Tuesday, October 22, 2013

October 27, Proper 25: Contradictions 9: The Gospel Contradicts Religion

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22, Psalm 84:1-6, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14

The Pharisee and the tax collector. The patriot and the collaborator. The Pharisee wants the Kingdom of God, literally and politically, and the tax collector works for the Empire of the Romans.

The Pharisee keeps himself clean and pure to be qualified for the Kingdom of God when it comes. The tax collector’s employment makes him unclean, handling unclean Roman coins, stamped with that idolatrous image of Caesar, which makes him a traitor to his own nation, and which makes of him a constant thief, in the eyes the people, as he earns his living by his surcharge on the tax, a sort of legalized extortion.

The older translations of the Bible styled the tax collector a “Publican,” so this is called the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, and despite our dislike of the Pharisees, this Publican would not have been your friend.

We miss the force of this parable if we read as if their prayers were Protestant private prayers. So let me give you its original context. There was only one temple in Israel, the one in Jerusalem. There were many synagogues, in all the towns. You could pray in synagogues, every week, on the Sabbath, as still is done, of course. But in the temple the prayers were offered every day, and not led by rabbis but by Levites and priests. Plus, the prayers in the temple were centered on the daily sacrifices, sacrifices of animals, of lambs — one at dawn and one at the ninth hour, say 3:00 pm, the sacrifices which made atonement for the sins of Israel. Once their sins were covered by the blood of the lamb,  they were permitted to make their prayers to God. The Levites ignited the incense, and as the smoke of the incense rose, the prayers rose up, from the Levites around the altar of the sacrifice, making supplication for the whole of Israel, from the people in attendance, making their own supplications and intercessions.

Also praying is this Pharisee. He’s not interceding or supplicating, he is lifting up his hands in thanksgiving. He’s off to the side so that he won’t get touched by anyone who might contaminate his purity. He is strict and more than strict, fasting more often than the Torah mandated, and tithing more completely than the Torah required. So we would love this guy to be a member of Old First, even if we’re irritated by his self-righteousness in thanking God that he’s such a righteous guy.

Also praying is that Publican, far off in the back, and quite unwelcome. He’s a bad man. Maybe he’s the guy who was giving all the trouble to that poor widow from the parable last week! He knows he’s bad. So he’s praying with his head down, and he’s beating his breast, like we did last month in the synagogue on the night of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. He prays, not just “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” but more literally and specifically, “God, let the Atonement be for me, the sinner.” He’s guilty, and he knows he has no right to talk to God apart from the bloody sacrifice which is offered to cover his sins.

And that’s why he’s the one who’s justified. That’s why he is rectified and qualified to enter the Kingdom of God. That’s the contradiction, that the righteous guy is reckoned as unqualified, and the unrighteous guy is reckoned as qualified. This is the gospel’s contradiction to religion, this is the paradox preached by Martin Luther, this is the antithesis instituted by John Calvin, this is the quite contrary doctrine of the Reformation, and because it is contrary we need reminding of it every week, we need to hear it every Sunday as the morning news.

It’s not that God prefers the Publican to the Pharisee. God would just as soon justify the good guy as the bad guy. But the Pharisee has not offered up himself. The Publican did. It was his bad self that he offered, but it was his true self. My wife put it this way: the Publican knows his life is a dirty business. The Pharisee doesn’t know that being human is a dirty business. The Pharisee doesn’t admit, not even to himself, that he’s just as needy of God’s grace as the Publican. It’s that tragedy of unawareness that I spoke about three weeks ago.

The Publican is aware of himself. And all the Publican has to offer to God is his own sinful self. The only gift he has to give to God is his need of God, and his need of God giving freely and indiscriminately back to him, without regard for his deserving it. The Lord Jesus does not say that the Publican went home to make amends, or try to be better to show how sorry he truly was. We’d like him to do that, we’d like him to stop extorting money from the people, but that would miss the point of the parable, that the grace of God is not conditioned by our proving it in our behavior.

Both of them are in us all the time. Don’t say, “Oh, I’m like the one and not the other.” You are always both. You have both in you. You have the contradiction running in you all the time. You compare yourself to others, and you justify yourself. You also know your guilt and you bow your head in shame. The gospel both judges you and comforts you. It resurrects you to new life but first it lays you dead. The gospel calls you to religion and it tells you your religion cannot measure up. The contradiction between religion and the gospel is one you recapitulate each week.

So what do you do? Take a clue from the epistle, from what St. Paul wrote to Timothy. He sounds a little like the Pharisee, almost like he’s boasting. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race,” I’m not a loser, I’m a winner, “I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day.” Well, St. Paul, aren’t you special.

Of course, considering the fact that he’s got prison chains on him while he writes this, he’s sort of got the right to speak like this. And he does not exalt himself by degrading other people. He does admit that other people did him wrong, that they did not support him, that they deserted him, but he asks that it not be counted against them. He wants grace for them too. He forgives them. He has to keep on forgiving them in his own mind, no doubt, because in his prison cell he’s reminded of their desertion every day again. His reason to forgive them is not in them, and not in himself, but in God, and the love and the grace of God, which is what he wants to be true to. 

So yes, take this clue from the epistle. Thank God for where you are, and what God has done for you, and then also love your enemies, and pray God’s grace and favor on those persons who have done you wrong. Be thankful to God, and reckon yourself among the Publicans who know their need of God. What God loves to see in you is your desire for God.

Today we will baptize Ronald, who has acted upon the desire of his life for God. We heard his testimony here last Spring, and he told us that from his childhood he believed in God, but that when in his youth he requested baptism, he was refused. He was not welcome in the Temple, so to speak, he was not welcome at the sacrifice or in the prayers. But like St. Paul, he kept his faith. That’s the remarkable gift of grace that Our Lord Jesus was working in him through the years, that Ronald did not reject his faith because of his rejection by the church. As St. Paul wrote, “no one came to my defense, but all deserted me.” But then, “May it not be counted against them,” which he has demonstrated today by seeking out the church again. He fought the good fight, he is finishing the race, he is keeping the faith, and the water and oil we will put upon his head will be his crown of righteousness.

His baptism is a gift of God for him but also for the rest of you. You are to see in the sacrament today a story of requited love. Not unrequited love, but requited love. It is the love of God that touches the contradictions in our lives to comfort them. This is the love of God which converts the tragedy of your unawareness to the comedy of your acknowledgment and the feast of your recognition. Look up, you belong here. Look up, there is love coming here. Look up, receive the little gift, behind the little gift is the boundless and inexhaustible love of God for you.

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

1 comment:

Jim Bratt said...

Dang, Daniel, this is really good. Thanks once more.