October 27 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
Theme: It's quite a struggle this week. Every time I thought I had an idea based on one of our readings, it seemed to be contradicted by one of the others. I started with the gospel: what about "No Boasting Allowed" (I resisted "No Boasting Aloud" after a prolonged struggle), but then read the epistle and found St Paul on the edge (to be kind) of self-satisfaction. I was briefly attracted to "The Undiscriminating God": it would work quite well for the gospel passage, but what might it mean in terms of the first reading? I have opted for "There But for the Grace of God", if only because it came to me, and despite many attempts to work out a better one, it stayed with me.
Introduction. We start with a bone-chilling example of the Hebrew understanding of God as the One who lays down the law, demands obedience, and stands ever ready to punish those who transgress the law. [Break free from Nanny Lectionary's overly-protective embrace and read verses 11 and 12 for the full impact of this.] It also shows their understanding of their relationship with God as being primarily one between the nation as a whole and God, rather than between the individual and God. St Paul is at the end of his faith journey and expresses confidence in his record, and the righteousness of the Judge before whom he will soon appear. It is a few verses later that he remembers to give glory to God. And in the gospel story we see the Judge in action, "acquitting" one defendant and, by implication, condemning the other.
Background. Some years ago I started a sermon by proclaiming how much I hated the Pharisees. I don't remember the details of the charges I levelled against them, but they were drawn from various episodes in the gospels where the Pharisees featured, almost invariably in a bad light. I could see from the reaction of the congregation that the approach was having the desired effect: people were looking shocked at such strong language: surely a priest shouldn't be admitting to hating people, even Pharisees? Then came the punch-line: "Most of all what I hate about the Pharisees is how much they think and behave like me." What I didn't add that day – either because it hadn't occurred to me at the time or because the pulpit was too far from the nearest door – was that the Pharisees bear a striking resemblance to just about every other person I have met during my time in ministry.
Now, before you work out how to unsubscribe, please take a moment to ponder this story. It is a true story about a wonderful, faithful woman who had been brought up in, and who had faithfully served, the Church all her life. She was just the sort of person every small, struggling country parish needs to keep going. Cleaning, flowers, opening and closing the door, putting the heaters on, arranging rosters, keeping minutes, catering and washing-up – over the decades she had done it all, and, in her seventies, she was still doing it. But, in keeping with the views of many Anglicans of her generation, she felt strongly that her faith was a private matter, and had never spoken about it. Then one day, completely unexpectedly, she came to a meeting of our Scripture Reflection group. It happened that the parish was at that time reeling from a particularly brutal murder that had been committed in the neighbouring township. Whether or not it was that outrage that had prompted this woman to come I don't know; but it was clearly on everyone's mind that evening, and so we abandoned our topic and discussed the case. There were many expressions of condemnation, and some very creative suggestions as to what form of punishment might be appropriate for such a low-life as this particular offender.
It was well-past our usual finishing hour when someone raised the issue of forgiveness. Foolishly I thought this was one of those "teaching moments", and launched into a mini-homily about how we must hope and pray that the offender is moved to repentance so that he might receive God's forgiveness and be restored to the kingdom, etc. This was too much for our new member. Was I really saying that all this beast has to do is repent and "he will receive the same package as the rest of us after all we've done for the Church"? Yes, of course that's what I was saying – that is the Gospel, after all – but is that what I was believing? At that moment, were not all of us feeling exactly what she was – appalled at the sheer injustice of the Gospel? Or rather, refusing to believe that was the Gospel?
Okay, let's calm down, take a deep breath, count to ten, have a coffee – and then have another look at today's gospel passage, in which the "hero" is the Tax Collector. Granted that we are not dealing with the perpetrator of a brutal murder, we should also be clear that we are not dealing with a New Zealand public servant who happens to work in the Inland Revenue Department. While it is possible that there was the odd good apple in every barrel of tax collectors, this story works in part because everybody knows that tax collectors were collaborators with the occupying force, and extortionists for private gain – think pay-day loan sharks with treasonable tendencies and we're not far off. And people like that (to say nothing of "thieves, rogues, and adulterers") get the same deal as upright men like this Pharisee who fasts, tithes and could well be on the lawn-mowing roster? Is that fair?
As I have been struggling with this story yet again I have come to the realisation that it strikes such a raw nerve with me precisely because it forces me to accept that there is a fundamental clash between justice and grace. It's partly St Paul's fault: when he contrasts grace and law it sounds rather nice and comforting, doesn't it – particularly if we have just read a passage like this week's first lesson. But if St Paul had said, "But we are no longer under justice, we are under grace", we might have been a bit slower to warm to his argument; and if he had said anything like "in the Court of our God those who plead guilty shall be acquitted, and those who seek to defend themselves shall be convicted and punished harshly" we might not be so keen to have him as our FaceBook friend or follow him on Twitter.
