The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost | By the Rev. Scott Lee
Sirach 35:12-17 | Psalm 84 or | Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 | Luke 18:9-14
Fr. Thomas Keating begins his book The Human Condition by recounting the story from the Book of Genesis in which God strolls into the garden of Eden and discovers that his new companions, the man and the woman, are hiding from him and are nowhere to be found. “Where are you?” God asks. My friend and former Arkansas colleague Ed Wills and I, because of our mutual high regard for this story, had a sort of game we used play at Christmas time. We loved to listen for how the reader at the Festival of Lessons and Carols read this question which God asks as he walks in the garden in the cool of the evening. No doubt, several readings are possible, but the one we most often encounter is “WHERE ARE YOU!” A kind of tyrannical, angry, accusatory shout. But Ed and Father Keating and I do not think that is the best reading. We think that the story tells of a God who has come to enjoy the cool evening breeze in the companionship of his beloved creatures; and who is distressed and saddened, maybe even a bit afraid, when he discovers that they are missing. Every parent knows this question, “Where are you?” uttered in half-exasperation, half- fear, and whole-hearted love, when a child cannot be found. “Where are you,” God says to us. And the question Jesus poses to us this morning in his parable is “How do we respond to that question?” How do we respond to the God who is searching for us? Who longs to be our companion? How do we respond to this generous God of ours? We have a suggestion from the Book of Sirach which we heard from earlier:
Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford.
But what kind of generosity are we talking about? We have two strikingly different examples of response in Jesus’s parable. The Pharisee is outwardly self-assured and confident. Out-loud he reminds God what a good fellow he is; how he is generous, even scrupulous in his piety. He certainly considers himself generous – generous as we heard in the Book of Sirach. Generous, yes, but his generosity is little more than a bribe. The Book of Sirach likewise warns against that kind of generosity when it says, “Do not offer him a bribe, for he will not accept it.” But that is just what the Pharisee is trying to do. He gives – to get right with God. But the net result of his piety is that he is standing alone in the Temple – as he no doubt stands alone in life. Such people are no fun to be around – you know very well. The trouble with such self-important self-promotion is that it always, always, always conceals the deep fear that the opposite of what is being said is true. The boastful and self- important, the imperious and self-righteous among us are frightened people who think that God is shouting at them “WHERE ARE YOU? WHO ARE YOU? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO JUSTIFY MY NOTICING AND CARING ABOUT YOU?” And they respond in kind, with self- defense and self-justification, to the questions they have imagined God is asking. But the truth of Jesus’s great Good News is that God is in love with us, that God longs for us to spend time with God, consciously enjoying that love. There is no need to boast and pretend – because we have nothing to prove. To others, to ourselves, or to God. The Pharisee’s sin, the reason he goes away unfulfilled, is that his boasting betrays his lack of trust in God’s love. The effect of that fear and self-defensiveness is to separate him and us from God and from other human beings, and from our deepest selves. And what of the tax-collector about whom Jesus tells us this morning? First let’s be sure we notice the context into which Jesus is speaking. He is not speaking to a gathering of humble tax-collectors. That is, he is not speaking to a room full of those, like the tax-collector in the story, who are coming to grips with themselves. He is speaking to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” He holds up this model of humility as a contrary principle for the self-righteous – as an affront and a challenge to them. If I may paraphrase, taking the context into consideration, Jesus is saying, “You who are so afraid inside, you who in your deepest heart don’t yet believe that God has already redeemed you by Love, hear this. Even a tax-collector – whom you imagine to be unlovable and beyond God’s affection – is safe and beloved by God. Surely if such a one as that is accounted right with God, you ought to relax and stop your rather tedious, fear-driven self- justification.” Jesus wants the Pharisee to abandon his fear and to trust in the love of the God who wanders in the garden in the cool of the day and says, “Stop working so hard to earn your salvation. Come walk with me.” I add this important note about context because I think it is critical in our hearing about the tax-collector. If Jesus had been speaking to a room full of tax-collectors, and not to this room full of self-righteous Pharisees, he almost certainly would have said something different. To the unrepentant among them, he probably would have invited them to consider the effect of their career on their fellow human beings. To the repentant, he would probably have said, “Great, glad you get it. Now respond to the love of God in appropriate ways.” The danger for us is mistaking breast-beating and downcast eyes for righteousness. We do a bit of that during Lent, but Lent is a season of the soul. It is not the entire year. While breast- beating and “worm theology” – you know, “I am a worm, and no man” – may represent a powerful counterexample for the proud, it may represent something else entirely for the neurotically humble. God wants our love, not our groveling. And just as the Pharisee’s self-promotion may conceal a frightened soul, so may the self-abasement of the penitent conceal an attempt to con and manipulate God. Now, I’m not even remotely arguing against sincere regret for wrongs done; I am not arguing against sincere repentance, changing the direction in which one is looking for happiness. What I am arguing against is a very familiar somewhat morbid fascination we can have with our wretchedness. Such self-deprecation can be an excuse for inaction. A life stuck in repentance is probably no more justified than a life stuck in self-importance. Barbara Brown Taylor, who is still the greatest preacher I know anything about, says that our sometimes refusal to accept that fact that we are forgiven by God demonstrates that we are a whole lot more impressed with our sins than God is. The point being that God forgives. We get to move on. Just as the Pharisee needs to move beyond his inner fears of inadequacy, so the Tax-collector, and all of us who are like him, need to move beyond protestations of guilt. The wisdom which the Christian contemplative tradition is that God longs for our genuine, unfrightened, unashamed, unselfconscious companionship in the garden, or the workplace, or the school, or wherever we find ourselves. God longs to say to us, “Where are you? Oh, there you are. Come here and sit by me. There is so much I want to know about you. So much I long to tell you about me. But first let’s just sit here in silence for a while – and enjoy the cool evening breeze.” How can we respond to such generous love? First we can day by day learn more and more to trust in that love, and then we can strive to be generous ourselves.