Priests, Tax Collectors, & Prostitutes Walk into a Bar…


The chief priests, the tax collectors, and the prostitutes all walk into a bar.

It sounds like the start to a bad joke, right? We’ll get back to that.

This text today reminded me about a continuing education event I went to in Minnesota shortly after starting here at Gloria Dei. The theme was “Religious But Not Spiritual”, as a play on the often uttered, especially here in the Pacific Northwest, “Spiritual But Not Religious. We had three main speakers:

  • A sociologist of Religion who studies the social trends of churches, such as their attendance, their giving, and their culture as every church has its own culture.
  • A systematic theologian who sits with, studies, and ponders the organized and structured beliefs/teachings of a tradition, such as Lutheranism.
  • Nadia Bolz-Weber, a popular ELCA pastor whose gained fame for NOT fitting the typical mold expected of a Lutheran pastor. She is the founder of the House For All Saints and Sinners in Denver Colorado.

I appreciate Nadia Bolz-Weber’s honesty, particularly her emphasis that the goal of the church is (or should be) authenticity.

Our text reminded me of this event because one workshop tried to blend these different perspectives to answer a question that all Mainline Christian denominations are asking:

  • Where are the twenty and thirty year olds?
  • Where are the young families?

Sounds familiar, right?
The workshop leader was a sociologist (of Religion) and she discussed the 1950s as the “hay-day” of the Christian Church in the United States.

During the 1950s, we have an image of “who” belonged in church, such as moral young families (married adults with young children). However, within our current society “adulting” by the 1950s standards has been delayed.

  • People are buying houses later.
  • People are getting married later.
  • People are having children later.

This is changing the dynamic of the Church. It was a fascinating conversation, but her research had a lasting impression on me. It shows that there are people my age (30s) who do not attend church not because of a lack of desire or belief, but because they do not fit the 1950s image of someone who goes to church. Perhaps, they:

  • are not married,
  • are divorced,
  • do not have children,
  • have piercings, and/or
  • have tattoos.

In essence, their life is different from the pre-conceived notion of the “churched”. Therefore, they do not come to church out of the fear of judgment. This was a summary of her argument based on her research.

Jesus, in our text, is speaking about the chief priests or the religious on one hand.

Jesus is speaking about the tax collectors and the prostitutes on the other hand. Those who were not accepted by ‘polite society’. Those who were not believed to uphold the law of God. Those who would not have been welcomed in the Temple (synagogue, church, etc.). In essence, those who were the outcasts.

It got me pondering about people my own age (30s), who I know and love, but are not in pews on Sunday mornings for various reasons. Yet, forgive the pun, who religiously watch, listen to, or read my sermons online each week. However, they may not feel comfortable listening to it while sitting in a pew among a congregation. Some consider themselves Christian, but perhaps not a “practicing Christian”, while others are Atheists, Pagans, and Non-Believers.

In fact, one of these friends recently asked my sister if it was “odd” that she regularly watches my sermons. My sister replied “no, she would probably consider it a compliment”. I do take it as a compliment, because these people may not be within the pews but through this spoke word they are obviously receiving something from it, perhaps the Gospel (Good News) or a sense of life/community in the Church.

This pondering also had me thinking about a personal favorite song writer and singer, Matt Kennon, who I actually was able to see in concert this week. Matt Kennon is one who could look “rough”, he is covered in tattoos, built solid, and has a gruff voice. Unfortunately, people may see him and cross the street, yet his music is full of soul. His music is full of truth. You can hear his strong convictions of faith, his love of God and Christ, and his spiritual journey within the words of his songs. Additionally, I cannot tell you how often he referenced that same faith at this song writers’ evening on Wednesday. In Summary, he does not fit the “mold” of one expected to sit in our pews.

Jesus is talking about different people.

Our external lives either mirror what we’re taught in the scriptures and the church or it does not: the chief priests or the tax collectors and the prostitutes. Our life, as shown to others, does not always reflect our heart.

The one son, in Jesus’ parable, said “Yes, I will go and do your will”. However, he does not live it out. The other son said “I am not doing your will”, but yet in his heart he is called and he does.

We, as Lutherans, acknowledge that we are ALL chief priests whose external life mirrors the law but it is not reflected within  our hearts.

We are also ALL the tax collectors and the prostitutes whose external life may not mirror the ‘law’ but whose hearts reflect God’s will.

We are complicated people and that is okay.

My prayer is that we can hear this scripture speaking to our external life and internal heart.

My prayer is that it gives us the strength and courage to reach out to people, who perhaps don’t fit the “mold” of the (1950s) church.

My prayer is that those who fear that they would not be welcomed in the pew are spoken to in the Word and begin to feel invited and welcomed into the community and life of the Church (universal).

I started with “the chief priests, the tax collectors, and the prostitutes all walk into a bar”. This is NOT a joke. It is the Gospel (Good News).

Our Ezekiel text reminds us that ALL lives, including the chief priests, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and US alike ALL belong to God. May we feel comforted in that statement and its promises. Amen.

Scriptures were Matthew 21: 23-32 and Ezekiel 18: 1-4, 25-32.
Originally preached on 1 October 2017 at Gloria Dei (Kelso).

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