Archive for October, 2001

Sunday Week 30 Year C

This is one of those stories where Jesus turns everything upside down but, unfortunately, two thousand years and a whole life’s listening have turned it back the wrong way up. We know that Pharisees are the baddies and we know that Jesus used to hang around with tax-collectors and all that knowing takes the sting out of the tale.
How do you put it back? Dominic Crossan tells it this way, ‘A pope and a pimp went to St. Peters to pray …’ (but, as you hear, that just makes us laugh) … I thought of telling it with Mother Teresa and Osama bin Laden … but that made me too uncomfortable.
So, back to the drawing board… Let’s set the scene. It’s the temple … not just any church but the Church, the one place of sacrifice … let’s say it’s time for the afternoon sacrifice and the special moment when the Priest enters the Holy Place to burn incense for the forgiveness of sins. The tax-collector is stuck at the back, not out of humility, but because people like him were kept back so as not to make others ritually impure. The story is all about impurity. To take part in the temple rituals that brought forgiveness and forged a people for God you had to be pure. And that’s not just morally good. All the rules and rituals of the Law, and all the extra ones followed by a Pharisee, were about making sure you didn’t become impure and in that way out of the whole ritual economy of God’s people. And the ways of becoming impure were many—like breaking a Sabbath rule or eating the wrong kind of food or food that had touched other foods or dealing with gentiles or having certain kinds of sickness or touching a menstruating woman or just being a woman. All that or just bumping into someone else who was already impure. Basically, if you were poor or just an ordinary person living from day to day you didn’t have the time or the opportunity to be ritually pure, so you were stuck at the back watching and not taking part. And if anyone was impure it was our tax-collector, who had the dirty job of sitting in his toll-booth squeezing the tax that his boss demanded, because some bigger boss said so, because the Roman governor had levied it.
Our Pharisee, on the other hand, gets to sit up front, close to the action and be so sure of its power that he doesn’t even have to ask for forgiveness—he can just stand up tall and thank God for his good fortune. Our Pharisee was not on his own. Here’s the advice of the Rabbi Judah: ‘One must utter three praises everyday: Praised (be the Lord) that He did not make me a heathen, for all the heathen are as nothing before Him; praised be He, that He did not make me a woman, for woman is not under obligation to fulfil the law; praised by He that He did not make me an uneducated man, for the uneducated man is not cautious to avoid sins.’ Let’s give our Pharisee the benefit of the doubt and presume that he is sincere in his praise of God for making him good and keeping him from impurity. Let’s presume too that he is honest and he really does do what he says he does and isn’t just being a hypocrite like some of the other Pharisees that get the sharp edge of Jesus’ tongue. Well, If they are both honest and both sincere what’s the difference between them? Why does Jesus say the tax-collector is the one who goes home redeemed by God?
It’s not sincerity that makes the difference. It surely can’t be what the two actually have done in their lives because the Pharisee really is good and the tax-collector really is bad—a corrupt, debt-collector, working for the occupying army. It’s not sincerity and it’s not morality and I don’t think its humility either. There’s been so much dodgy stuff taught through the years about not thinking well of yourself as if that could redeem you in God’s eyes. Half of us need to think better of ourselves not worse to be true to God’s own vision of us.
I think that all that separates the two actors in our drama is empathy. The Pharisee has had life so good, so easy, that he has no grasp of what it might be like to have life tough. He doesn’t know what life can be like on the other side of the street. And because he doesn’t have that basic empathy he can slander the debt-collector and the rest of mankind and not know what that feels like. He can’t put himself in the shoes of the grasping, unjust, adulterous of ordinary people. And because he can’t the doors of grace are shut to him. He is a door shut to grace. All God’s redeeming grace finds no opening in him.
Thank God that we who pray here today are not like that Pharisee—self-centred, hard-hearted, and unfeeling … but of course we are like him. We are human. We are all of us, each of us, capable of any heroism and any atrocity. That’s the tax-collector’s gift to us: the empathy to make us one of the crowd, just another sinner, just another human being, just someone else, like him, standing in need of mercy, in hope of redemption. Here we are God; we need you; redeem our lives or they are wasted.

