24 Oct 2010
“[Jesus] then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” (Luke 18:9) In the name …
A husband tells the story to Readers’ Digest about his wife whom he describes as a “by-the-recipe” baker. One day while she was baking some cookies the husband smelled a familiar odor. “Honey, aren’t the cookies burning in the oven?” he asks his wife. “I know,” said the wife. “Aren’t you going to take them out of the oven then?” responds the husband. “No,” says the wife, “They still have four more minutes to go.” That the husband refers to his wife’s cooking ability as a “by-the-recipe” baker is not a compliment. I know this from experience. I’m not as bad as I used to be, but I remember the way I used to make even a cup of instant cocoa. The packet said to mix 6 ounces of hot water with the cocoa. I used to actually take out a measuring cup and make sure it was exactly 6 ounces of water. Common sense should have told me to fill up the cup with water, that I’m not making French cuisine, but I read 6 ounces and I wanted to make sure it was 6 ounces. But real cooks aren’t limited by this strict “by-the-recipe” mentality.
I belong to the Masons and yesterday they held a chili contest. The guy who made the chili for our lodge had never made chili before, and on top of that he didn’t even have a recipe. And he wasn’t worried. He cooks by instinct not by recipe. He’s a big guy. He likes to eat. Food is more than an energy source for him. He takes food seriously. He loves food. There’s a certain joy for him in cooking and a sense of success when he tries something new and it comes out to his liking. He’s the opposite of the wife who left the burning cookies in the oven because the recipe said they needed to bake for another four minutes. There’s something of himself worked into the cooking. A recipe can offer advice, but for these kinds of cooks it can’t replace that personal feel for what is needed. The best I can ever hope to be is a “by-the-recipe” baker. I don’t have that kind of personal connection with the art of food preparation.
But enough about food [especially since I’m starved and I can smell the dinner cooking downstairs]. The reason I bring-up the subject is to help us better understand today’s Gospel selection about the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee represents the “by-the-recipe” Christians. They follow the rules because that’s what they have, only what they have, and that’s what they feel they must cling to. Reduce the Bible to only commandments, the liturgy to only ritual, the church to only rules, and we will become “by-the-recipe” Christians. Forget that all of these are part of the challenge to know God better in this world and in our lives, that they give us a way to tap into His presence, forget it and we will become “by-the-recipe” Christians. Wait for the hour in the pew to end rather than celebrate the people around you, the chances for quiet, song, prayer and Communion in this place, the tradition that we share-in by coming here that reaches right back to the first gatherings of believers, and think only about enduring the hour, and then we will become “by-the-recipe” Christians. The rules will begin to trump the relationship with God.
This is basically why the Pharisee can ridicule the faith of the tax collector. The tax collector’s faith doesn’t follow the rules of the Pharisee, and therefore the tax collector’s faith can’t be real. Jesus disagrees, but that’s not going to change the Pharisee’s mind. What’s absent in the Pharisee’s outlook is a feel for the faith. He can see that the man won’t even dare enter too far into the Temple-precincts nor even raise his eyes to look up towards God in heaven. The Pharisee should be able to realize the sincerity of the tax collector’s humility before God. His remorse is sincere. The Pharisee can see all of this with his own eyes, that this other human being realizes he has let God down and he’s begging for God’s forgiveness. But the Pharisee simply cannot appreciate that the tax collector can be sincere because he only accepts the rules of religion not the purpose of religion, which is to bring us into a closer relationship with God. The Pharisee is blind to the personal component of faith in this other man because the personal component is the same thing lacking in his own life. The formality of religion has taken the place of familiarity with God. The cookies are burning, from the example of our first story, but the recipe says leave them in the oven for another four minutes. Faith becomes legalistic and “by-the-recipe.” It’s not sufficient. Something’s missing. But rather than break from the rules, the rules are clung to even more rigorously.
Think about the example of Paul from today’s Lesson. Paul was raised as a Pharisee, but he turned away from its legalism when he was confronted with the person of Christ. The story is shared with us today of his last days and his last words, and Paul could say with confidence: “Everyone deserted me … but the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.” (2 Tim. 4:16, 17) This is the kind of personal faith that we should strive for as Christians. And lastly and similarly, I want to leave you with some words that Bp. Hodur wrote and that were once part of our Constitution: “[Our] fundamental religious principle … is [the] teaching that the church does not save the person, but sanctifies him and gives success in the fulfillment of the will of God, revealed to us by the voice of conscience and the gospel of Jesus Christ. … Those churches, however, which maintain that only within their precincts can a person save him-self, consciously lie to and cheat people, for Christ taught otherwise. … The internal transformation of the person, [in] deeds and life, [these] determine our salvation.”
Church is not merely an institution nor a building nor rules. It is a gift shared with us by Christ that can awaken our spirits and bring us into a closer relationship with God and each other. It should transform us. It can’t save us on auto-pilot, but it can sanctify us so that we can make faith a personal relationship with Christ. May this be our prayer, in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo