Solidarity in the Margins

Sermon on Luke 18:9-14

Psalm 65:4-5 4 Happy are they whom you choose and draw to your courts to dwell there! They will be satisfied by the beauty of your house, by the holiness of your temple. Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness, O God of our salvation, O Hope of all the ends of the earth and of the seas that are far away.

Introduction

Have you every felt unworthy? Like, you weren’t good enough? As if other people, or the space, or the thing carried a demand for purity that you didn’t have? Like, maybe you should hang back, keep your distance, and look on from afar? Afraid? Scared that if someone saw you—really saw you—you’d be thrown out, rejected, ostracized, because you didn’t belong in that space, or with that group of people, or with that thing?

Caught in the muck and mire of feelings of being outcast and unacceptable, we hope Maybe one day I’ll be worthy, if I can just… (fill in the blank). Maybe we’ll be worthy when we finally achieve that certain level of perfection we’re sold on—some mythical conception of human existence that doesn’t actually exist. We’ve become convinced by brilliant marketing campaigns dependent on our desire for inclusion that there’s such a thing as “normal” and “regular” and that, somehow, we just don’t measure up. And we really want to measure up, to fit in, to be “normal” and “regular”, to be chosen and selected. But maybe I’m too fractured and broken to fit in…At times we find ourselves desperate to feel good about ourselves, so we elevate ourselves above others hoping that identification with the culture of the dominant group will put our fears at rest…at least I’m not that person over there…

Sadly, this always bleeds into our relationship with God. Does God really love me just because? Does God really need me? Want me? Choose me? It doesn’t help when the church and its leaders are also dead-set on the mythical notions of “normal” and “regular” peddled as “God’s will”. Bombarded on all sides, our doubt moves us farther and farther back. God is too much for us. So, we grow more and more afraid to come close, to be human—really human—in the presence of God, afraid to pray because we’re not good enough and don’t have the right words, afraid to approach because we’re impure, afraid to touch because our touch is unclean and cursed. So, we stand farther and farther and farther back…

Luke 18:9-14

And now Jesus told this parable to certain ones who have had confidence in being just in the eyes of God on the basis of themselves and despising the rest… “…Now the tax collector having stood from afar not even willing to lift up [his] eyes to the heavens, but he was striking his breast, saying, ‘God, please show favor to me, a sinner.’ Truly I say to you, this man went down into his home having been justified…because all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and the one who humbles themselves will be exalted.” [1]

Luke 18:9, 13-14

Getting started, Luke tells us to whom Jesus addresses this parable: And now Jesus told this parable to certain ones who have had confidence in being just in the eyes of God on the basis of themselves and despising the rest… The parable features two men: one a tax collector and the other a Pharisee. Jesus tells the story featuring the Pharisee first: he goes in, stands by himself to maintain ritual purity, and prays. What follows is a litany of ways he is righteous: he is not like those sinners—the unjust extortioners, the adulterers, and this tax-collector—and performs his ritualistic duties—fasts on the sabbath and pays his tithe on all he has and gets. Next up, the tax-collector. The tax-collector stands far off refusing to lift up his eyes to heaven. All he can do is remorsefully beat his chest and plead for divine mercy because he is a sinner. Jesus wraps up the parable with a quick and short (and familiar): Truly I say to you, this man went down into his home having been justified more than that one, because all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and the one who humbles themselves will be exalted.

It’s tempting to look at this short and clear parable and deduce the motto: don’t be like those bad Pharisees! Ironically, as soon as we do that we become the self-exalted one in the story.[2] It’s not about the Pharisee being bad. They aren’t “bad”, their the most religious of all the children of Israel; they loved God and God’s law, wished to be obedient to it, to study it, discuss it, and teach it.[3] It’s about Jesus up-righting upside-down systems, even religious ones.

Thus the parable is not a warning against being a hypocrite, but an exhortation to be as those who do not elevate themselves over others. It’s about those who stand far off because they know who they are—sinners, people who miss the mark, fail, stumble, tumble, and get back up. When the people expected those who are technically perfect[4] and can stand on their own to be declared righteous;[5] Jesus says the righteous are those who can’t stand on their own, who aren’t perfect and know it.[6] It is not about thinking oneself better than the rest because of your deeds, your status, your birth, your dogmas and doctrines; it’s about realizing exactly who you are.[7]

Even when you find yourself casting your eyes downward, standing far off for fear of being unable to fit in, for fear of not being accepted as you are, for fear of making others impure because of your impurity, you may find yourself a humble creature square in the presence of a Creator who adores you[8] and receiving the fullness of divine love, favor, and mercy.[9]

Conclusion

The parable is a paradox. The farther you back away, stand from a distance, the more you find yourself in God, accepted, loved, adored, cherished, as you are. That’s the reversal. It’s not those who are holy, pure, perfect, obedient, abiding the law at every turn who are closest to God, it’s actually the ones who are aware of how far they miss the mark who throw themselves on God’s mercy and lean into God’s love. It’s the tax collectors and sinners with whom Jesus dwells, it’s those who know God because they know themselves.[10]

The thing is, knowing who you are—faults and all, shame and all, vulnerability and all, weakness and all—the more you know who God is: the one who stands in solidarity with the outcasts, with you. God in Christ chooses, desires, and identifies with the outcasts, (literally!) those on the fringe, those on the margins, those who just don’t measure up and fit in. You are never too far away to be square in the middle of God.

