“A Tale of Two Sinners”

“A Tale of Two Sinners”
Psalm 65:1-4
 Luke 18:9-14
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
August 21, 2022

While we were in North Carolina last month, we stopped into one of those old school carnivals that’s basically set up in a large parking lot for the entire summer. And when we got there, we promised Leo he could do one of the games. You know those booths were you can toss rings or shoot a basketball and if you can get one in you get one of those big stuffed animals.

As Leo was trying to decide which one to do, I watched some people play the game where you toss a softball into a barrel. It looks so simple, right? Toss the ball into the barrel all of maybe 3 feet in front of you – and win a prize. Do it on all three of your tries, and win a really big prize.

And I am watching person after person do this really simple game: toss, barrel, bounce. I watch people try soft tosses, high tosses, low tosses – nothing is staying the barrel.

And I don’t want to spoil Leo’s excitement so I don’t say anything, but it’s quickly dawning me that while the game looks so easy, so obvious how to win… it’s rigged. You can’t win.

Our parable this morning looks so easy to understand, so obvious how to do the right thing… but I’m telling you – the story is rigged.

Two men went up to the temple to pray.

Interesting…this is the only story Jesus tells that unfolds in a religious setting. Everything else takes place in the great, wide world. This alone is a story for this setting.

Two men go to the same church one day. To pray.

And in our time we really don’t have a great sense for what a Pharisee or tax collector was in that time. Those two images do not create a visceral pull within us to either deeply love and admire them or abhor them – as they would have at the time of this parable.

What we do know is that Luke is not so much pointing out what every Pharisee and every tax collector was like. He’s providing caricatures of people types – good and beyond the pale.

But again, it’s hard for us to appreciate these two characters.

And so, if you’ll permit a bit of creative license, I want to tell Jesus’s parable in a slightly expanded way that has us consider at least some of the types of good and bad we name in our time – and though my telling will be a bit more expansive than Jesus’s here, its the same premise, and the same point – the good and the bad characters more familiar in terms of the kind of people today who we trust as good and right…and those we don’t.

Four people walked in for Sunday worship.

One man walks in having parked his F-150 with a God Bless America bumper sticker next to an American flag with a blue line through the middle.

  • He’s wearing a Make America Great Again hat and his t-shirt says “Come and Take It,” and he’s just putting his phone away after checking the latest notification from Fox News that popped through.
  • He’s ready not only to pray in church but put prayer back in school
  • and he knows the presidential election of 2020 was fishy at best,
  • he’s angered by the government overreach at Mar-a-Lago but takes solace in the fact the state of Florida seems to be showing everybody else how to govern,
  • and that the Supreme Court is in a good place…
  • He lives by the motto is Faith, Family, and Friends.

Another walks in, having just parked her Prius with a COEXIST bumper sticker next to a sticker with the name of the yoga studio where she’s been practicing since before yoga was a thing.

  • She’s got a Black Live Matter t-shirt with a purse hand-knit by artisans in Guatemala who receive a fair wage for their work and she’s just putting her phone away after checking the latest notification from the Times that popped through.
  • She’s not only ready to pray in church but protest on the square until the confederate monument comes down,
  • and she knows Liz Cheney is the only Republican capable of the truth these days,
  • she’s found renewed hope in the FBI’s latest search,
  • but still feels great despair when she thinks about the Supreme Court.
  • She lives by the motto Love is Love.


A third man walks in, having just parked his beige Honda Accord with no bumper stickers and 250,000 miles on it since he thinks it makes sense to keep a car until it just doesn’t run.

  • He’s wearing an Izod polo and khakis, and he’s just flipping his phone closed, having made sure it was on silent as he tucks the Bible he’s underlined for 30 years under his arm looking for his seat.
  • He’s not only ready to pray in the church but with his grandchildren when they come for the weekend and also each night with his wife.
  • He knows the country has seen better days and he can remember them, and he appreciates when sensible voices aren’t crowded out by the loud voices on the left and the right
  • and he believes we all just need to do our part in the local context and not worry about the national noise.
  • He lives by the motto Be the Change You Want to See.

Who’s the good one?

Now, these are all caricatures, much as the Pharisee and Tax Collector are caricatures in Jesus’s story. We don’t line up perfectly with anyone of these three…but I would bet there is one of these three we really cannot stand or have significant reservations about, but then one of these three more than the others that we would prefer to have as our co-worker or our next door neighbor or a mentor or just someone after worship that we can be real with in the parking lot.

One of these three more than the others we probably think of as not being perfect or without failings but generally having the right sensibilities and perspectives and right voting about things.

They’re good.

Well the MAGA hat man prays to God “Thank God I am I believe all lives matter, I don’t waste my time with identity politics, and I don’t walk around with my chin up because I purchase fair wage purses and think my education makes me better.
And thank God I am not complacent and scared in the face of a real danger. Thank God I can see what theses two are all about and I go a different way. I give to the church. I give to the NRA. I help out at the soup kitchen.”

The COEXIST bumper sticker woman prays to God, “Thank God I actually see and stand up for marginalized people, I don’t fall for conspiracy theories, and I don’t walk around with my chin up thinking a gun can solve any of our problems.
And thank God I am not complacent and blind to reality in the face of real danger. Thank God I can see what these two are all about and I go a different way. I give to the church. I give to Planned Parenthood. I help out at the soup kitchen.”

