The love that overflows (Proper 25C)
Sunday 27 October 2019 | The Rev’d Clare Barrie
Joel 2:23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14
It’s no accident that we find ourselves at the Temple, in the parable we’ve heard from Jesus this morning. On the grounds of the Temple in Jerusalem, you were always aware of who you were, of the worth of what you had to sacrifice, of what status you had, of what you could expect from God.
At the temple there were ‘insiders’ and there were ‘outsiders’, and there’s no question of where the Pharisee and the tax collector stood. We know how to ‘read’ this situation: Pharisees are so often set up in the gospel as Jesus’ opposition. We easily judge the Pharisee to be a self-righteous hypocrite and assume that the moral of this story is be humble.
But… this is Jesus the wisdom teacher. Jesus the teacher of the heart. With such a simple reading, it would be easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking, ‘Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: hypocrites, pious, self-righteous, or even like that Pharisee. We’re better than that! We come to church every week, we listen attentively, we pray hard, and we have learned that we should always be humble!’ [ouch!]
Notice that everything the Pharisee says is true. He has set himself apart from others by his faithful keeping of the law. By the standards of the law, he is righteous. So before being too quick to judge him, we might reframe his prayer slightly and wonder whether it sounds more familiar – we might have prayed this ourselves perhaps… Maybe we haven’t prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…”, or even, on seeing someone going through a rough time, “There but for the grace of God go I”?
The problem isn’t that the Pharisee is speaking falsely, but rather that the Pharisee misses the true nature of his blessing – that it is gift, all grace. As Luke says, he has trusted in himself. His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to God, but it is really about himself. He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions and being.
The tax collector, on the other hand, knows that he possesses no means by which to claim righteousness. He has done nothing of merit; indeed, he has done much to offend the law of Israel. For this reason he stands back, hardly daring to approach the Temple, and throws himself on the mercy of God.
This is the difference between these two faithful people. One makes a claim to righteousness based on his own accomplishments, while the other relies entirely upon God’s grace. Rather than be grateful for his blessings, the Pharisee appears smug to the point of despising others. In his mind there are two kinds of people: the righteous and the immoral, and he is grateful that he has had the wisdom to place himself among the righteous.
The tax collector, on the other hand, isn’t so much ‘humble’ as desperate. He is too overwhelmed by his plight to have the time or energy to divide humanity into sides. All he recognizes as he stands near the Temple is his own great need. He therefore stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he has done or deserved but entirely on the mercy and goodness of God. And it is God who meets his need.
As soon as we fall into the temptation to divide people around us into any kind of ‘in group’ and ‘out group,’ we have aligned ourselves squarely with the Pharisee. Whether our division is between righteous and sinners, like the Pharisee, or even between the self-righteous and the humble, as with Luke, we have fallen. Anytime you draw a line between who’s “in” and who’s “out,” Jesus is trying to show us in this parable, you will find God on the other side, with those we think are ‘out.’
Parts of our church have done this all too easily, of course, in many ways over the years. Only in the last week, the Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, has used the platform of his own diocesan synod and the consecration of a bishop for a new schismatic church here in Aotearoa New Zealand (in which Davies participated) to tell Anglicans that if they wish to bless the relationships of those in same-gender marriages, then they should leave the Anglican church. It is all too familiar.
Over and over again, in scripture, we see Jesus seeking out the broken, the lost, those written off by religious law, those who are powerless, those who somehow, by some measure, aren’t good enough. This is how grace works, and this is the heart of the gospels – the overflowing, abundant love of God. We have also heard from Joel this morning of the overflowing work of the Holy Spirit being poured out on all flesh, and again the huge generosity of God in the imagery of Psalm 65. This overflowing love should be what shapes our life, as a church.
The love of God is bigger than us, and wherever we try to control it and limit it, it is gone. Those who do that are left holding judgment, ashes, and the bitter fear of being found wanting. This is what I see in the empty self-righteousness of Christian leaders like Archbishop Davies.
Instead, let us live and pray in the footsteps of the tax collector, knowing our own hearts, knowing that we live and are held always by the grace and love of God. If we know that kind of love for ourselves, then we know it isn’t ours to keep and withhold – this love must be shed abroad in this dark world, seeds of grace and light, more than enough for all.