We Belong to God: Me First
When I was a little kid we had shelves and shelves of colorfully illustrated Bible story books. I guess my parents knew they needed to start early and young with us. I recall that I loved reading those books, and I especially loved reading them aloud to my four younger brothers and sisters.
I am just saying that my parents should never have been surprised at my choice of vocation. Never.
My favorite of all the books we had was a Golden Book that told the story we read in Luke’s Gospel today. It was called The Pharisee and the Publican, I think. Man, I wish I still had that book. If I did, I would read it to all of you right now!
I was trying to remember exactly what about the book has stuck in my memory—what made it my favorite. I think it was that the book was so fun to read because you could make a really funny voice out of the Pharisee’s part. You know, you would put your nose up in the air and adopt a really haughty look while intoning: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…thieves, rogues (though I doubt we knew what those were), adulterers (those, either), or even like this tax collector…!”
A clear understanding of what exactly a rogue or an adulterer was aside, the main point of the story was clear even to the five of us kids—the Pharisee was the bad guy because he bragged about himself and tried to make everybody else look bad; the tax collector, though no one liked him because of his job (which, in our minds was unfair and living with that disparity somehow made him more virtuous?), was really the hero because he didn’t try to make himself look good but instead prayed and asked God to show him mercy. Easy, straightforward, good lesson to learn, especially in our house full of kids competing for attention.
As usual, however, a closer look at the Gospel passage for today has invited me to take a step back and think in new ways about this passage. Remember that last week we read the parable right before this one, the parable of the persistent widow. This is the second in a two-part set of parables on the subject of prayer, two parables that are unique to the Gospel of Luke. For some reason (as we explored last week), Luke felt compelled to include them both even though they are, in my humble opinion, rather preachy and, shall we say, a little redundant.
Who knew what Luke was thinking when he put these two little stories in his account of life with Jesus; I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, to assume that there must have been something going on in his community that gave him good reason for including them. But for our community, for our interpretive purposes, hearing the story without knowing the specific context to which it was applied can get us in some pretty deep hot water. See, this parable read as I read it to my younger brothers and sisters can easily become a vehicle by which we use our faith, the institution of organized religion, or even any deeply held personal belief, to hurt and exclude people who are different than we are. There are lines of exclusion drawn all over this passage—people are categorized by their social standing and professions, societal prejudices are liberally exploited in this story, and designations are as clear as can be: one character is bad, one character is good.
If I were in the same room as Luke this morning I would want very much to ask him about this approach, because as one commentator I read this week pointed out: whenever we draw lines of designation…whenever we do that…we will find God on the other side. So let’s be careful before we jump to quick conclusions and easy applications of this little parable.
As we read, two men went up to the temple to pray. They were both praying out in the open, in front of everyone, and everyone who saw their prayers knew the context from which their prayers came. The Pharisee, as we quickly assume, was a pious, self-righteous religious zealot who spent most of his time looking down on other people who were not as holy as he was. We know this from other stories in the Gospels and also from our assumptions that the Pharisees were nemeses of Jesus’, representatives of a religious establishment that stood in stark opposition to Jesus and his message, right? And we also form this opinion of the Pharisee from the way Luke portrays him praying aloud here (and also the masterful way I interpreted his haughty prayer earlier, if I do say so myself). Arrogant, self-important, snob. That’s what he was.
And the tax collector? Well, even a casual student of scripture will know that tax collectors were a lower class, more unsavory element of society. Just from reading about other interactions of Jesus’, we’re quick to lump them together with other misfits, like prostitutes, because we remember Jesus shocking the religious establishment by making friends with people like this…even eating and socializing with them. And knowing, as we do, that Jesus always sides with the more unsavory outcast-types (and sure that the tax collector was sorry for being so bad anyway), we listeners can’t help but know with conviction who is the bad guy here and who is the good guy in this story.
Thus we know: Luke is saying that being pious and self-righteous, being blatantly religiously showy…these things are bad. You’re better, in fact, if you’re a really despicable and unsavory person who at least realizes how terrible he is. Got it?
But Luke! Luke! You should know that truth: anytime you draw a line you’re very likely to look across it and see God on the other side.
In fact, while the Pharisees often went head to head with Jesus in the New Testament, they weren’t always opposing him. In Luke 13, in fact, it was some Pharisees who warned Jesus that Herod was trying to kill him. And the Pharisees, while certainly there were some who were overtly and annoyingly pious, were very faithful practitioners of their faith. They had managed somehow, in fact, to keep a disciplined practice of faith alive and vital even during the terrible political pressure of the Roman occupation. Because of the strict standards of lifestyle and practice that they insisted upon, they were instrumental in preserving Jewish faith.
And what about the Pharisee in the story today? He may sound self-righteous and annoying, but what he’s saying is . . . true! If he’s fasting twice a week and giving 10% of his income and coming to the temple for regular worship and prayer, then he is following the law and he is obeying God’s commandments. And, take it from this church leader on Stewardship Sunday: there’s not one thing wrong with doing that!