I’ll close with a story from my favorite childhood novel, Black Beauty:[11]

“No doubt a horse fair is a very amusing place to those who have nothing to lose; at any rate, there is plenty to see.

“There was a great deal of bargaining; of running up and beating down, and if a horse may speak his mind so far as he understands, I should say, there were more lies told, and more trickery at that horse fair, than a clever man could give an account of. I was put with two or three other strong, useful-looking horses, and a good many people came to look at us. The gentlemen always turned from me when they saw my broken knees, though the man who had me swore it was only a slip in the stall.

“There was one man, I thought, if he would buy me, I should be happy. He was not a gentleman, nor yet one of the loud flashy sort that called themselves so. He was rather a small man, but well made and quick in all his motions. I knew in a moment by the way he handled me, that he was used to horses; he spoke gently, and his gray eye had a kindly, cheery look in it. It may seem strange to say—but it is true all the same—that the clean fresh smell there was about him made me take to him; no smell of old beer and tobacco, which I hated, but a fresh smell as if he had come out of a hayloft. He offered twenty-three pounds for me; but that was refused, and he walked away. I looked after him, but he was gone, and a very hard-looking, loud-voiced man came; I was dreadfully afraid he’d have me; but he walked off. One or two more came who did not mean business. Then the hard-faced man came back again and offered twenty-three pounds. A very close bargain was being driven; for my salesman began to think he should not get all he asked, and must come down; but just then the gray-eyed man came back again. I could not help reaching out my head towards him. He stroked my face kindly.

“‘Well, old chap,’ he said, ‘I think we should suit each other. I’ll give twenty-four him.’

“‘Say twenty-five and you shall have him.’

“‘Twenty-four ten,’ said my friend, in a very decided tone, ‘and not another sixpence—yes or no?’

“‘Done,’ said the salesman, ‘and you may depend upon it there’s a monstrous deal of quality in that horse, and if you want him for cab work, he’s a bargain.’

“The money was paid on the spot, and my new master took my halter, and led me out of the fair to an inn, where he had a saddle and bridle ready. He gave me a good feed of oats, and stood by whilst I ate it, talking to himself, and talking to me. Half-an-hour after, we were on our way to London, through pleasant lanes and country roads, until we came into the great London thoroughfare, on which we traveled steadily, till in the twilight, we reached the great City. The gas lamps were already lighted; there were streets to the right, and streets to the left, and streets crossing each other for mile upon mile. I thought we should never come to the end of them. At last, in passing through one, we came to a long cab stand, when my rider led out in a cheery voice, ‘Good night, Governor!’

“‘Halloo!’ cried a voice, ‘have you got a good one?’

“‘I think so,’ replied my owner.

“‘I wish you luck with him.’

“‘Thank ye, Governor,’ and he rode on. We soon turned up one of the side streets, and about half way up that, we turned into a very narrow street, with rather poor-looking houses on one side, and what seemed to be coach-houses and stables on the other.

“My owner pulled up at one of the houses and whistled. The door flew open, and a young woman, followed by a little girl and boy, ran out. There was a very lively greeting as my rider dismounted.

“‘Now then, Harry, my boy, open the gates, and mother will bring us the lantern.’

“The next minute they were all standing round me in a small stable yard.

“‘Is he gentle, father?’

“‘Yes, Dolly, as gentle as your own kitten; come and pat him.’

“At once the little hand was patting all over my shoulder without fear. How good it felt!

“‘Let me get him a bran mash while you rub him down,’ said the mother.

“‘Do, Poly, it’s just what he wants, and I know you’re got a beautiful mash ready for me.’

“‘Sausage dumpling and apple turnover,’ shouted the boy, which set them all laughing. I was led into a comfortable clean-smelling stall with plenty of dry straw, and after a capital supper, I lay down, thinking I was going to be happy.”


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 645. “Insofar as Luke’s audience will identify themselves with one or the other of these characters, then, Luke has structured this account so as to render the choices starkly and to ensure that the toll collector will be viewed, however paradoxically, as the positive model.”