1 comment October 28th, 2001

Wednesday Week 28 Year I

Here we are listening like the lawyer to Jesus going off at the Pharisees again, calling them the worst things he can lay his tongue to, and we are, as always, faced with a choice: we can get prickly and stand on our dignity the way he seems to do and come to their aid—they are after all just trying their best to be good and god-fearing—or, as we probably do, we can listen self-righteously because we have had 2000 years of thinking we know the final score—Jesus One Pharisees Nil. Either way, though, we make just that judgement, that condemnation, that Paul is so exercised about. In judging others we condemn ourselves. And, even if we keep our mouths shut, slowly the gaze of Jesus turns upon us and from his lips issues the precise measure of our problem. ‘Alas for you too because you load on people burdens they cannot carry, burdens you won’t lift a finger to lighten.’ We don’t have to be lawyers it seems to ruin peoples lives.
A time of retreat shows up just how much life with God is a life of choices. Unfortunately choices that judge others or, more likely, judge ourselves seem so easy to make. We all have our own inner-Pharisee, our own inner lawyer, ready to lay a burden impossible to bear on some poor set of shoulders. And our own will do. We all want to make life difficult. It can’t be this easy we say to ourselves. Surely there’s more to it than this? God can’t be this good, leave me this free, offer me so much with so little asked in return. If only the burden were heavier I carry it gladly. If only the sacrifice were greater I’d make it. If only the price were exorbitant I’d pay it. But what can a free gift be worth?
Maybe I’m preaching to myself again? I do that. I know I need to hear the gift is freely given, the promise generously made, the pearl without a price, the love offered without reservation, and the burden, oh the burden light. Because choosing life is the hardest thing to do because it is the easiest. So, this is my end-of-retreat prayer, my rest-of-life prayer, my every-day-of the year prayer—for me, for you, for all: if you get a choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.

October 17th, 2001

Friday Week 27 Year I

I’ve been wondering to anyone who will listen for the last couple of days … just what the hell is getting Joel so wound up!? After all these are the last kind of readings we want to hear on retreat—doom and gloom and sackcloth and ashes and a guilt trip to end all guilt trips. ‘What is eating Joel,’ I’ve thought. Well that idle phrase turns out to be not far off. It’s not too obvious from the fragments we get today but Joel is writing in response to a national disaster: a plague of locusts—the cutter, the hopper, the devourer—who come like a cloud, engulf everything, and leave nothing but dust for the children to eat. ‘Day of darkness and gloom, day of cloud and blackness.’
We’re a month on from the September 11th and its day of cloud and darkness, and Christians worldwide are faced, and continue to be faced, with Joel’s problem: how do you respond to disaster, to destruction, to devastation. You can’t launch an armed offensive against locusts but maybe you can’t against terrorists either. What do we do?
Joel solution is to bargain. ‘Order a fast, pass the night in sackcloth, lament … wail’, and maybe the Lord will relent. Two problems with that: who’s blaming God anyway? Do we blame God for the tragedy of the twin towers? Maybe we do—but should we? And second, who’s blaming us? Whatever the right wing religious in America say we don’t have disaster because of feminism or gay liberation or shopping on Sundays.
Jesus has a response to evil. Name it, take power over it, and cast it out. But he doesn’t make a fuss about it. He does it to heal. We have a tendency either to leave hurts unhealed or to rush around righteously rooting out evil—whether it’s in our own hearts or right next door, or halfway across the world—and in the process don’t we make things seven times worse. There’s a cycle of evil just as there’s a cycle of violence—and Jesus wants us to dissolve the circle. And you don’t do that by casting out but by filling up. That’s the best response to evil: give it no room; fill your house, fill your heart, fill your nation, with good. Make a dwelling for God and evil is left homeless.

October 12th, 2001


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