And, in terms of the tax collector . . . well, we need to be careful here not to automatically paint with Luke’s wide strokes. We’ve heard about those dinners Jesus had with tax collectors and sinners, and that makes it easy to think of them as misunderstood outcasts. But tax collectors were despised by people. Despised. And often for good reason. They worked for the Roman government collecting taxes. The way they made their own income was to impose a mark-up on your tax bill. Many of them were very wealthy through taking advantage of their positions of power. And not only were they unpopular because of what they did for a living, but according to Jewish law and religious practice, they lived in direct and striking opposition to the way of God. They had sold out to the Roman government; in so doing they had chosen to align their lives in direct opposition to the law of Yahweh; their choices and values were distasteful and worked against the law of God. There were reasons nobody hoped their son would grow up to be a tax collector!
So, really, Luke, it’s not as easy as you seem to make it out to be. What is going on here? And why would Jesus tell a story about Pharisees and tax collectors to teach a lesson to his disciples, who were neither?
I can’t help it, but reading this parable made me think again about the recent controversy surrounding the establishment of a mosque at the World Trade Center site. Aside from the facts that, as we all know, it isn’t really a mosque and it also isn’t “at the World Trade Center site” and we also happen to live in a country where we guarantee free practice of religion to everyone no matter who they are, still: thanks to the media and to fear and to public perceptions and prejudices, what might have been just another small piece of news suddenly became large and scary and full of vitriol, ignorance and hatred. Why? Because stereotypes like the ones Luke uses in this parable emerged in that situation and took on lives of their own, and caused even people with open minds and hearts to begin labeling certain sorts of people and drawing lines.
And we all know what happens when we draw lines, right?
We see the effects of this kind of thinking even in our modern lives. So, despite the well-known and easy interpretation of this parable, I just am not willing this morning to concede that an easy understanding as I learned from my Golden Book is what we need to take away from this parable today.
Looking a little closer at the context of this text (and you good Biblical scholars should always be ready to do that), you’ll notice what happens in chapter 18 right after the verses we read today. Immediately after telling this story about self-righteousness and exclusion, Jesus’ disciples (who, it seems, were not listening at all) began pushing away the mothers with young children who were trying to get closer to Jesus—they were excluding! The very people who were supposed to know Jesus the best and follow him the closest were being self-righteous, and right after they heard that story! Jesus corrects them, firmly. Maybe something like: I know you’re trying to keep things organized, but you’re missing the point. Skip to the next part of the chapter, when a devout but very rich young man comes to Jesus wanting to follow, and Jesus lays down the law with him, too, when he is unable to give up his material possessions. Maybe Jesus said something like: I can see that you’re a good, devout guy, but you’re missing the point . . . .
Put it all together and what do we make of this? We’d clearly be selling Jesus short if the only thing we take away from this parable is a great children’s story with a snooty Pharisee to make fun of. Perhaps the real, substantive truth behind this parable, this chapter of Luke’s Gospel, and maybe even Jesus’ message is this: we’re all the same. In whatever way we come to encounter God, we each stand before God to offer who we are. Whether we are the most heinous sinner or the most pious holy one, in the face of God’s grand and extravagant love for the whole world, we are all the same. We are all in need of redemption, hope, peace. Whether we pray in loud, eloquent phrases or sit in the back pew sobbing in despair, the truth of the matter is, like the Pharisee and the tax collector, we all are here now, approaching God, longing for God’s love to reach into our lives and make us new.
So perhaps what Jesus hoped his disciples, the people listening to him, even us, might take away from any encounter they might have had with the radical Gospel he preached is something like this: no matter who you are, you belong to God.
Rich young ruler, little child. Best public pray-er around, the one who would be most likely to run screaming from church people. Successful and admired professional, disgusting reprobate. Confident and established, searching for meaning. In possession of more money than you know what to do with, wondering how you will pay the bills. Sure in the very core of who you are that God is real and true, wondering if God exists at all. Here we all are: a strange mix of people all searching for meaning.
And, different though we all are, here is what’s the same for every single one of us. We belong to God. Every part of who we are, our most successful and shiny attributes, all the things about which we hope that no one ever finds out . . . we belong to God. Pharisee and tax collector, child and disciple, Jesus invites us to find our very meaning and identity not in these external and fleeting qualities but rather in the essential truth that you and I and each one of us is created in the very image of God. We belong to God, all of us. We belong to God.
Today is Stewardship Sunday. We’ve been talking for several weeks now about the challenging task of living our lives, every day and in every expression, remembering that we belong to God. We’re offering our pledges together today as a corporate expression of where and how the material things we own will be invested in the work of God here at Calvary in the year ahead. And we’re also thinking about how living as if we really believe we belong to God might change every, fundamental part of who we are.
How would our lives change if we did that? How would everything about us be different if we never thought for a moment about all the trappings of this world that define us and others and cut us off from true fellowship with God and each other? What will you do this year, practically, to live radically believing that your life is not your own . . . that you belong to God?
As Leah mentioned at the start of the service, your bulletin contains an insert. On that insert is a form at the bottom for those of you who did not bring your pledge cards today. These we will fill out if we haven’t already and prepare to bring forward to lay on the altar during the upcoming offering time. But there’s also another place to write—up top. It’s a place for a sentence or two about how you plan to live believing this year that your life belongs to God. Your time? Your money? Your intention? Your commitment? Write it down. And in a few moments, when our stewardship committee invites us, we’ll bring our offerings—symbolizing not just our money but really our whole lives—to the altar together. As we do, we act boldly believing: we belong to God.