Friday, October 25, 2013

Where is God? (Oct 27 2013)

Homily:  Yr C Proper 30, Oct 27 2013, St. Albans
Readings:  Joel 2.23-32; Ps 65; 2 Tim 4.6-8,16-18; Luke 18.9-14

Where is God?

Two men who went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  They went to where God was, to the holy place on the top of the mountain.  At the centre of the temple was the place called the holy of holies, which was filled with the presence of God.  If you were a holy man, a righteous man, you were allowed to come near to that central place where God was.  The Pharisee was a holy man, because he kept the law that God had given the people.  Not only did he keep the law, but he did more than was required.  The law said that he had to fast on the Sabbath day, but he fasted twice a week throughout the year.  The law said that he had to give a tenth portion of certain possessions like wine and grain, but he gave a tenth of all his income.  Surely this was a man who was entitled to come near God.  And so he did come near, moving into the centre of the temple courtyard and standing in a place of prominence where everyone could see and hear him.

But the second man, the tax collector, didn’t follow the Pharisee to the centre of the courtyard.  He stopped and stood far off.  His head was bowed, his eyes were on the ground.  His hunched shoulders and rounded back told of the immense shame that he bore like a lead cloak thrown over his body.  His tear-filled eyes couldn’t see the Pharisee, though he may have heard the words of contempt that drifted down towards him.  But he didn’t need to hear them.  He knew what he was.  He was a tax collector, a collaborator with the hated Roman authorities who extorted money from his own people to finance their oppression.  It was only the protection of the Roman soldier posted at the temple door that made it safe for him to stand among his own people.  He was despised, and he despised himself.  He was an outcast, unfit to stand in the presence of God, and so he stood far off with his eyes cast down.

And there was nothing that the tax collector could do to change his situation.  He was stuck.  To stop collecting taxes meant that he would continue to be just as despised, still regarded with contempt, but without any income to feed his family and without any Roman soldiers to protect him from rocks and abuse.  There was no witness protection program for a tax collector that wanted a new start.  He would always be a tax collector, even if he stopped collecting taxes.  His shame had already permanently stained his family – his children would likely end up as tax collectors too, marginalized and outcast.  The Jewish law required him to repay those he had defrauded but that was impossible – overcollecting to feed his family, fraud in the eyes of the Jewish law, was his sole source of income.  He was stuck in a hopeless situation with no way out and no one to turn to.  Even if he wanted to there was nothing he could do to make things right.  He was the scum of the earth and he knew it as he pounded his breast.  His mumbled prayer was “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

The crowd of righteous people who listened to the outsider from Galilee telling the story nodded apprehensively.  They knew that it was only right that the tax collector should feel such shame.  Of course the Pharisee was nearer to God than the sinner.  But where was Jesus going with all this? 

Then in a few words, Jesus turned the world of his listeners upside down.  “I tell you,” Jesus said, “it was the tax collector who went home justified, not the Pharisee.  It wasn’t the one who kept the law that was in right relationship with God, but rather the sinner who begged for mercy, for compassion.  Don’t look for God in the temple, in the holy of holies, but rather if you want to find God, look for him with the poor and the marginalized, the outcast and the sinners.  That is where you will find God.”

With those few words, Jesus reversed the conventional wisdom:  the one who is near God turns out to be far, and the one who is far is near to God.  Where is God?  God is with the person who is standing far off, the one regarded with contempt, head hanging down, eyes on the ground, shamed and marginalized.  In the world of Palestine two thousand years ago, God was to be found with the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and the lepers, those who were pushed to the margins of Jewish society.  Where is God to be found in Ottawa this morning?  If we take Jesus parable seriously, God is to be found with those that we have pushed to the margins, those who live with shame, those who live without hope.  In shelters.  In prisons.  With addicts.  With those who suffer from mental illness.  With the elderly in chronic care facilities. 

Blessed are you, tax collector, when people hate you and when they exclude you, revile you and defame you.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy.  But woe to you, Pharisee, when all speak well of you.   For all who exalt themselves will be humbled but all who humble themselves will be exalted.

It may go against the conventional wisdom, it may not even make sense, but this is the fundamental message that we get in the gospel of Luke.  Jesus came to seek out those who are lost and to show them compassion and mercy.  That is the message we get in Jesus’ teaching, it is the message we get in the parables, but above all it is the message we get in Jesus life, a life which culminates in crucifixion and resurrection.

And make no mistake, with the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Luke is deliberately pointing us forward to Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Today’s parable is addressed to those who regard others with contempt.  The word used for contempt shows up in only one other place in the gospel of Luke, and that is at the trial of Jesus before Herod, the trial that led to Jesus condemnation, humiliation and death on a cross.  Within a few short weeks of challenging the status quo with the parable we heard today, it is Jesus himself who is shunned, humiliated, regarded with contempt and executed as an outcast outside the city walls.  Death however is not the end of the story, and on the third day he who was humbled on the cross is exalted in the resurrection.  

For those of us that know the shame and despair of the tax collector, the message of today’s gospel is that God is with us, suffering with us in the depths of our humiliation.  He knows what it is to be held in contempt, he’s been there.  God is merciful and compassionate and longs to be with you.  Even though that may be hard to believe in the face of life’s challenges, Jesus wanted so much for us to experience God’s mercy that he died a criminal’s death in order to convince us that God is merciful and that even death can be transformed into life.

For those of us who identify with the Pharisee in today’s story, the good news is that God doesn’t regard us with contempt, and that he still reaches out to us even when we turn away and trust in ourselves, like the father in the story of the prodigal son, who pleads with the elder son to come to the banquet.  The Pharisee too is stuck, stuck in a pattern of self-reliance and in a bad habit of comforting himself by judging others.  But for those of us who get stuck like that, those of us who have knowledge, wealth, power or social position, there are two paths laid before us.  The first is the path of contempt, the path we choose each time we look on someone else with judgment or indifference.  The path of contempt leads away from God.  The second path is the path of compassion, the path that Jesus took when he voluntarily humbled himself in solidarity with the sinner and the outcast, a path that eventually led to his own death at the hands of others.  Humility for Jesus was not just a mental attitude; it was a lived social reality.  We are called to encounter God not at the centre of the temple, but at the margins of our society.  Look for the one that is hunched over, eyes to the ground, beating her breast.  Look closely, for that’s where you’ll find God.


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