Sunday, October 24, 2010

Pharisee + Publican R Us

Proper 25-C; Oct. 24, 2010
Joel 2:23-32; Ps. 65
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Where you SIT determines where you STAND.

It’s the political season. Who knew there were so many people running for office in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island? Not to mention Nevada, Pennsylvania, California and South Carolina? Who knew? So many ads, such scandals, what a lot of … stuff.

Where you SIT determines where you STAND. Do we really believe that someone who served less than a full term as the Governor of, say, Alaska, has any idea what we, in Brockton, Massachusetts, might want or need? Some politicians seem so remote from us –
like they used to say about Massachusetts politicians (when they were all Republicans, I think) “The Cabots speak only to Lodges, and the Lodges speak only to God.”

Kind of like that Pharisee in today’s reading. In his case, where you STAND determines how you PRAY.

Imagine a map of the Temple in Jerusalem. In the center, is the Pharisee of today’s reading. For him, being right with God means being separate – it means maintaining a holy boundary of separation between him and the whole nasty world around him. Remember that Jews had a hard time in 1st century Jerusalem. They were living under occupation by the Roman Empire, and they could not fully, completely, comfortably, live the way they wanted to live. They wanted to live the Torah life, the life of joyful obedience to God, but at every turn the Romans were making it difficult. It was so tempting just to give up – to break a few rules here or there just to get along, to follow what the occupiers demanded. In order to be faithful Jews, these Pharisees believed, they had to be separate. Righteousness meant being set apart, doing certain things and not doing others.

Now imagine again a map of the Temple in Jerusalem, and on the margins of this grand building we see the tax collector. He does not feel so good about himself. As a Jew, working for the Romans, he is a collaborator. He collects the heavy tax the Romans want, and that leaves his fellow Jews with less extra money to pay their tithe – the tenth of their income – to support the Temple. By the standards of the faithful Jews who want to maintain their separation from the Romans, this tax collector will never be good enough to get inside the Temple. God could not possibly hear his prayers. After all, he deals with nasty, unclean things – he deals with unclean people and collects money that will go not to the Temple but to Rome, to fill the coffers of those awful pagan emperors. The tax collector’s money will never be good enough to pay his tithe to the Temple, and so he will never be able to stand in that place where his prayers will go to God. So, you see: where you STAND determines how you pray. If you are able to stand in the Temple, you do so assured that God will hear your righteous prayers. If you cannot pay your tithe, or if your money is not good enough to pay the tithe, you will never be righteous enough to pray in any words that would get to God.

The Pharisee reads the Torah, and believes that the way to righteousness is separation and purity. That is one way to God. But then Jesus comes along and finds another reading there in the ancient texts. Jesus preaches that the way to righteousness is mercy. The Torah wants us to stand up for those who have nothing, to care for the widow and orphan, to welcome the stranger, to give sight to the blind and to let the prisoners go free. For Jesus, also, where you stand determines how you pray, but in Jesus’ case the place to stand is on the margins, on the edge of the Temple where only the less than pure can stand. Those are the prayers God hears, Jesus tells us. The righteous are the ones who have no choice about where they stand. They know they can never measure up, those for whom fasting is not an option, and who do not have any money left after what has to go to Caesar to give their tenth to the Temple. They know they are sinners. They know what they don’t have, and they know what they need: they need God. They need the mercy of God just to get through each day, each week. When they stand there, on the edge of the Temple, they stand there needing God, and as Jesus reads the Torah, this means that those people go away righteous.

The tax collector and his ilk – God listens to their prayers, and God is standing there with


Now this doesn’t mean that the Pharisees are such bad people. No one lives well under the oppression of an occupying army. They have plenty of examples in the tradition that tell them that this is the way to behave: they want to stay right with God.

But, Jesus says, this doesn’t work anymore. Maintaining status and privilege comes at
a high cost, and the cost is this right relationship with God. It’s not about what you have, or what you do, that keeps you right with God, but knowing that all of that is nothing, and that there is nothing between you and the abyss but the mercy of God.

Where you stand determines how you pray. So where are we? If we imagine
ourselves in the middle of the United States empire, in the prosperous heart of the world’s most powerful nation, then we can count our blessings. But none of those blessings need God. We can be righteous, and self-sufficient without God.

But if we imagine ourselves in … St. Paul’s Church, Brockton, far from the centers of
power, without anywhere near enough money to pay our tithes to anyone, to the diocese, to the state, to the city, a forgotten outpost from which the empire has long ago drained all our resources, well, then we get it: the blessings we have come from none of those places – not from Boston, or Washington, or whatever remains of shoe-manufacturing headquarters.

In our lives we live in both places, just as the Pharisee and the tax collector were two
sides of the same person. Both wanted to get right with God, but if you faced inward – toward rules, and security, and comfort – you would miss where God was standing, Jesus said. Turn around, Jesus said. Move from there, where there are rules for righteousness, to there, where nothing gets you anywhere, except being right with God.

p.s. The illustration this week is by Simon Schmitt-Hall

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