[3] Gonzalez, Luke, 212. “…in fact the Pharisees were among the most religious—sincerely religious—people in Israel. Their desire to be obedient to the law led them to study it assiduously, and to discuss how it ought to be interpreted and obeyed in all circumstances of life. Thus the parable is not about hypocrisy and sincerity but rather about the great reversal that is so clear throughout the Gospel of Luke.” and the reversal is religious!

[4] Green, Luke, 647. “Jesus’ portrayal of this Pharisee operates at two levels. On the one hand, he is engaged in and admits to behavior characteristic of Pharisees: praying, fasting, and tithing (5:33; 11:42). In and of themselves, these are admirable practices for which scriptural warrant is easily found….”

[5] Green, Luke, 646. “First, having become convinced of their own righteousness, they have come to depend on themselves. They are self-possessed, able, at least in their own minds, to live Honorably before God quite apart from divine mercy. On the other hand, they disdain others, their concerns with holiness manifested in the exclusion of others from their circles.”

[6] Gonzalez, Luke, 212-213. “Both the Pharisee and the tax collector stand, one ‘by himself’ and the other ‘far off,’ One stands by himself so as not to be contaminated by others less pure than he. The other stands far off because he does not consider himself worthy. Yet, the one who stands far off is in fact nearer to God.”

[7] Green, Luke, 649. “Within his social world, the toll collector is a person of low status, a deviant; he has no place among the others, nor does he attempt to seize a place by asserting his honor. Averting his eyes, beating his breasts-these are demonstrations of humility and shame that are consistent with his request for divine favor.”

[8] Green, Luke, 649. “…One claims superior status for himself by comparing himself with and separating himself from others; the other makes no claims to status at all, but acknowledges his position as a sinner who can take refuge only in the beneficence of God. Convinced of his righteousness, dependent on his own acts of piety, one asks for and receives nothing from God. The other comes to God in humility and receives that for which he asks, compassion and restoration. Like other ‘sinners’ in the Third Gospel, he finds himself included among God’s people…”

[9]  Green, Luke, 643. “The basic issue is this: Who recognizes God as the gracious benefactor? Who are those who not only come to God openhandedly in trust and expectation, but also behave accordingly, with graciousness, toward others.”

[10] Gonzalez, Luke, 213. “All that the Pharisee says he does he should be doing; and all he says he is not, he should not be…Jesus is not saying that people should not do what the Pharisee does (fasting and tithing) nor that they should become collaborators with the powerful and the ungodly, as tax collectors were. He is saying that, when the Pharisee uses his piety and religious practices to consider himself better than the tax collector, he will not be justified; and that even a tax collector who acknowledges his sin and his shortcomings will be justified. The reversal is that the one who brings piety, purity, and obedience, and who trusts in all these, is farther away from God than the one who simply brings misery, weakness, and dependence.”

[11] Anna Sewell Black Beauty New York, NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1950. Original Publication: UK: Jarrold & Sons, 1877. pp.180-185.

The Silence of God, God of the Void: A Reflection for Holy Saturday

Silence is disturbing. Personally, I’d rather know bad news than sit with myself in the midst of silence of reply. I’d rather a verbal explosion go off, leaving word shrapnel strewn about; that’s something I can tangibly make sense of, examine, create order with. Give me baskets piled high of “what-you-actually-think”, and no matter how much pain I may have, at least I have something to work with and to fight with. The whole idea that “no news is good news” escapes me; I find no comfort in having nothing with which to do battle against. I can’t kick against silence; there’s nothing to fight in the void.

God gifted me with the ability to be a very good and efficient problem solver. A MBTI INTP, I live to order chaos, to make precise connections over vast intellectual distances, to build and construct and expand and to push and to see just how far this *thing* can go (be it object, idea, or my own person). Thus I would naturally expect that God would meet me as I am: give me riddles to solve, puzzles to put together, ask me to follow along a trail of thoughts dropped by God’s divine hand so that when I arrive at the end I can, as if by intellectual paint-by-number, assemble these thoughts to get the full picture I’ve been desiring.

But rarely is this so. Rarely?…Better yet: never. That I expect God to meet me in such a way is my own demand on God, it is my own form I’m forcing God into. I forget that God self-discloses God’s self. The reality is that my encounter with God in the event of faith is often in the midst of total silence, where I feel as if I am suspended and hovering above a void and an abyss that it is threatening to take me into it. Where my repeated whispers of “Why?” are pulled from me only to float off into the distance and seemingly evaporate like a lone cloud does as it floats over the dry Colorado desert. Where my “Where were you when…?” stack up and collect dust and become brittle, like old books long forgotten. Where the word “hope” has no value and where doubts of God seem to ontologically define my spirituality and my personhood.

