(A Sunday School Lesson from St. John the Divine, Houston Texas, 15 August 2010–the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin)
Luke 18: 1-14 (ESV) The Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge, and The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’4 For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” 9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
This summer during my travels I stumbled across an inscription that C. S. Lewis once wrote in a copy of The Great Divorce. In the front pages, Lewis inscribed the following quote: “There are three images in my mind which I must continually forsake and replace by better ones: the false image of God, the false image of my neighbours, and the false image of myself.” Let me boldly suggest that these two parables before us offer nothing so much as a cure for an idolatry that runs rampant in our day. In our church. In, quite likely, that seat in which you are beginning to squirm. Yep—I just called us all idol-worshipers. Yes, I shall excuse you to go to lunch now—you may not like what you are about to hear.
These then are the Two Great Corrective Parables, which teach us two VITALLY important lessons: 1) how to live out the Two Great Commandments (to love God and to love our neighbors) and 2) how to correct or cast down our false images, the idols we make out of our image of God, our image of ourselves, and our image of our neighbor. Let me offer you a way in by asking one question: How do you see God?
This first parable helps us correct our false image of God. How do you see him? I sometimes think and act as if He is cruel that he will not graciously give me all good things. That the things that sometimes happen to me He intends for anything but my good. But that must be a lie–EVERYTHING in my life must be a tool in God’s own hand that he uses masterfully to craft that good thing only He can see and make in me. Does that sound glib? Does that fly in the face of the incredible difficulties you may face, of which I surely can know nothing? Of course it does. But swallow hard and accept it anyway. If I read the scriptures correctly, God tells us to give thanks in all circumstances, to apply the shield of faith in all circumstances (and surely the two are related, if not actually the same thing?). Let me dispel some lingering lies that may be lurking in your heart. God is not cruel. God is not deaf to your cries. He hears you and hastens to answer, and the only thing that stays His hand from giving him what you ask for is that He knows that sometimes what we ask for is nowhere near what we need. The Scriptures promise the He will graciously give us all good things. How do you see God?
If you have all that you could want and more—or even if you have enough, remember that these are gifts…they do not have a PRICE tag, as we’ll soon see, but they do have a NAME tag, just like a Christmas present. Would you think me rude and meddling if I reminded you that most of you can see and hear? And that we should thank God for all good things? You often hear the phrase or, I dare say, feel the sentiment “Why are bad things happening to good people” which often means “Why don’t better things happen to ME?” Let me challenge you to ask this question: “why do good things happen to any of us?” Like LUNCH. Like air conditioning, like telephones, like laughter, like silence, like prayer—no mats nor minarets, but the name of our God given to us and the challenge to come boldly before him ever ringing in our ears.
For we have no unjust Judge. We have a Judge who declares us guilty and then sends his Son to torturous death to atone for our crimes, who opens the door and sets us free. So I ask you again—how do you see God? Do you realize that it’s His kindness that leads to repentance? What false image do you need to let go?
And let’s put to rest once and for all the foolish, ignorant, even hateful notion that there’s ANY difference between the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and to God of the New Testament. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that if you want to understand the loving-kindness, the gentleness and solicitousness, of God, you should FLY to the Psalms—for there in the Hebrew scriptures you’ll find God’s long-suffering tenderness to us, and Him rejoicing over us with singing and carving our names on His palms of His hands. Give me that God, please! Here’s just one example of what I’m talking about, from Psalm 103:
8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
13 As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
14 For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.
God as he reveals himself in the Hebrew scripture looks little like that Unjust Judge of the parable. But I fear that our idolatrous icon of Him does. In His hands are all good things, and He delights to give them to His children. He has not treated us according to our sings, but according to His great mercy.
You can by now surely see as we move from the parable of the Just Judge (!) to the tax-collector and the Pharisee that I’m going to keep messing with you with one more question: How do you see your neighbor?
Do you compare yourself to others? Or let me put it this way: why do you compare yourself to others (cause we all do it!)? Jesus said “the least of these.” Jesus said to take compassion on those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison, homeless. Mother Teresa (how I’m growing to love her) says, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” Do you see yourself in your neighbor? Do you see the face of Christ, someone God loves as much as he loves you? Ahh—there’s the rub, isn’t it? How easy it is for me to think myself even a very little bit better, more gifted, more in favor. And pride creeps in and carries me away, and I’m a thousand miles out of earshot of the voice of God, calling me to love my neighbor. And make no mistake—groveling about how awful and terrible I am is simply a twisted form of pride: “God declared me important enough to die for, but He MUST be mistaken—I’m a worm!” Baloney. Loving our neighbor, really (if not THINKING good of them) DOING good for them forces our false image, our idol, of our neighbor to to crumble.
And of course you see me rounding for home, for to do any of these things, I need to forsake and replace my false image of myself. Sinful? Certainly. Blessed and gifted? No question. Of infinite importance? It must be true if the Cross means ANYTHING at all. But important only in the exact proportion to how I surrender myself and collapse on Christ. In HIM (and only in Him) we live and move and have our being. Hallelujah, we are ourselves, and mercy prevails through my foolishness and frailty. How do you see yourself? Remember that appalling verse—His power is made perfect in our WEAKNESS. Remember the parable—whoever exalts himself will be humbled—but DON’T forget the corollary—whoever humbles himself will be exalted. At first, I only humble myself for the sake of future glory—but that’s good enough for God to get started. Soon he will make me gloriously myself, and wholly dependent on Him, and devoted to showing the kindness of God to all of my neighbors.
Now. One more question. TODAY, at work, at school, in an airplane, wherever—how will you forsake your false images? Let this question ring in your ears throughout your week—how will you then live if all these things are true—what will YOU do differently tomorrow if you see God, your neighbor, and yourself more correctly? Go—GO in peace to love and serve the Lord.