Monday, October 28, 2013

When Mercy's Shapes Are Unexpected

Two men go up to pray. One thanks God he is not the other man. The other man beats his breast and asks for the mercy of God. 

That’s the set up, and it’s familiar. Who needs a preacher? You know this story. Every time I come across this portion of Luke’s gospel, I imagine these two pray-ers as having stood there, statue-like, in the temple, since the last time the story came up, perpetually doomed to pray as examples of how and how not to pray. “Oh yeah,” I think to myself, “Those guys...still at it.” 

We know we are not supposed to be the Pharisee; that we are not to celebrate our righteousness over against that of others. Yet, we also know that identifying with the tax collector is probably an exaggeration, though one befitting the humility to which the parable calls us. After all, the tax collector was an honest-to-goodness bad guy. Most of us do not honestly think of ourselves as bad guys or gals, which is probably why we settle on the moral injunction to be humble. But the original tax collector was not humble; he was honest.

Trying to make oneself “more humble”, of course, has its challenges, namely, it can quickly become an exercise in the self-righteousness of the Pharisee. So, while seemingly straightforward, this parable can be awkwardly uncomfortable.

To make matters worse, this parable, told in the thick of what is stewardship season in most churches, says the Pharisee we are not supposed to be like was a tither - that he gave more than 10% of all he had to the church. Don’t be like him? Oops.

But this is where the Pharisee becomes interesting to me.

The Pharisee fasts and tithes, practices he cites as examples of his faithfulness. Strangely, it does not occur to the Pharisee that fasting and tithing might be medicines for his sickness; in his own mind, they are proof of his being well. 

I say “strangely,” because being generous did not lead me to give; but giving, mostly with the steadfast encouragement of my wife, lead me slowly, over time, to become generous. In a real sense, the practice of tithing has been for me the mercy the second man asks of God.

Scripture invites us to imagine practices like tithing and fasting as the mercy of God when, elsewhere, we are promised in Scripture that the Spirit will give us words before others, when we need them, at just the right moment, and that the Spirit will pray in our brokenness, will pray in our stead, when our own prayer life has failed. It makes sense that God would surround us also with practices - rhythms, habits toward virtue - as gifts in exactly our places of weakness. 

But the Pharisee does not regard his good deeds as medicine for an ailing soul. He is not looking for practices that would shape his heart more nearly to the heart of God; is not looking for the help from outside that would unlock his love beyond his present imagination for love. Instead, he is looking to stack a resume with which to impress the Almighty. And so he’s content not to be “that guy.”

I remember a conversation I had with a friend who freely confessed he didn’t want a god of unconditional love. He wanted a god who loved him conditionally, for himself, in all his goodness. He wanted to be God’s favorite, he explained, and he wanted to deserve it. 

My friend’s desire to deserve whatever love he got from God may sound absurd, but think back to the myriad ways you were taught to seek the affirmation of others growing up, and how success in this or that thing was connected to self-worth: winning the approval and affections of parents and grandparents, the first chair in the orchestra, grades. Think back to those times you were told that everyone was good at something and that your life’s meaning lay in discovering that something and doing it better than anyone. 

For my friend, it challenged everything he had been taught about life, work, and what made a person of value, to be confronted with a God whose love came without condition and so could not be controlled. 

So Augustine can say, “You are my Lord, because you have no need of my goodness.”

But if goodness is not the currency with which we buy the favor of God, what, in the end, is goodness good for? What does it change if those practices we once thought of as our good works for God are really God’s merciful gifts to us - if things like tithing and fasting really are medicines for our souls? 

I suspect that most of us have been so trained to conceive of our acts of piety as disciplines of duty - merit-earning or not - that we do not know what would be involved in receiving these things again, as gifts - as practices - for our flourishing. Or when was the last time you thanked God for the privilege of almsgiving? Indeed, such a perspective would require that we not take for granted something so simple and commonplace as the gift and opportunity of weekly worship. 

In such a view, we would find permission to take as much time as is needed to name and cherish - in simplicity and joy - the good things, each week, around which God gathers us in this place: 

Bread and wine. This weekly meal. The real presence of Jesus, by the work of the Holy Spirit. The gifts of God for the people of God. Anglican priest and theologian Sam Wells writes that the Eucharist is a gift that “trains Christians to see need as God sees it. The congregation gets used to what God provides, and comes over time to need what God faithfully gives, and to shape all wants and desires around this perception of this definitive ordering of needs. And in the paradigm of eating together, the Eucharist offers a goal for all (of our) work - a goal of plenty, harmony, and of relationship with God and one another” (Wells 2006, p199).

The Eucharist offers a goal of plenty, harmony, and of relationship with God and one another. There’s the rub for the Pharisee. And it’s here, in this meal. The goal of relationship with God and one another is why we can never be content not to be “that guy.” Because holiness that widens the gap with our sister or brother is not holiness of the kind to which Jesus invites us. 

So the Pharisee in Jesus’ story, finally, finds himself in a double-bind: both claiming as his own what was meant to be God’s gift of love to him, and subsequently neglecting to offer those gifts in the service of love, for his neighbor. Even the neighbor he is glad not to be.

And every follower of the self-emptying Jesus of Nazareth eventually finds herself or himself confronted by the rhythm and practice of gifts received and given away, in the service of love, for her neighbor. Even the neighbor she is glad not to be. 



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