October 27, 2013
In an old book titled Your God is Too Small, the Anglican priest J. B. Phillips attempts to expand our view of God.
In the introduction he writes:
Many men and women are living today (1952), often with inner dissatisfaction, without any faith in God at all. This is not because they are particularly wicked or selfish, or as the old-fashioned would say, “godless”, but because they have not found with their adult minds a God big enough to account for life, big enough to fit in with the new scientific age, big enough to command their highest admiration and respect, and consequently their willing cooperation.”
What we haven’t found is a God big enough to handle the mystery of who we sense ourselves to be as a human being.
In his parable today Jesus gives us a simple story that appears to be about two men, but which is really about the infinite God.
The first man, lest we totally misunderstand Jesus, is a good man.
This Pharisee is working hard to live a good life. The Pharisees were a Jewish renewal movement that sought to serve God through obedience to Torah in every aspect of their lives.
This Pharisee fasts twice a week: which means he takes seriously the words Jesus himself quotes from Deuteronomy: “Humans don’t live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” He fasts twice a week, not to lose weight but to turn his attention to God.
In the Book of Common Prayer there are only two fast days a year: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
The Pharisee also gives 10% of his income back to God for God’s work. In first century Palestine every Jewish town had a synagogue and each synagogue had what we would call a soup kitchen for those in immediate need and a money chest for those who fallen into deep poverty.
The fact that the Pharisee gives 10% of his income for this work reveals a generosity most never know. The frame around the picture of his life isn’t the frame of scarcity, but the frame of abundance.
This man could teach us a lot about how to live in peace with our possessions. If we had 50 more like him, willing to give back one dime for every dollar he earns, we could do more mission, more education, more healing, more of God’s work.
And we would each have a deeper sense of our connection to God through this practice of generosity and trust.
This man has so much right about his life.
Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount to let our light shine before others. The Pharisee is doing just that.
So before we go any further we must thank God for Pharisees who give generously, pray regularly, and live well as signs of their trust in God.
This Pharisee, by any standard, is a good man.
Furthermore, let’s be clear: the tax collector is not a good man. He is a Jewish turncoat who works for the occupying Roman Empire. His work is to fleece the people in order to feed the army and sustain the empire of Rome. In all probability he takes a cut for himself over and above his salary.
Just imagine we were living in Nazi occupied France during World War Two. This man would be taxing his neighbors to pay for Hitler’s dream of world conquest. This man would be no friend.
This tax collector, by any standard, is not a good man.
And yet: According to the story after only one prayer it is revealed that the good Pharisee has fallen out of sync with God, even though he feels great about himself.
After one prayer it is revealed that the bad tax collector has come into in sync with God, even though he feels terrible about himself.
The Pharisee has lost the plot of his life—which is to say he forgets he too is a sinner and therefore dependent on the mercy of God just like everyone else.
The tax collector finds the plot of his life as he remembers that he is a sinner who has forsaken God and neighbor, and therefore is in desperate need of mercy.
One heart-felt prayer puts him where he needs to be:
“God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
This is a true prayer that we never outgrow. We never move into a position in which we no longer need God. We become fully human only when we live day by day in dependence on God’s mercy and grace.
Jesus expresses this organically in John’s Gospel: “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches.”
The Pharisee in judging his neighbor has forgotten that he too is dependent on the vine of mercy.
And we too need to be careful: When you heard this story read how long did it take before you heard a little voice inside your head saying: “Thank God I am not like that hypocritical Pharisee”?
I fall into that trap every time I hear it! I think Jesus meant us to.
The moment that happens is the moment our inner Pharisee has entered through the back door of the soul and separated us from the mercy of God, not because God stops being merciful, but because we are no longer aware that we too need mercy.
“As Richard Rohr puts it, “We each need to stand under the mercy of God, the forgiveness of God, and the grace of God—to understand the very nature of reality. When we are too smug and content, then grace and mercy have no meaning—and God has no meaning. Forgiveness is not even desired. It has been said by others that religion is largely filled with people who are afraid of hell, and spirituality is for people who have gone through hell.”
The tax-collector has been through hell and he is finally ready to throw his life onto God.
“God have mercy on me a sinner!”
Jesus came to seek and save just such people, which is why he surrounds himself with them.
Why doesn’t he surround himself with Bible teachers, priests, and Pharisees who have given their life to God?
He says it is because he came into the world to seek and save the lost and I guess he really meant it.
We need to keep hearing these Jesus stories to remember who we really are—we are both Pharisee and tax-collector, good guy and bad, saint and sinner.
When we forget who we are, we fall into a hypocrisy in which our lives do not match our words.
Eugene Peterson says, “Hypocrisy…is the lazy replacement of a strenuous interior life with God with religious makeup and gossipy god-chatter….” Tell It Slant, p 140.
In my experience this kind of religious hypocrisy can only be seen in retrospect. In the middle of it I think things are going great because I’m working so hard doing religious things like going to church and being nice to people.
But when I finally end up in an empty and dry place I can look back and see how shallow my efforts really were. I was working plenty hard, yes; I was always busy doing good, but without the awareness of any need for the mercy, without any sense that I am dependent on God at all times and in all places.
It is so easy to trade dependence on God for dependence on myself.
Why would someone like us need the mercy of God?
Most churches I’ve known have been filled with God serving Pharisees, and I thank God for them.
But I also thank God for the tax-collectors sitting in the pew because they remind us that both these characters are living inside us, and not just around us. And this fact means I must constantly cry for God’s mercy since I will always remain a mystery to myself.
And how do I know if God is big enough to give ME mercy?
There is only one way I know: Pray from the heart “God, have mercy on me a sinner!”
And see what happens.