One of the most satisfying parts of my ministry at Trinity is teaching Episcopal 101. This is an introductory course to Historic, Christianity. Because of the confusion in many minds between catholic Christianity with a small c, and Roman Catholicism, a predominant, yet not exclusive, transmission of catholic Christianity, the word Historic serves us better.
We have just completed the first three sessions on Christian Essentials where we have asked three questions. Who is God? Who is Jesus? What is the Church? These are not so much three separate questions so much as three linked aspects of a more fundamental question: being human, who am I?
For me, this is a really exciting question. I hasten to separate myself from the theological nerdism that some approaches to these questions about God inevitably give rise to. What excites me is not finding answers to the deeper question so much as stimulating reflection that begins to address some of the burning and burdening of our hearts.
Our heart-felt question takes various forms and is a question about core identity. Who am I? Where am I going? What do I long to become? Responding to these questions points us to the realization that we are made in the image of God.
The Relational God
God first identifies in Genesis:1 using the possessive pronouns us and our – let us make humanity in our own image. God self-identifies clearly as communal and relational, not individual and solitary. If we are made in God’s image then we too are at our core, communal and relational.
In Jesus Christ, Godself further reveals in the form of a human face and human life. Therefore, to be made to be fully human is a reflection of the image of God made real in, and through, human relationship. In Jesus, we see God’s picture of full human likeness, which is very close to God’s self-likeness. In Jesus, God shows us clearly that what is essential to know about Godself is discoverable as we grow more and more fully into our own human natures.
God is communal. God is relational. This is the deep and wonderful mystery lying at the heart of our doctrine of the Trinity. What we most long for is to be part of community and to grow in, and through, relationships with one an other. One of the places this longing is met, is in the community of the Church. Like other aspects of human experience this communal identity, though often far from perfect, is where we are met by God and where we are nurtured and grow into a vision of being human that moves us beyond the limitations of our own individual and social imagining.
Which brings me to the Gospel text for today. I have been wrestling with this text all week. You might think this text is straight forward, but if we have learned anything we should realize that nothing Jesus is reported to have said in the Gospel’s is, straight forward.
My comments about the current 101 program help to open this text beyond the trite traditionalist interpretation of bad Pharisee and good Toll Collector. This approach to the text goes like this. Once upon a time there was this self-righteous Pharisee – A.K.A Mr. self-assertion, pious, upright, self satisfied and a general turn-off for anyone thinking about belonging to the Church because he is the dark stereotype of good Christian churchgoers. Given the strong competition between the Pharisees and the early followers of Jesus, competition resulting from their similarities and not their differences, the Pharisees became the straw men of the Gospel writers. Consequently the Pharisee is unfavorably compared with the Toll Collector, who while certainly not a very good man, is nevertheless, humble. So at the heart of this interpretation pride is compared with humility.
This pernicious interpretation portrays God as a very human-like judge, distinguishing between the good and bad. We of course gloat in identifying with the humble Toll Collector against the proud Pharisee, thereby falling into exactly the same fault as we condemn in the Pharisee. We are thinking to ourselves: Thank you Lord that I am not like the stereotype of that self-righteous and hypocritical good churchgoer.
It is true, we are not like the Pharisee in this parable. Most of us do not fast. Most of certainly do not tithe. Yet to be honest, being in the middle of an annual stewardship renewal campaign and looking at the projected budget figures for 2014, I want to say: give me a few more Pharisees any day! I mean, the man tithes not only on those items the Jewish Law compels him to pay the tithe on, but on the whole of his income! Around here, we certainly could use a few more like him!
The point of this parable is not the simplistic duality of piety bad, humility good. The Pharisee is to be commended for careful attention to his accountability before God. Maybe we should all be more like him. God desires that we also take seriously our accountability for the gifts entrusted to us for our enjoyment.
This parable highlights two attitudes. The Pharisee’s attitude is one of pride in his own religious accomplishments leading him to judge and to despise his neighbors. Jesus criticizes this attitude on the grounds that the self-assertion of spiritual accomplishments cuts the Pharisee off from feeling any need for God’s mercy, and any solidarity with others in his community. The attitude of the Toll Collector is commended because despite his despicably sinful life he desires God’s mercy. At the heart of his prayer is a profound dependency upon God’s mercy. Jesus means us to understand that our view of good and bad, diserving and underserving has nothing to do with the love and mercy of God.
This parable is about relationality. We are all much more like the Pharisee than the Toll Collector. The Pharisee is a very modern figure in the sense that he feels independent of God’s mercy. He is self-sufficient, possessing all the tools necessary for living a self-actualized life of self-assertion. He knows what he is accountable for to God, and he gives a good account. His piety is not hypocritical or insincere. The problem here is not his piety, but his omnipotent narcissism. Feeling in full control of his spiritual and material life leads him to place his confidence in his self-sufficiency. He feels independent of God and superior to his fellow human beings. Luke notes that in the Temple he stands by himself and I picture him insulated from others around him. In giving good account to God he seems to need nothing in return. His prayer of spiritual self-assertion cuts him off from a sense of community, which is the essential element for a fuller human spiritual experience.
The Toll Collector, on the other hand, is so deeply compromised by his life of exploitation and extortion that nothing in his life justifies him even being in God’s presence. Luke shows him standing a long way off, and I picture him gripped with a longing for God, while, at the same time being afraid to even raise his eye to heaven. He fears to trespass upon God’s love and mercy. His prayer is in contrast to spiritual independence. It is a prayer recognizing his complete dependence on God’s mercy.
Jesus comments that this man, despite his despicable life understands something the Pharisee misses. Fred B. Craddock reflects that what both receive is ‘in spite of’, ‘not because of.’ their situation. Righteousness on its own cannot earn God’s love. Neither can sinfulness disqualify us from God’s love and mercy.
It’s all in the Attitudes
The issue here is about how our attitude to life either fosters or insulates us from being in relationship with God. Relationship with God is through relationships with one another. Relationship with God is not possible outside of being in relationship together within the faithful community directly addressed by God. Episcopalians are heirs to the historic tradition of Christianity. We understand our relationship with God to be through baptism into the cross- bearing and saving community of the Church. Whatever God invites us into on an individual and personal basis, this pales in comparison with what God invites us into through our relationships within the faithful community.
During these weeks of our annual renewal of stewardship, God invites us to a deeper connection with gratitude. We are also reminded of our responsibility to be accountable. One of the things we are accountable for is our contribution to building up the quality of our lives together. Three weeks ago I termed it as our need to feel that we can make a difference in the world.
This parable transforms the question who am I into the only proper question we need to be asking, which is, who are we discovering ourselves to be in this community of faithfulness at the intersection of Roosevelt and Central?