Sometimes I think God does just about everything in spite of us. We see that dynamic in the Gospel today, as a tax collector is made right with God, in spite of his sins. And as a Pharisee’s prayer goes unheard, in spite of all the evidence he marshals to prove his own piety.
The tax collector is someone who profits at the expense of his own people, supporting the oppression of an occupying army. He’s out of line in the morality department; but when he comes to God he speaks from the heart. He presumes nothing and simply offers up his awe and his honesty. The Pharisee, on the other hand, has traditional moral habits: doing what is expected of him, observing Sabbath and fast days, giving away in his full 10% tithe. Great! But despite all that, his heart is cold. We see that in spite of observing the law, the Pharisee isn't coming to God with sincerity. And in spite of breaking the law, the tax collector is.
Now, before I get them painted too black and white in our minds, let me point out that neither of these people is a caricature. Jesus is smarter than that, and it would be too easy for us. Parables are meant to challenge us, to put us on the hook to figure out how they apply. And we would really be off the hook if this parable were only a story about two stereotypes, two people none of us would ever imitate. That way we could look down on both of them. We’d probably go Jesus’ punch line one better and end up praying, “I thank you God, that I am not like either this good-hearted loveable rogue of a tax collector or like this tight-lipped self-righteous Pharisee, but instead I am an ordinary person who’s just doing the best I can.”
But that's what both of them are too. In fact, all you ever meet in the Bible are ordinary people who’re just doing the best they can, supported by the grace of God. The women and men of Scripture are human beings like you and me, who find their reasons, and make their compromises, and get along through the ups and downs of real life. So we can’t push away this parable by saying it’s about especially good or especially bad people.
In fact, Scripture usually hasn’t got much to say about people in our goodness or badness at all. Taken as a whole, it has a much more subtle view of human nature than that. When you look at the world through the lens of the Bible, you just don’t see a Good group over there and a Bad group over here. In fact, most of the time the Biblical lens directs your attention away from that kind of stereotype and simply asks you to look at God and his mercy. Scripture cares most about passing on the story of what God has done for us ordinary people in spite of it all.
I mean, look at history. Ask yourself how our spiritual ancestors acted in the Bible. They multiplied rules about not working on the Sabbath, while at the same time trying to shorten the holiday because the time off was hurting their bottom line. They hedged their bets by sacrificing to any local idol the pre-existing tribes would slip them the name of, while at the same time boasting that they were immune from disaster because they had built a pretty box where the only true God lived. They scrupulously followed regulations about leavening their bread, but had trouble getting around to sharing any of it with the poor.
And yet how did God respond, in the long run? He chose to dwell among them, to make them his own beloved people, in spite of it all. Yes, there were consequences to their mistakes (we heard some examples in today’s reading from Jeremiah), but God never turned aside from them. In spite of it all, he gave them alone of all the peoples of the earth his Word. He engraved their names on the palm of his hand and counted every tear they wept. From them he brought forth a Savior, in spite of it all.
So we Christians today, are we any better? Don't we do the same things? There are probably a million or so of us all over the world who are right this minute passive-aggressively resisting some call from God. We talk love and act apathy. We talk inclusion, but mostly just include people who are politically and economically similar to us. Compared to what we carefully set aside for our own comfort and leisure activities, for most of us our gifts of money and time to the Kingdom look paltry. Many of us worship idols, usually not by singing or praying to them, but by the much more powerful adoration of quietly living the way they tell us instead of the way Jesus does.
That’s about all we have to say for ourselves, this motley crew of ordinary people. But what does God do about it? He gives his only Son to win us to him, and fills us with his Spirit the minute we ask. He gives us holy places and holy moments, in spite of it all, and surrounds us with the beauty of creation and the wonder of love.
He comes among us every Sunday to feed and heal us in bread and wine. In spite of it all, he weaves our lives into a tapestry of memory, as we’re bound together by the baptisms, the meals, the funerals, the caring notes of support, the inconveniences, and the running jokes that make up parish life. God keeps on providing us the solace and strength we need, even when half the time we hardly even bother to gather it up and take it with us as we go. He never stops loving us, in spite of it all.
And whenever it is that we really hear that news, it changes how we think about things. It changes our response to God and to his church, and it certainly changes the way we give.
I’ve told before here the story of how I finally started giving to the church in my mid-20s, having until then withheld from God the whole area of how I spent money almost completely. It was true that no priest had ever had the courage to tell me that Christians are supposed to tithe, and hearing that and seeing the Biblical and psychological and theological support for it made a huge difference. But basically my motivation for suddenly making a pledge of 10% of my income having never pledged before in my life was that I had finally heard the news that fall that Jesus was real and the Holy Spirit was up to things in our world. I couldn’t say thank you enough, and I wanted nothing more than to be part of what God was doing.
And as we’re focusing this month on generosity, I can't help remembering that that is the way I’ve seen it work over and over again. In my 8 ½ years at Emmanuel, yes, but in every other parish I’ve ever been part of too. People who encounter God want to do something about it. Somehow a desire to respond is poured into their hearts by the Holy Spirit. They see and feel that with God there is more than enough, in spite of it all, and they want to say thank you.
People who were hiding in the back pews, wary of committing time and resources, wanting to leave the work to “them” (whoever they are) -- people like that hear the Lord say “I love you,” and the next thing you know they’re greeters and choir members and tithers and going to diocesan Synod.
And if you read through the whole New Testament on the subject of giving, you see over and over again the assumption that the only reason Christians would give their resources away is out of that kind of response. Because we want to. Because we’re overflowing with gratitude for what God has done.
That's what stewardship is meant to be. So I pray that when you make your pledge to Emmanuel for 2023, you won’t be left feeling either like a stereotypical Pharisee congratulating himself on keeping the tithing rule, or like a stereotypical tax collector feeling guilty about not doing enough. None of us is a stereotype. All we are is ordinary people, making our compromises, getting along through the ups and downs of real life -- but, by the mercy of the Lord, ordinary people who keep getting offered an extraordinary chance – a chance to throw caution to the wind and give God back one tiny fraction of the amount he has given us -- in spite of it all.