The Izod man prays to God, “Thank God I’m level-headed. Thank God I’m not even on social media and so don’t get caught up in the fruitless anger of him and the divisive protests of her.
Thank God I was born in a place and time where I’ve seen enough to know better. Thank God I can see what they are all about and I go a different way. I give to the church. I give to Compassion International. I help out at the soup kitchen.”

The very first line of our Scripture today: “(Jesus) told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

Jesus tells a parable to good people…whichever one of them is our ‘good’ – good people, humble and kind, and given where things are these days, people who understandably have contempt for, disdain for some others who Just. Don’t. Get it. And in fact…are wrong.

I wonder…are there certain people or groups that, if we are honest, we are apt to hold in contempt?

(Not that there aren’t real sins and wrongs in others that need to be addressed but…) More often than not, they are the beyond-the-pale tax collector, and mostly we just look down?

I did say my expanded version of this parable included four people. We’ve met three so far.

The fourth is a woman.

She does not look up at any of them – she could not tell you about the man’s hat, the woman’s purse, the man’s shirt.

This is the woman who, three years ago, told Michelle and I that she was pregnant with a baby and wanted to make an adoption plan that would have us be the baby’s adoptive parents.

It turned out this woman had said the same thing to dozens of couples over the course of a few years – sometimes leading couples on for months as the couple prepared the nursery, threw a shower, and rejoiced at the prospect – finally – of being parents. Sometimes even the parents came to the hospital on the big day. Though of course she never showed up, she never had a baby at all.

She made thousands of dollars on empty promises, broke dozens of hearts at a profound level.

The hat, the purse, the shirt – they all agree on just how grateful they are not to be someone so low.

The woman, after entering she stands far off, will not even look up to heaven, but beat her chest and says, God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

“I tell you,” Jesus declares, “this woman who made no promises to change, no admission of specific guilt… she is the one who went home justified rather than the other three.”

“Justified – the one I declare in the right; the one I declare good.”

“For all who exalt themselves…
all who can name the ways they are gratefully not like them,
all the who know they are not perfect but they are better than that…
they are trusting in their own goodness. It’s a broken platform.
They will be humbled.”

And those who humble themselves,
those whose eyes never ever even travel to the notice the hat or the purse or the logo…
those who feel the shame and pain of their confession throwing up from the bowels of their being…
…they shall be raised.”

I was talking with someone the other week who has gone to AA for a number of years at this point. And he shared about at time early on when a woman in that group shared with him that she also goes to a church. Loves her church.

And she said, “But you know what, if for some reason it ever came down to it and I had to choose between attending my church or my AA meetings…I would choose my AA meetings.”

This person shared with me that he has thought about that statement a lot over the years, and then he looks at me and says, “And you know, it’s true. I’d choose AA if, for some reason, I had to.”


He thought for a few moments. “I don’t know…Maybe. Maybe because we all have something in common that if we give into it, it will kill us. And we all know it.”

He went on to describe how the AA room is this group of people you’d never find gathered for anything else, a group diverse in so many ways and that would not seek one another out as friends in any other capacity … but there, there this kinship runs so deep.

What they share is whatever is known when you stop looking around at the other people and all the ways they are wrong, they are less, thank goodness I’m not like that…and speak from a place where your eyes cannot even raise.

“I would not go to church if it meant I give up the place where they know my worst…
the place where I have not an ounce of moral superiority…
The place where I can only fall on the forgiveness of God…
…and somehow from that space – really only from that space – does the possibility exist for
Maga hats and
Guatemala purses and
Izod shirts and
adoption liars to weep in kinship.

I wouldn’t give up that space.

The pastor, writer and theologian Frederick Beuchner died at 96 this past week, and a few decades ago made this observation about AA and the church: “I also believe that what goes on in (AA meetings) is far closer to what Christ meant his Church to be, and what it originally was, than much of what goes on in most churches I know. These groups have no buildings or official leadership or money. They have no rummage sales, no altar guilds, no every-member canvases. They have no preachers, no choirs, no liturgy, no real estate. They have no creeds. They have no program. They make you wonder if the best thing that could happen to many a church might not be to have its building burn down and to lose all its money. Then all that the people would have left would be God and each other.”

What if the church fell as far as AA meetings?

Of course, we need to be careful, right?

For we may say, “Oh no, I see clearly – I cannot be the Pharisee! The Hat! The Purse! The Shirt! I see their disdain within…We must be like the sinner who prays from their brokenness…” And then how quickly we might add, “And not be like these terrible hypocrites who look down on everybody.”

And this is how Jesus’s story is rigged.

Whether we have 2 people or 4 people or a million people in the story, there is always someone we are grateful we are not like.

Always someone we rightly look down up because we and others should not be like them.

If there is one way to win this rigged story, it’s by dropping the balls of our good deeds, our good credentials, our good family name, even our courageous confessions- every last good we thought could win us the game.

And we stop altogether even looking to our left or our right to boost our sense of good.

Instead, we just look down at the ground of our being who is God and hear God’s voice speak afresh, “For it is by my grace you have been saved, and this is not from yourself, it is the gift of God – not by works so that no one can boast.”

And then let Jesus who humbled himself to our level embrace us in our honest puddle of anxiety or doubts our addiction or pain or shame.

And what a gift when Jesus offers his embrace through the arms of another in the body of Christ? The grace of Jesus enfleshed – talk about being raised to the highest of heights.

Wouldn’t it be something if humility were the path to our hope?

Is it any wonder that the first word of Jesus’s ministry on earth was “Repent”?

Would that the church might be a space where a surprisingly diverse people can gather and fall together…and so rise together. Amen

About Jaime Cowan