October 27. 2019
One day a rabbi in a frenzy of religious passion, rushed in before the ark, fell to his knees, and started beating his breast crying, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody! I’m nobody!” The cantor of the synagogue impressed by this example of spiritual humility, joined the rabbi on his knees, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!” The custodian watching from the corner couldn’t restrain himself either. He joined the other two on his knees, calling out, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!” At which point the rabbi, nudging the cantor with his elbow, pointed at the custodian and said, “Look who thinks he’s nobody!”
This is the heart of our gospel reading today. The human condition laid out with such irony and delicious wit, that we read the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector and we believe this is our story and then we go down the path just a little way and our cry becomes, “Oh Lord, I thank thee that I am not like that Pharisee,”and we don’t get it. We miss the point of our human propensity to self deception. We’re so proud to be humble.
Jesus, in the fine style of satire, once again shines the light on the human condition by drawing these two figures as caricature:The Pharisee — a Jew’s Jew, the best and brightest, the most righteous, leadership material in any synagogue, religious, pious, prayerful, even a tither. The Tax Collector, lowest of the low — a legitimized thief working for the enemy, the Roman politicos, robbing the poor and lining his own pockets. This guy is the scum of the earth and in no way to be admired.
This is a story that both skewers religious piety and magnifies a life of depravity to tell us this one thing — only God saves. This is yet another story about the absolute saving grace of God and the foolishness of our efforts to save ourselves. The lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son —all saved by grace.This is about only one thing — the God of mercy who lavishes salvation on the world. The Pharisee approached God but his prayer was one of self-congratulation. The Tax Collector approached God and begged forgiveness for his sinfulness. The posture of humility before God separated the two men, and in that posture the Tax Collector stepped into the river of grace that floods the universe.
But hear me, the story ends there. Jesus does not follow with a tale of how the Tax Collector went out and cleaned up his act. We do not get a morality tale of reconciliation and a new start in life. What we get is a picture of ourselves in relationship with God. For if I am truly honest, I see in myself both Pharisee and Tax Collector, good and bad, self-righteous and humble, right and wrong, all of it. Sometimes I approach the altar of the Mighty God full of myself and sometimes on my knees. The grace of God swirls around me no matter what — but puffed up with my own piety, I fail to surrender to its healing waters. Blinded by my own self righteousness, I miss the blessing of being precious just the way I am. And this is more than just a personal, individual problem, for self-righteous behavior puts us all at risk.
We are collectively caught in the seductive power of self-righteousness right now — it is like a virus and may be pandemic. It is life threatening to all of us. The more self-righteous we become, the less likely we are to kneel down before the God of all creation and pray for mercy. We are all vulnerable and the world is at great risk. Mercy is what we want. Grace is what we get — the absolute unmerited favor of God.
This parable holds up a mirror to us and in that mirror we see our distorted perspective, the one that equates self-righteousness with salvation. This is not the Gospel. Grace is the gospel. Grace is salvation. Grace is God’s unmerited, unmotivated, unprovoked love for the unlovable. Faith is saying yes to this good news. Works are our way of showing gratitude. Faith is our willingness to go on living this yes before God and one another, in spite of our chronic imperfection and in our yes to the good news comes the challenge of staying in the river of grace — establishing spiritual practices of faith, hope, love that begin in a posture of gratitude and thanksgiving and are manifest in the discipline of generosity.
This is a story that reveals the very being of God. This is a story that reminds us that God alone makes right all our wrongs, that God is the very lover who comes to us even when we have drifted far away and who waits for that whispered sound of humility, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Which brings me to the topic for the day — my response to being swept up into the river of grace — to know that my whole life is a gift and to respond through acts of generosity.
As a child I was invited to make an offering each Sunday and in Lent, to fill my Mite box and place it in the basket on Easter Sunday morning. At the age of 24 I made my first pledge as an adult, it was in response to the generosity I saw around me. After seminary my pledge became a tithe — the 10% offering of first fruits and for 42 years that has been my practice. This is my spiritual practice and it is in response to the toxic hold money has on our lives.
Jacob Needleman wrote the book Money and the Meaning of Life and in an amazing feat of storytelling, conveys this critical fact — we are both obsessed by money and we don’t take money seriously enough. He says, “Humanity was created to dwell in two worlds — that of the spirit and that of the mundane. Unless we fully master the mundane, in its primary manifestation of money, we cannot discern that which properly belongs to the spirit. To harness the power of money over us, is to be liberated.”
Here is an image to remember. The chalice represents us as body and soul, the mundane and the spiritual. To experience the fullness of life, it must be properly oriented. The bowl reflects the spiritual, the stem and foot, the mundane, the physical. The knob that connects the two parts is that place of grace where we find integration. Many in our culture live as if the two parts were reversed — upside down — and in that case, there can never be enough, we can never feel fulfilled, whole, or integrated. If left on its side, what little get into the bowl is always at risk, we become anxious and fearful. But turned upward, we find the richness of life filling us, nourishing us, and we can say, “My cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”