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Robert Farrar Capon on Luke 18:9-14

by pastorjuhl ~ July 30th, 2008

Here are some snippets of a sermon by Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopalian priest. This from his book Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, published by Eerdmans. I commend the whole sermon to you. If you have not the book, perhaps this will whet your appetite to buy the book.

The first thing to get off the table is the notion that this parable is simply a lesson in the virtue of humility. It is not. It is an instruction in the futility of religion – in the idleness of the proposition that there is anything at all you can do to put yourself right with God.  It is a warning to drop all religious stances – and all moral and ethical ones, too – when you try to grasp your justification before God. It is, in short, an exhortation to move on to the central point of the Gospel: faith in a God who raises the dead. (p. 338)

As far as the Pharisee’s ability to win a game of justification with God is concerned, he is no better off than the publican. As a matter of fact, the Pharisee is worse off; because while they’re both losers, the publican at least has the sense to recognize the fact and trust God’s offer of a free drink. The point of the parable is that they are both dead, and their only hope is someone who can raise the dead. (p. 340)

What Jesus is saying in this parable is that no human goodness is good enough to pass a test like that, and that therefore God is not about to risk it. He will not take our cluttered life, as we hold it, into eternity. He will take only the clean emptiness of our death in the power of Jesus’ resurrection. He condemns the Pharisee because he takes his stand on a life God cannot use; he commends the publican because he rests his case on a death that God can use. The fact, of course, is that they are both equally dead and therefore both alike receivers of the gift of resurrection. But the trouble with the Pharisee is that for as long as he refuses to confess the first fact, he will simply be unable to believe the second. He will be justified in his death, but he will be so busy doing the bookkeeping on a life he cannot hold that he will never be able to enjoy himself. It’s just misery to try to keep count of what God is no longer counting. Your entries keep disappearing. (p. 341-342)

The point of the parable was that the publican confessed that he was dead, not that his heart was in the right place. Why are you so bent on destroying the story by sending the publican back for his second visit with the Pharisee’s speech in his pocket? (p. 343)

We fear the publican’s acceptance because we know precisely what it means. It means that we will never be free until we are dead to the whole business of justifying ourselves. But since that business is our life, that means not until we are dead. (ibid)

Only when you are finally able, with the publican, to admit that you are dead will you be able to stop balking at grace. (p. 344)

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