The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22; Psalm 84:1-7; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
From today’s collect: “Lord God our redeemer, free us from the tyranny of sin and death, and by the leading of your Spirit bring us to our promised land.”
There’s a certain frustration in being an Anglican priest. In the popular imagination, cultivated through life experience and movies and television shows, pastors are people who climb into their pulpits and look down at the congregation and say, “You, yes you, are a sinner!” And we never get to do that. Here in the Anglican tradition, we speak so often of the love of God that we rarely touch the terrain of sin. Today, we are going to go there.
Our collect speaks of sin and death as forces which act as tyrants in our lives. Alcoholics Anonymous (and the other twelve-step programs which have developed from it) say the same: the first step is to admit that you are powerless over your addiction and that your life has become unmanageable. Even St. Paul speaks in the same way: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… It is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Rom 7: 14-15, 17)
Even for those of us without addiction, a bit of honest self-reflection will probably reveal this sense of sin’s tyrannical nature to be true. Any of us can think of a time when we came into a room with good intentions, only to do exactly what we had sworn we would not do. Most of us can think of a time when we tried to turn over a new leaf, but fell right back into the old, deadening patterns of our lives. When the writer Nora Gallagher entered therapy, she thought, “now that I know the sources of my bad behavior, I can change it!” It took her a while to realize it was just not that simple. The broken things in our souls — the ones which prevent us from being the loving people we sometimes long to be — are dismayingly tenacious. They do not easily let go.
That’s why today’s parable is so important, and such a source of hope. It would be easy to see today’s readings as simply depressing: signs of a fearsome God who wishes to grind us into submission to his harsh and implacable will. But the implacable force in our lives is sin, and atonement is an immersion in freedom and love.
In the story from Luke, Jesus gives us two men at prayer: the one, a Pharisee who labors night and day to keep all the tenets of his religion, the second, a tax collector who prays only for God’s mercy. Usually, this is explained as a warning against justifying ourselves. Preachers describe the Pharisee as a puffed-up and arrogant man, one who is so proud of his own virtue that he has become blind to his imperfections. And yet, this is unfair, both to him and to us. The Pharisees were the passionate believers of their time. They believed that the deep faith life of a priest was available to all faithful Jews, and so they voluntarily undertook to keep the whole set of divine precepts which were normally restricted to the priests, seeking to express their deep love for God. In today’s terms, they became vegan; they gave more than 10% of their money to the church; they took poor widows into their homes and raised the orphan with tenderness. In other words, they were good people, people who embodied the kindness of God, who tried to make a difference in this world.
And, for all that the Pharisee in the story might sound a bit puffed up, it’s also possible that he is simply aware — keenly aware — that his life of virtue is itself a gift of God, and not due to his own efforts at all. After all, who among us has not, at some point in our lives, read in the papers about someone or something notably evil — a corporation that’s a major polluter, a mass shooter, a politician fanning the flames of hatred and division — and has not thought, “Dear God! How do those people live with themselves?” (I thank you, Lord, that I am not like that man….) And yet, if our lives had been different, if we had suffered certain kinds of soul-deep harm, if we were desperate for bread to feed our families, who knows what we might have become? No, I don’t believe the Pharisee in the story is there to be mocked. I think he is there to show us ourselves: good, faithful people who are trying to do the right thing, and who know they have even that goodness only by grace.
But what, then, is the tax-collector? A man who comes before God empty-handed. We do not even know what he has done to feel such an urgent need of pardon. His people probably loathe him, seeing as a collaborator, helping their Roman occupiers to profit from the subjection of his own people, but that may or may not be why he is standing in the Temple that day. He may be there because he’s had a fight with his wife, or because his child is ill. All we know is that he comes to God asking only for mercy. And Jesus says, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.”
What, then, do we do with this uncomfortable verdict? Does God really favor the repentant sinner over the righteous? Certainly, there are passages which suggest that: Jesus himself says, a few chapters earlier, that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over nine-nine righteous people who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7) And this story is part of series of stories about God’s love for the lost, for the strayed, for the desperate.
But what if these stories, including the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, are less about us than they are about God? What if the point is not about whom God prefers, but about the simple fact that God’s door is always open? After all, Jesus also tells, in the same series, of a prodigal father yearning for the return of his son who has rejected him, a father who sees his strayed son coming down the road and runs to meet him and to shower upon him every good thing in the father’s home.
What if penance, atonement, were not a burden imposed on us, but a gift, perhaps the great gift offered to us by God? Can you imagine, for a moment, what our lives would look like without the possibility of forgiveness? That mean thing you said to your brother when you were four years old would poison your relationship forever; that time you did not notice your spouse’s exhaustion and desperate need of love would haunt your lives; every single thing you have done wrong in your life would still be with you, and you’d drag it behind you like a leaden weight.
In the film The Mission, set in the Spanish colonies in the Americas, the slave-trader Rodrigo Mendoza kills his own brother in a fit of rage. Unable to cope with what he has done, he descends into a deep depression, but a saintly Jesuit visits him and challenges him to accept a penance the Jesuit will impose. Father Gabriel bundles all Mendoza’s armor into a net and ties it to Mendoza, then leads him into the forest toward the ancestral home of the Guaranì people Mendoza has so often kidnapped into slavery. Finally, they come to great cliff. When Mendoza crawls to the top of it, the huge bag of armor pulling him down, he finds himself face-to-face with one of the Guaranì. The man seizes a knife, extends it toward Mendoza, and cuts Mendoza free of the armor. The symbols of his violence plummet to the ground, and Mendoza rises, a free man.
Freedom is the gift God gives us in atonement — not only to those whose sins are lurid and scandalous, but also to those of us whose sins reveal the pettiness of our souls. Freedom not to be defined by the worst thing we have done or failed to do. But in order to atone, we need to believe that forgiveness is possible; we need to believe in a God who can and will forgive.
It’s not clear that the Pharisee does. For all that he lives a life of extraordinary virtue and even recognizes it as gift, he may do so out of fear. But Jesus’ judgment in the parable is more subversive than that: he reveals not only that God is happy to offer mercy, but that accepting mercyaccepting mercyaccepting mercy is the only way to God. The only one. There is no life, even one of heroic virtue or saintliness, which can bring us to God on our own. It is only God’s desire to forgive us that enables us to approach our Savior.
Just as, in Christ, we are not defined by the worst we have done, we are also not defined by the best. We are defined by God’s love for us — only by God’s love for us. And we don’t have to earn that love; God’s love for us is a given. Our salvation, our worthiness, are simply not in our own hands.
What, then, is the point of all our striving — our fasting, our penance, our justice work, our prayers? Perhaps, simply to pour love into this world, just as God does. Perhaps, to allow us to taste our true freedom and to choose whom we wish to be. Or, perhaps, all our striving serves only to show us how little we can do, so that we will throw ourselves upon the mercy of God. Perhaps, all of that.
The psalmist writes, “Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.” Yes. That’s it, exactly. In the great mercy of God, our times of barren desolation become our springs of living water, leading us deeper and deeper into the grace and mercy of God. There, the sparrow finds a house; there the swallow may raise her young. For the beauty of the Lord’s house is not some untouchable, perfected beauty; the beauty of God’s house is you and me, freed of our sins, immersed in the fire of love; tasting the joy of being where we truly belong. You are loved with an everlasting love. That’s all that matters, and all that ever will.