Every Person Who Is Born..., Proper 25 (C) - 2007

October 28, 2007

Every person who is born into this world, who lives and learns and grows, who works and worships and plays, who grays and grows old and dies, has one fundamental question that underlies his or her whole life: “Do you love me?”

We are created for connection: connection with others, connection with the universe, and connection with God. Being hardwired for relationship, we seek communion and reconciliation with all people, with the cosmos, and with God. This desire is the search for love. All of human life is a quest for love.

Unfortunately, the fundamental question “Do you love me?” is soon transformed by genetics, by socialization, by original sin, by whatever, into a different question, “Am I worthy of being loved?” or even more tragically, “What can I do to be worthy of your love?”

With these distorted questions the unfortunate soul soon seizes upon answers provided by family or society or even the church: I will be famous, I will be rich, I will be powerful, I will be elected, I will be esteemed, I will be ordained. In the process, we manage to convince ourselves that we will be happy if we achieve these goals, and by happy we mean that we will be loved.

The funny and sad thing is that humans continue to persist in these delusions even after experience repeatedly has shown them to be false. Maybe the next promotion or the next home or the next prize will bring true happiness. Throughout our lives, we continue to make the same mistake of trying to find in the finite and limited things of the world the response that is found only in the true object of our desire. Tragically we make idols of our strength, our money, our fame, and our power. Perhaps most tragically we make idols of our religion. We latch on to the things that should be pointing us to God and make them into idols.

In our gospel lesson for today, we hear the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. In the form of a parable, Jesus presents the central theological conviction of God’s justification of sinners and the ultimate futility of self-righteousness. Two men, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector, go up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee stands by himself and he really is quite impressive.

Although centuries of Christian interpretation have led us to think of Pharisees as the bad guys, this is not fair. They are often presented as Jesus’ opponents in the gospels, but we need to remember that they were society’s good people. They were dependable, honest, upright, good neighbors, contributors to the community. Quite frankly, they were the type of folks we would all like to have as members of our parishes. The Pharisee is a man at home in the temple. He says his prayers. He gives more than he has to. Although the tithe on income was standard, he tithes on everything he has, and many people would have benefited from his generosity.

He stands in the correct posture for prayer in the temple, arms raised and head lifted. But – and this is a big but – in his prayer, he has nothing to ask of God. He’s basically giving God a progress report. As far as he can tell, he’s got it all under control, and he’s happy about it: “God I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, unrighteous folks, adulterers, or even like that tax collector over there.”

Meanwhile, standing off at a distance, is the tax collector. He has got nothing to show for himself, and he knows it. He earned his living by working for a foreign government collecting taxes from his own people. For years he has collected high taxes from his Jewish neighbors to give to the Roman government. He gives the Romans their flat rate on every head, and makes his money by charging an excess and keeping it for himself. Basically, he is a crook, a traitor, and a lowlife. He is guilty and he knows it.

He keeps his head lowered as he comes into the temple. We don’t know why his guilt has got the better of him today, but there he is in the temple, full of remorse, beating his breast and saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” He doesn’t even promise to shape up. All he does is ask for God’s mercy.

The surprise ending of the story is that the Pharisee, who gives a wonderful performance in the temple, goes home empty. He came asking nothing of God and he goes home getting nothing from God. The tax collector, despicable fellow that he is, shows up empty handed asking for God’s mercy, and goes home justified, that is, in right relationship with God.

We may hear this parable as a lesson on humility: don’t be proud like the Pharisee; go home and be humble like the tax collector. And just like that, we fall into a trap. We take a parable about God’s amazing, unconditional grace and acceptance, and turn it into a story about how we can earn or merit God’s love. We’ve got the answer now. If we can just be humble like the tax collector and not be puffed up with pride like the Pharisee, then God will accept us and love us. We may even find ourselves praying, “God, I thank thee that I am not like the Pharisee.”

The trap here is that we ask the wrong question of this parable. It’s that distorted question “What can I do to be worthy of your love?”

The Pharisee in the parable asks this question, and he thinks he has the answer in his religious observance. He fasts, he prays, he tithes, he lives an upright life. The tragedy and the irony is that in the very act of demonstrating that he is worthy of love, he is cutting himself off from his neighbors and from God. The tragedy and the irony of trying to make ourselves worthy of love through our supposed virtues, even the virtue of humility, is that we end up casting a sideward glance at others and measuring ourselves against them. If I need to earn God’s love, then I will have to be better than the other guy. In the fire of God’s love even our supposed virtues need to be burned away.

But if we ask the right question, the question “Do you love me?” then the parable gives us an answer. To the question “Do you love me?” God replies resoundingly and forever “Yes.”

The tax collector’s humility was not a virtue that earns him God’s love and acceptance. The tax collector’s humility is a posture of openness in which he is able to receive God’s love. Ultimately, the Pharisee and the tax collector are the same. They both need God’s love. The difference is that the Pharisee doesn’t know it and the tax collector does. The tax collector goes up to the temple with nothing to show for himself. His hands and his heart are empty and he knows it, and therefore he has room to experience the gospel and the good news that there is nothing we need to do, nothing we can do, to earn the grace and love of God.

The love that moves the sun and the other stars, the love that creates, sustains, and redeems the cosmos, is always uttering its eternal “Yes” to our question “Do you love me?”

The only thing we need to do is open ourselves to that love and return it. Everything else is a veil before our eyes, thrown up by our culture, our career, and our churches. All self-flattery and self-importance and self-righteousness ends in futility. When we stop reciting our resumes in the temple, the incarnate love of God meets us and embraces us, saying I know your pain, my beloved, and I forgive your sins. I know your emptiness, and I will fill it and I will fill you with my melting love.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Christopher Sikkema