I’m not alone in this particular encounter with God in the event of faith. According to one scholar, Elie Wiesel has a similar conceptualizing of God,

“For Elie Wiesel the struggle of the survivor is not merely an inquiry with the mind while knowing in the heart but a shattering of that knowledge, that trust in God. Wiesel’s God is not a God who gave man freedom in history but rather a God who promised deliverance and remained silent in the hour of Israel’s greatest need, a God who made it impossible to believe in the promise of future deliverance. Wiesel’s theodicy is a theodicy of the void. His God is a God of silence. Wiesel’s struggle is to live in the face of the void.”[1]

Everything that has been held dear is shattered and rent asunder. Like Wiesel, everything I’ve put my “hope” in is and has been demythologized. The stories become like playground taunts to my pain and suffering, to my deep abiding questions. The God I’ve historically worshipped is, in the silence and in the face of the void, demythologized; and I come face to face with God’s Thou-objectivity as it is and not as I assume it to be. I’m exposed as the one who has worshipped the stories and not the one to whom the stories point: God. Thus, I am demythologized.

Recently I was reminded of a concept Luther articulates early in his lectures on Galatians and one that I use frequently with my students when explaining the journey of faith. Faith is a journey into darkness[2] not up and into the light but down and into the darkness, being lead by the hand and not by our own sight. Luther writes,

“Here let reason be far away, that enemy of faith, which in the temptations of sin and death, relies not on the righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness, of which it is completely ignorant, but on its own righteousness or, at most, on the righteousness of the Law. As soon as reason and the Law are joined, faith immediately loses its virginity. For nothing is more hostile to faith than the Law and reason; nor can these two enemies be overcome without great effort and work, and you must overcome them if you are to be saved. Therefore when your conscience is terrified by the Law and is wrestling with the judgment of God, do not consult either reason or the Law, but rely only on grace and the Word of comfort. Here take your stand as though you had never heard of the Law. Ascend into the darkness, where neither the Law nor reason shines, but only the dimness of faith (1 Cor. 13:12), which assures us that we are saved by Christ alone, without any Law. Thus the Gospel leads us above and beyond the light of the Law and reason into the darkness of faith, where the Law and reason have no business.[3]

In the event of faith, we are ushered out of the light and into the darkness; we are completely undone unto death of the self that was. Where faith is undone unto it’s own death. Where our self-created depictions of God are undone unto their death. Where we are thoroughly and completely brought to nothing in the divine silence and in the void.

“Therefore we are nothing, even with all our great gifts, unless God is present. When He deserts us and leaves us to our own resources, our wisdom and knowledge are nothing. Unless He sustains us continually, the highest learning and even theology are useless… Therefore let no one boast or glory in his own righteousness, wisdom, and other gifts; but let him humble himself and pray with the apostles (Luke 17:5): ‘Lord, increase our faith!’”[4]

In the silence, stalwart faith turns to haunting doubt; hopeful stories are exposed as hopeless myths; reason is exposed as enemy; and I am left naked and exposed and in what feels like certain death. I let go of the things I’ve had a death grip on and give in to the pull of the void. Arms clinging to unsubstantial things go limp and unfurl to the left and right; head drops back and eyes close waiting to be sucked in and all the way down into nothing, in to the void.

But in this silence, in this seemingly deathly void, there is life. The “I am who and what I am” is. I am in God’s intimate embrace, locked deeply in the divine kiss summoning me from death–resurrection from the dead–and as I wake and the divine kiss pulls back, one word, “hope”, remains, trailing on my lips.

We rush from Good Friday to Easter Sunday clinging to the stories therein as if these were our only hope. We skip over Saturday because it has no story to offer us, no story for us to anchor our faith in, no words that we can cling to when we face doubt and despair. We skip over Saturday because silence is disturbing and the void feels most threatening. But maybe, maybe it’s the silence of Saturday that is the most divine because we are brought deep into the darkness, into the silence, into the void and asked to die to everything we’ve held on to for life.

To have faith in God’s activity in the world depicted in the stories handed down to us makes sense but is not the substance of faith but of the rational. Rather, to have faith in the wake of the cessation of divine activity, when words aren’t spoken and heard, where there’s nothing to cling to but God’s ambiguous and alarming “I am” is the substance of faith. To have faith today, when it doesn’t make sense because all seems lost and gone, is the substance of faith. And this is the substance and demand of the silence and void of Holy Saturday.

 

 

[1] M. Barenbaum “Elie Wiesel: God, the Holocaust, and the Children of Israel”. See also, Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God and his reference to Elie Wiesel’s Night, pp. 273-4.

[2] Dr. David W. Congdon mentions this concept of Luther’s (via Rudolf Bultmann) on this episode of Whit Hodge Podcasts: https://soundcloud.com/whitehodgepodcasts/s2-e1-everyone-be-saved-dr-david-congdon

[3] Martin Luther Lectures on Galatians: Chapters 1-4 LW vol. 26. Pp. 113-4. Emphasis, mine.

[4] Ibid, 114.