The Preacher’s Study
First thoughts about next Sunday’s sermon
(23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 27, 2013)
I see Sunday’s gospel reading in Luke 18.9-14 as a continuation of Jesus’ parables of prayer, flowing from his response to the disciples’ request, “Lord, teach us to pray.” In “the Lord’s Prayer”, Jesus teaches his followers to pray to God by asking earnestly for daily bread, for the coming justice of God’s kingdom, for forgiveness, and for release from overwhelming suffering and grief.
In the chapters that follow, Jesus goes on to tell stories about asking for bread with the same persistence as one would wake a friend for a loaf of bread, about searching with the same relentlessness as a shepherd looking for a lost sheep, asking for justice with the same determination as a widow who is ready to poke a judge in the eye.
In today’s parable, Jesus is telling a story about debt. Two people are standing in the temple in the position of the Jewish daily prayer of praise and blessing and thanksgiving.
The tax collector stands at the back, weighed down with the debts he has placed on the backs of others. He appears to be a tax collector with heart, caught in his profession for reasons we don’t know, but aware of its burden on others and on himself, aware of the great chasm his tax collecting places between him and God.
The Pharisee is also weighed down – by the burden of debt he feels he owes to God, by the heaviness of his spiritual practice of tithing and fasting. We don’t know whether he is a Pharisee with heart or not. We know only that he is grateful for what he has escaped in life and for what he has achieved through his own strength of character.
Both will experience gratitude upon leaving. The Pharisee will leave grateful that life has sheltered him from resorting to theft, or adultery, or, God forbid, tax collecting, and that he has succeeded in his regime of self improvement – but with no experience of God’s generosity, or kindness, or unexpected hospitality. The publican will leave, “going down to his home” with the huge relief that comes with the cancellation of debt, with gratitude for God’s gracious act of forgiveness.
One prays from the outside, listing his actions and achievements, almost as a colleague or equal of God. The other prays from the inside, acknowledging the state of his being and the great distance it places him in relation to the Holy One. Grace is given to the one who was open to receiving what God longs to give freely – “justification”, or mercy in the form of restored relationship that wasn’t earned or deserved.
I would seek to connect the biblical theme of debt with our experience of it in today’s world – personal debt, global debt, ecological debt. How did we help to bring it about? How does it affect us? What do we do in our lives to alleviate the burden of imposing or incurring debt? Are we caught in professions that impose debts on others? Do we try to justify ourselves by our enlightened use of time or money, by our relief at being born on the right side of the tracks? Or do we stand side by side, sinners and saints alike, and ask God for help to get out of this mess?
Our baptism invites us into a community that shares a continuing journey of resistance to evil, repentance and starting over again. Through the breaking of bread and the prayers, we seek and find forgiveness, right relationship with God and one another, and new life. What difference does it make that we are baptized when we “go down to our homes”?
Maylanne Maybee, a member of APLM Council, is an Anglican deacon serving in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land. She is Principal of the Centre for Christian Studies, a national theological school based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, that prepares women and men for ministry in the diaconal tradition of the Anglican and United Churches
Picture at top of post: Sieger Koder, Trusting – the Closeness of God