Could this fundamental opposition between human justice and divine grace be the real reason why the Gospel is such a hard sell in the modern world? Or is it just the Pharisee in me that makes me ask that question?
Jeremiah. Even in New Zealand we know the horrors of drought, but we do not usually see them as an indication that the relationship between our country and the God we ask to defend us needs some fine-tuning. Things were different in Jeremiah's time. Religion was not banned from the public arena as it is in our time: it was fundamental to the nation's image of itself. To be the Chosen People was not understood as an advertising slogan for the tourist industry – their version of "100% Pure" – but as a statement of an historical fact. There was a covenant between their nation and God, and any breach on their part of the terms of the covenant laid them open to penalty. The drought was one such penalty: worse were still to come. Jeremiah pleads for mercy, but in vain. Here there is no bargaining, as there was with Abraham. The offence is too great: the offenders (the whole nation) must get their just deserts. It's only fair.
Taking It Personally.
- As you reflect on this story, what are your feelings towards God? Is he being fair? Is he being merciful and loving? Do you recognise in him the One Jesus called "Abba"?
- Read slowly through verses 7-9, phrase by phrase. Remember that Jeremiah is praying. How would you describe his attitude towards God? How would you describe his prayer? How does it compare with your own?
- Now do the same exercise with verses 19 to 22.
- Spend some time in prayer for our own country. What sort of "drought" is afflicting us?
- Is God's presence evident among us? Is God like a stranger, a traveller – we might say a tourist or sight-seer?
- What is your plea to God for this country at this time?
Timothy. If St Paul did write this letter (which is generally considered unlikely), it must surely have been towards the very end of his life (verse 6). He looks back with some clear sense of satisfaction, not so much for what he has achieved, but for sticking at it to the end (verse 8). Is he boasting, or simply stating a fact? Verse 8 is interesting. At one level it seems that St Paul is sure he will now receive the reward he so richly deserves; or is he merely asserting the belief that those who believe in Jesus are credited with his righteousness? Verses 16-18 seem a little out of place in a letter to his protégé – it is almost as if he has forgotten he is addressing someone and is "thinking things through for himself". There is more than a hint of bitterness in verse 16, the second sentence of which seems to have a "gritted teeth" tone to it. But from this comes his doxology of thanks and praise to the Lord, his protector and redeemer.
Taking It Personally.
- Read verse 7. Looking back on your journey so far, what claims would you make for yourself? On the spectrum of flaky-steadfast, whereabouts would you sit?
- Read verse 8. What is your ultimate hope?
- Read verse 16. Can you recall a time when you felt abandoned by everyone? Were you aware of Christ's presence with you?
- What counsel or encouragement would you give to someone who feels abandoned by everyone? Would it make any difference if you felt the person was his/her own worst enemy?
Luke. If this story really is as simple and as straightforward as it's usually portrayed, why did St Luke feel it necessary to write a preface for it (verse 9)? That aside, what are we to make of the Pharisee's opening words: "God, I thank you that I am not like other people..."? Doesn't that suggest that he is aware that, but for the grace of God, he might well have been like those others – thieves, rogues, adulterers or even like that tax collector? (Perhaps he has in his head the three-fold daily prayer that Jewish males used to pray, thanking God for not being born a woman, a Gentile, or a slave?) Some of the most horrific crimes are often committed by people who themselves are seriously damaged, sometimes from birth, and often by the terrible assaults to which they were subjected in early childhood. Would it be perfectly proper to thank God that I was not born a paedophile, for example, and not subjected to horrific violence as a child causing me to inflict similar cruelty on others? And here's another question: granted that the Tax Collector has thrown himself on the mercy of God, will he now turn over a new leaf and turn away from his sinful practices? (And by the way, we don't know what sins he has committed or is seeking forgiveness for, do we? We are leaping to the conclusion that he is confessing his sins as a tax collector, but perhaps he isn't.)
Taking It Personally.
- This is a really interesting story with which to pray with your imagination. Imagine that, instead of the Temple, this scene is played out in your local church. Focus on the Pharisee first. Be aware of your first impressions, and your own reactions. Now listen to his prayer. Is he speaking loudly? Are you angry/embarrassed/shocked? Now turn your attention to the tax collector, and go through the same procedure. Where do your sympathies lie, or are they both as bad as one another?
- Re-run the story on the understanding that the tax collector has been abusing his wife or children, and that's what he's confessing. How do you feel towards him now?
- Now spend time in self-examination. Are you inclined to be too hard or too soft on yourself?
- Remind yourself of your feelings at the time of some high-profile murder. How often since have you prayed that the killer may come to God and seek & obtain forgiveness?