23 Oct 2016
“‘The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.”’” (Luke 18:11)
In the name …
There are four people in this morning’s Gospel parable. There’s the self-righteous Pharisee who not only brags about how good he is, but for extra measure throws in a disparaging comment about the tax collector. The second person in Jesus’ parable is that very same tax collector. Even though he remains in the background he’s the one who stands out. The third person in this parable is Jesus. And it’s pretty clear that Jesus doesn’t have much of a tolerance for self-pride. He especially doesn’t have a tolerance for belittling other people. [This election cycle!] Even for those people who have the barest knowledge of the Jesus story, I think they know that Jesus stood with the outcasts. In Luke’s Gospel, on three separate occasions we hear of Jesus entering the home of a Pharisee. (7:36; 11:37; 14:1) Jesus did not ignore or abandon these religious leaders, but His message always came down on the side of the outcasts even in the midst of the connected and the powerful.
I was visiting with a person this past week who was obviously very intelligent and very knowledgeable about Christianity. He was an extremely interesting man and a very moral person. He’s now a Buddhist who still appreciates Jesus as a teacher. He changed his faith, he told me, because he could not accept that any human being who has ever lived has embodied the perfection and fulfillment that is God, even Jesus. But Jesus is not about making God’s perfection visible. Think about the story of the Transfiguration. The three disciples couldn’t figure out what in the world was happening. Think about the resurrection. Mary Magdalene could not recognize Jesus any longer by the way He looked. Instead, Jesus is about making God’s humanity visible. In Jesus we know as Christians that God has walked in our shoes, that God empathizes with our situation. Jesus wasn’t about proving the power and the magnificence of the Almighty. Jesus is the living revelation of a God who loves us flaws and all, and of a God who loves us even more when it’s needed more. This is why Jesus comes to us so ordinary.
I’ve become a fan of a new television sitcom this year. It’s called Speechless. It’s about a family of five, a mother, father and three children, but the oldest child is severely handicapped. He is almost completely paralyzed and he has to communicate by pointing a light at a keyboard. The mother obviously loves her husband and all of her children, but her love for her firstborn, because he needs it more, is more obvious. She doesn’t love one more than the other, but she shows her love more for the one than for the others. God loves us all, but for the ones who need it more, God shows it more. I remember speaking with my friend Rev. Richard Killough who told me that if Judas were in the darkest, most hideous corner of hell, then Jesus would be there with him. Rev. Killough’s message was that God’s love in Jesus is boundless. Jesus doesn’t make the power and perfection of God plain as day by walking around in sandals, with dirty feet, and a motley crew of unemployed followers, nor as He reaches out to the ones no one else has time for, but He surely makes clear that God loves us all, and the ones who need it more, He even loves more.
So now who’s the fourth person in today’s parable? That would be us. Like I’ve said, even though the tax collector stands back in the shadows, his story is front and center. Here’s a person so broken that he dares not even look up toward God. He’s in utter despair. All he can muster is a prayer for mercy because all that he can see of himself is that he is a sinner in the eyes of God. He’s probably not even sure if God can hear his prayer or that God cares about his prayer. I think when the writers at Walt Disney were coming up with the gypsy’s prayer in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, they had this tax collector in mind. Esmerelda sings her prayer in that awe-inspiring French cathedral: “I don't know if You can hear me, or if You're even there. I don't know if You would listen to a gypsy's prayer. Yes, I know I'm just an outcast. I shouldn't speak to You. Still I see Your face and wonder, were You once an outcast too?” And as she’s singing those words, she’s looking at a statue and into the face of the baby Jesus who is being held by His mother. For all of the magnificence of the building, it is the ordinary human face of Jesus that brings God close. That’s His perfection; that’s His purpose. That’s what Jesus brings of God into our world. For all of us, and especially for those in despair, for those who need God the most, they should know, they have to know, that He understands, that He sees us as so much more than only sinner, that Jesus was an outcast too. We’re the fourth person in the parable. We can always lift our eyes and talk to God.
Alice read for us a passage from Second Timothy. Most scholars agree that this was not an Epistle written by Paul, but was more likely written by a disciple of his, and maybe even after Paul had died. Paul was executed for his faith in Jesus, and in those days when Christians were few and far between, he had every reason to feel absolutely alone. Instead, as told through the memory of one close to him, we hear that while no one stood up for Paul as a witness in that courtroom and maybe even at his execution, Paul still believed, as Second Timothy tells us: “But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.” (4:17) That’s the reality of believing in Jesus, that’s the message that Jesus wants us to hear in His parable about that tax collector off in the shadows. No one is ignored by such a God. Everyone of us is loved by Jesus, and those who need it the most are loved the most. Hopefully that assurance gives us the strength to be who we are supposed to be, and for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo