Proper 25 Year C 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
How many of you are familiar with the phrase, “Mea culpa”? It’s Latin in origin and has worked itself into common language. One uses it to acknowledge their own fault in something. Perhaps sometimes honestly and perhaps sometimes more sarcastically. For example, “I completely forgot to get bread when I was at the store. Mea culpa.” Or “Oh you don’t like the streamers I used in decorating for your surprise birthday party. Mea culpa.” Literally translated, it means, “through my fault” and it comes to us especially through the Latin Mass of the Roman Church. In the confession, the penitent says, ‘Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” in referring to their own sin. They say, “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” There is also a physical action that often accompanies this. The penitent strikes their breast three times while saying this. This same action can be done during our Eucharistic prayer one in Rite I, when the priest says the words, “And although we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice”. Maybe you can guess where the church draws inspiration to use this action? Today’s Gospel reading.
Today we have Jesus again trying to explain to the disciples the confusing, upside down Kingdom of God. In this parable we have two people, a Pharisee and a tax collector. Perhaps in modern day understanding we could think of them as a bishop and a mobster. But even that lacks the subtle connotations that are put into the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisees are the religious elite, the wealthy and most holy of men who run the temple. The tax collectors are horridly despised. They are locals who have sold out and collect the steep, impoverishing taxes for the Romans. They are traitors to their own people, and worse, they profit from it. Jesus is offering two examples that starkly contrast with each other in the assumptions of society at the time.
And yet. What Jesus says about them tears away the preconceived understandings of the listeners. First is the Pharisee, self-assured and we would perhaps label, ‘self-righteous’. Certainly feeling comfortable about his own justification from God because he is so much better than the people who are doing evil deeds, or who don’t pray as often as they should, or don’t give their full tithe. He is steeped in his own pride and arrogance. In comparison we have the tax collector, head down, praying penitently, beating his breast and asking for God’s forgiveness. Twentieth Century theologian Karl Barth offers that both of these men are equally shamed before God. The difference is that the Pharisee is ignorant of his standing, while the tax collector is not.
That is what truly divides the two. The Pharisee does not, as Jesus says ‘go down to his home justified’, because he is unwilling to confess his sins and to acknowledge his place before God. The tax collector however does what is needed. He humbles himself and asks for God’s forgiveness. He sets the example for how Jesus is teaching his disciples to come before God. The Pharisee has sins, at least the obvious ones to do with pride, but instead of seeking God’s grace and forgiveness, he speaks to God about his own greatness in comparison with others.
It is also important to note that Jesus says nothing about the lives of these two after this moment of prayer. It should not be assumed that the tax collector changes his life. Jesus doesn’t say, “and the tax collector went home justified and took up a more honorable profession”. Likewise Jesus never says that being a Pharisee is itself inherently bad. This has everything to do with the attitudes that the two men bring to their approach to God and their understanding of salvation. What is most important here is that first, we are unable to save ourselves because sin is a real and present part of our existence, and will be until the end. The second is that we are totally dependent on God’s grace for our salvation, and ultimately even that doesn’t keep us from sinning in the mean time.
Now, I want to throw a second Latin phrase at you. It’s one you may have heard, but a little less common than Mea Culpa. Lex orandi, lex credendi. This is a Christian motto from at least the 5th Century. Very loosely translated it means, “What we pray is what we believe.” It is often used in the Anglican world to point to our use of liturgy as a means of theology. It ties in with our Gospel lesson today because it points us to the way in which these two people in the parable pray, and what it says about their beliefs. The words and actions that are used in worship speak clearer than any theologian when it pertains to our beliefs.
That is why our common prayer is so important, and why the words that we choose matter. Our actions in the mass teach ourselves and those that come after us what we want to say about God and our relationship with God. We often find tension in whether we use Rite 1 or Rite 2, or some of the experimental language rites that the Diocese offers. But the real questions in our liturgy and in our faith practice need to be about what we are reflecting in terms of our salvation and relationship with God. I am less concerned with our use of pseudo Elizabethan pronouns and more concerned with whether or not we acknowledge our failure to be saved outside of God’s mercy and grace.
I have on many occasions heard people offer that they dislike the prayer of humble access, including my seminary liturgics professor, because of the language it uses. Often it has to do with phrases about being unworthy and unable to approach the table with only our own self-righteousness. But that is precisely what we need to know about our relationship with God. That is the other piece of the puzzle when we talk about God’s grace. There is no point in worshiping God who has remained faithful to us and offered us grace and salvation if we couldn’t get those things ourselves.
So instead, let me offer you this: remember that how you pray and what you pray can be to you a very detailed understanding of what you believe in relation to what the Christian faith teaches. If we are willing to own that as a human we fall far short of God’s goodness, than can we not also take such joy in seeing how amazing God’s grace to us becomes? Take the parable that Jesus offers us and ask yourself: Am I the Pharisee or the tax collector? Do I thank God I am not worse or do I ask God’s forgiveness for what I am. That is how we grow into our humility before Christ. That applies to you and it applies to me. Just because I am standing up here with a generous portion of satin draped over me doesn’t mean I am off the hook. If anything, a priest needs to be even more aware of the danger of becoming like the Pharisee.
Remember that though you may have salvation guaranteed by God, that does not exempt us from doing the work of the Kingdom here and now. But also know that as humans, I fully believe that God expects at the end of every day we will find a reason to kneel before God, to strike our breast, to recite yet again, “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” And we, like the tax collector, will return justified.