23 October, 2022 – Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Homily preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Who are you in a relationship with?
I don’t mean just your spouse/partner or your kids or your family, I mean more than that…who are you in relationship with? Or it might be better to ask who are you NOT in relationship with?
Last week, when we heard the story of the unjust judge (or the persistent widow) Michael pointed out the problem with a purely legal understanding of justice: do what the law says to do; don’t do what the law prohibits…
Jesus complicates that again for us this week, with the characters of the Pharisee and the tax-collector…or maybe it would resonate better with us if we called them the Puritan and the Collaborator, or the Law-abiding Citizen and the Traitor.
The Pharisee (the Puritan, the law-abiding citizen) is well within the bounds of the law…doing things “right”…fasting (twice a week no less), tithing a full 10%, and clearly going to the Temple to atone for sins. His prayers are grounded in thanksgiving—in gratitude—for all the blessings he has received…that make him NOT like others…
I heard someone once describe parables as fishing lures…on the outside sparkly and showy, but inside there’s a sharp barbed hook. We all know the hook is there…Still…the second you think, “Thank God I am not like this Pharisee….” [hook].
Collecting taxes has never been a super popular profession, but in 1st century Palestine tax-collectors—especially Jewish ones—were literally working for the enemy…collaborating with the Empire and the puppet-regime of Herod. Now they likely had been made offers they couldn’t refuse…work for us, or we kill your family…work for us or starve in the gutter…that sort of thing…Extortion is always part of the game of domination…Tax collectors generally had to pay the Empire so much, but anything they could collect over and above that…that’s what they lived on. Domination breeds rapaciousness.
So we have a law-abiding, puritan jerk, and a traitorous collaborator who seems legitimately concerned for his soul. One is doing a lot of the right things, but has little love for others; the other is likely doing really horrible things, but feels genuinely bad about it. Both are operating within the legal sense of “the law”…doing what the law allows, not doing what the law prohibits, but they are both unjust, because, as Michael so eloquently pointed out last week: “At the center of justice is not law. But love”. Love is always at the center of God’s law. Or as someone once said, “Justice is love in action.” In one sense, both these characters are out-laws…outside the fullness of the law of love.
Years ago, Barbara Brown Taylor critiqued our two dominant metaphors for sin: We speak of sin as legal, and as medical. When we view sin through a legal lens…crime, lawlessness, and punishing justice become the way we understand it…that’s what we see in the parable today. But there are also plenty of stories in scripture where sickness is the substitute for sin, and in a medical metaphor: diagnoses, treatment, and healing are what we talk about. Both of these metaphors are powerful, and Taylor says, both in their own way, “miss the mark.”
“Contrary to the medical model,” she writes, “we are not entirely at the mercy of our maladies. Even within a fallen creation, we still have pockets of God-given freedom…Contrary to the legal model, sin is not simply a set of behaviors to be avoided. Much more fundamentally, it is a way of life to be exposed and changed…”
“In theological language,” she says, “the choice to remain in wrecked relationship with God and other […] beings is called sin…Christian theology is neither no-fault nor full-fault. We do wrong, but we do not do wrong all alone. We live in a web of creation that binds us to all other living beings. If we want to be saved, then we had better figure out how to do it together, since none of us can resign from this web of relationships…Sin,” she says, “is our only hope, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again. There is no help for those who admit no need of help.” [Taylor, 58f] Which I think is the key reason why the collaborator is “justified…acquitted” while the Puritan is not.” Because the tax-collector recognizes the wreckage he is part of…but has not yet started to do anything about it. The Puritan is doing things to rectify sin, but without understanding the wreckage around him…the wreckage he is part of…
Because we exist in this web of God’s creation…we are infected by the wreckage, and we can be agents of healing or of further damage.
For me, the tragedy…(and the biggest hook)…in this parable is not what they say or do or don’t say and don’t do…but the fact that both of them are stand by themselves…apart from others. One does it (we assume) because he’s trying to maintain purity, the other does it (we assume) because he’s being ostracized for colluding with Rome. Either way, this standing apart is a sign that this web of relationships lies in tatters.
Which brings me back to my original question: Who are you in relationship with? And who are you NOT in relationship with? Or to make this hook more obvious…Who do you stay apart from?
Do you have a closer relationship with your calendar, or your work commitments than you do with your nearest and dearest? Do you have a closer relationship with your preferred newsfeed or your filter bubble than with your neighbor who may (or may not) harbor opposing views? When was the last time you stopped, paused, and allowed yourself to be in nature instead of simply passing through it getting from one place to another? Are your worries and anxieties closer companions than a friend or a prayer partner? Does your ability to write a check to a charity (assuming you have that ability) keep you from getting to know the real human beings who receive your generosity?
It’s not that being a dedicated worker, or well-informed, or generous with your time, talent, and treasure are bad. They’re not. Unless they keep you from seeing and responding to the reality and the relationships that are right in front of you.
The tragedy of this parable is that these two characters need each other, but can’t see that… Imagine, instead, that Puritan’s good actions (the fasting, the tithing, the gratitude) actually had an impact on the collaborator. And that the collaborator’s humble, and heartfelt prayer reached not only God’s ears but the law-abider’s as well? What if they stood, not apart from each other…but side by side…and listened to each other…really heard each other…were brave and humble enough to correct and support each other…then perhaps then they both would have been “justified”…which while certainly a legal term, really means “restored to a right relationship with God,” and isn’t that what a faithful life really all about?