Need for God?

Image: James Tissot, The Pharisee and the Publican

Storytelling is a fine art. I remember back some years ago now, attending a BBC live studio interview with John Berendt about his then recently published novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I remember him commenting on how in the South people embroider their stories with anecdotal asides.

He gave an illustration suggesting that an English writer might tell us simply:

Mrs. Green, while walking down the high street in her fine fur coat, suddenly caught a glimpse of herself in the store window. “How fine this coat looks” – she mused.

He contrasted this with voice of a Southern narrator:

Mrs Green, while walking down main street in her fine fur coat – you know the coat her husband bought her after he made all that money from the shady real estate deal, you know the one he made with that big Yankee corporation buying up the whole town. Catching a glimpse of herself in the store window and remembering her husband’s last year’s birthday present of the face lift - “How mighty fine this coat looks” – she mused smugly to herself.

I wish I had Jesus’ knack for storytelling. His stories confront his listeners with something profound and potentially life changing. But have you noticed how simply most of Jesus’ stories begin? There was this woman or this man.We want to know which woman, what man? So, he then tells us a little more – Oh yes, this woman who was coming to draw water. Or this man who’s name was Zacchaeus – the one who had climbed up a tree.

And so, Jesus begins Two men went up to the temple to pray. Which two men? One a Pharisee the other a tax collector. Immediately, his 1st-century audience would begin to draw conclusions from the stark contrast between these two men – one a righteous practitioner of the law, a faithful Jew – and the other a collaborator with the hated Roman occupation. We, that is his 21st-century audience also immediately draw conclusions – although the opposite ones from his original hearers because we are primed to think bad thoughts when we hear that one of the men was a Pharisee. Of course, for us its different because we have heard the story many times – at least once every three years – and we know the ending. But are we any wiser as to the deeper significance of this story?

The question we might ask at this point is which of the two men do we identify with? While you’re thinking about this let me remind you, we’re hearing this story within the context of the annual renewal campaign commonly known as stewardship.

We tend to think of stewardship as an activity for this time of year and unfortunately, not as a whole year-round activity – a year-round exercise of the three T’s – time, talent, and treasure as the practice of gentle competence in the service of all things.

There is a natural tendency to overvalue the treasure component of the three T’s. In Small Hearts enlarged by Gratitude (Oct 8th) I spoke about how treasure is really a symbol for the way we express gratitude through living generously. In Time, Talent, and not just Treasure  (Oct 16) I fleshed-out time and talent as symbols of both our desire to serve and also our realization that as disciples we have little choice but to keep serving – for a disciple who does not serve is an oxymoron – a linking of two incongruous images in one idea.

Given that Christian community is the historic template for a serving community, I think that if asked to pause and reflect more deeply – the thing many of us would say is that we miss the satisfaction of service inspired by gratitude. Gratitude produces and stimulates generosity – and generosity like living water – flows through service – irrigating a parched world. Remember that money is like water – it only does any good if it keeps flowing. Dam it up and stagnation ensues.

Back to the question: which of the two men do we identify with? It would be interesting to call for a show of hands. But I suspect that most of us would identify with the tax collector because in the story we are prejudiced towards the pharisee from the outset and distanced from the socio-political contradiction of a tax collector praying in the temple. Conditioned by 2000 years of Christian teaching on the virtue of humility we see in the tax collector’s prayer a level of humility and self-abasement we wish we could emulate. Few of us -publicly at least – would want to identify with the haughty self-righteousness of the religious Pharisee.

This is a story that presents us with two images of the human response to God. Most of us intuit that we should identify with the tax collector, and yet we design our lives to model that of the pharisee – and feel pretty good about doing so. He’s not only confident in his own salvation, but loudly proclaims his self-confidence before the Lord of heaven and earth. In other words, this is a man who by following the rules takes control of his own salvation – look God – see how well I’m doing!

The tax collector on the other hand, makes no claim of being in control of his life let harbor any expectation of salvation. He lives a morally dubious and compromised life.  He may be deeply sorry about his collaboration with the Roman administration, but the sorry fact is what else can he do.  Like many he is caught in the traps that life sets.  He needs the work; he needs to do what he needs to do to get by – and so he is caught.

Jesus makes clear that for God it’s not what the tax collector does – it’s not his occupation that matters. It’s not even a matter of his being among the religiously impure – those on the outside of Jewish religious life. What matters is his response – his humble recognition that he has no claim on God’s mercy. He offers no excuses – he offers no defense. The very nature of his inability to do much about his situation is what brings him to his knees, beating his breast in acknowledgement that he stands before the Lord of heaven and earth as one in need of God’s mercy.

Like the pharisee we expend a lot of energy ensuring that we will not find ourselves in a position of needing anything from anyone – so self-assured are we of our ability to make our own way in life we easily confuse our success for something of our own making; that the good things in life are ours to enjoy and not share. The pharisee – that part of us that sneakily believes we have no need of God – is very much alive and kicking in all of us.

Yet, the unpalatable truth in the face of our assertions of self-sufficiency is that the source of all our loves in life flow to us from God’s love for us. Whether we want to admit it or not – we are in fact dependent beneficiaries of divine generosity. Only when we acknowledge our dependence can we come to know our need of God. Thus to acknowledge our need of God is an uncomfortable experience for us.

We are surrounded by good people – who do what good people do – but who seem to have no need for God. We know many who once sat alongside us in this church but do so no longer. Maybe they are no longer here because they were never here for anything other than fitting God into their own priorities. Maybe they came because it was part of a well-rounded education for their kids. Or being seen at St Martin’s was good for business networking. Whatever the reason they were never here as an acknowledgment that they needed anything from God. After their priorities were met, they ceased to come.

The conventional wisdom goes that if God exists at all then of course he will be accepting of those who after all – are good people. However, that is not the conclusion we can legitimately draw from this story. For only one man goes home justified.

To understand the way Jesus uses the term justified we need to think about what happens in a court of law. Neither the plaintiff nor the defendant is in control of the verdict of the court. It’s only the judge who can acquit or condemn. So it is with being justified. The Pharisee’s religious virtues in no way justify him in God’s eyes, neither does the tax collector’s sinfulness condemn him. Justification turns on a single question. Which one knows his need of God? Jesus tells us this is the only consideration for God. Being justified or not is a divine verdict not anything we can earn as if by right or lose because of compromised circumstances in life.

I’m not sure we can rid ourselves of conflating stewardship with the autumn renewal campaign. But it’s a worthy ambition to cultivate. Therefore, I am encouraging us to use this season of the Annual Renewal Campaign, as an invitation to take spiritual inventory in which we review:

  • What and where are our priorities and how are these shaped by our faith and our experience of Christian community? What is our attitude to our finances and possession? Are these simply the fruit of the sweat of our own cleaver brow or can we find in them a freedom from self-congratulation that comes with gratitude expressed through generosity?
  • Spiritual inventory as an opportunity to reexamine our attitude towards the call of discipleship. With whom do we really align – the pharisee or the tax collector?
  • Spiritual inventory as a rediscovery of the single thing that ultimately matters – namely our coming to know again the depth of our need for God.

Two weeks ago, in Small Hearts enlarged by Gratitude I shared from my personal experience of gratitude. Mine is a story of the way connection with gratitude wanes in the face of the illusion of my self-sufficiency. This period of spiritual inventory is an opportunity for me to be reminded of the course of my life journey and to stand with the tax collector – openly acknowledging that there is nothing about me that is deserving of God’s love – and to remember with gratitude expressed in generous living that all the good things of my life come to me as an expression of divine gift.

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