
day, Luke doubles down and follows this parable with a scene in which Jesus
The only thing more pitiful than a tax collector is a child.
Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh explain:
Contrary to our ethnocentric and anachronistic projections of innocent, trusting,
imaginitive, and delightful children playing at the knee of a gentle Jesus,
childhood in antiquity was a time of terror.
The women in Luke 18:15-17 who bring their infants to Jesus are almost certainly asking
him to touch them because they are sick and dying.
Children were the weakest, most vulnerable members of society.