... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Pentecost 23 Year C
Message October 27, 2013

Products of Faith III: A Corrective

Text: Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

The theme of faith continues again this week, but with a twist. While Thanksgiving, patience persistence and prayer are to be seen as outward forms or products of faith, these are not the be all and end all of the matter. Far from it! All four lessons today point us beyond the outward behavioural signs to contemplate the origins and intentions of these characteristics.

Notwithstanding Jesus’ words of absolution to the Samaritan leper, “Get up and go your faith has saved you”, the Old Testament lessons declare salvation is first and foremost a gift from God. Joel has often been seen as a book of lamentation bemoaning the plight of Israel in the face of natural disasters. These disasters are seen as a punishment of the people by God. Yet in today’s reading Joel offers up a hope – a hope for good harvests and prosperity and a time when those of faith will be saved. Within the text we again see the admonition to have patience and to persist. But the twist is that people are to see in their plight God’s presence in the ordinary. Within the ordinary people are being encouraged to see how God provides elements of strength to enable those of faith not just to handle the bad things but to surmount them with dignity hope and assurance. Victor Frankel noted this among the Jewish people during the holocaust. Those who were able to pick up on the good in spite of the horrors, those who held to faith and were able to place all things within the scope of a higher mind-set were more at peace, more serene and more able to handle the atrocities.

If the book of Joel reading is an inspiration to hope and persistence, the Psalm for today is a resounding note of praise and thanksgiving. And like the first reading this one places that initiative of praise squarely on God’s gift of grace and mercy. The people are seen not to have delivered themselves out of danger nor to have had the strength to overcome their own plight. The deliverance was solely from God’s mighty deeds. The witness to this is not just in the present prosperity of the people but in the elements of nature, for it is God and by God’s hand that the earth is in balance – the seasons in their courses, the harvests and the plantings in due time.

Despite what at first glance appears to be a self-appreciation of piety on Paul’s part, the note of encouragement to Timothy is in reality an acknowledgement of God’s deliverance of him through the life of Christ Jesus. His salvation is in and by the Lord, not self, and so he not only preaches a hope but an assurance of his eternal future. What we need to remember in this letter especially in light of Jesus’ parable concerning the Pharisee in the Temple at prayer, is that Paul unlike the Pharisee is in prison and knows that his own death is imminent. Keeping a true faith and a faith that is true will ultimately lead to vindication and salvation by God.

Just such a stance seems to be what Jesus was highlighting by today’s parable. Following immediately upon the parable of the unjust judge and the widow, Jesus’ present parable is a corrective to false prayer and false piety – or outward signs of faith. And yet this corrective goes beyond just piety to encompass a much longer sphere of human behaviour and interpersonal dynamics.

We hear the parable and we immediately side with or identify with the tax collector. We instinctively know where Jesus is going with this story and so choose the tax collector over the Pharisee. Yet which of us has not felt self-satisfied or better-off or self-justified at some time in our lives? Which of us has not had some element of ‘better-than-thou’ when fasting during Lent or going to church on a Sunday as a “non-Christian” heads out for a round of golf? Who has not criticized another for going to church and confession and then heading to the local pub for a pint and a few juicy bits of gossip? Who has never felt smug or self-satisfied about one’s station in life? Thank you Lord that I am not like those others – slaves, homeless, or whatever frailty you wish to insert!

This parable is a real eye-opener when it comes to real versus false piety and sign of faith. To understand and better appreciate this we do need to know something of the reality of the two characters in the parable. What we need to know is that the Pharisees had come into being precisely to be examples of righteous people – adherent to the laws and the covenant. They were not faithless nor were they scoundrels. By and large those of this Pharisaic class were much like us – trying to live a godly and law abiding life. Sure, some may have been fanatics but for the most part they were trying to make observance of Torah available to all. The tax collector generally was a scoundrel – the shady used car dealer of the day. He ran a business franchised to the Roman Empire to collect taxes. The method for this was that there was a contract with the Empire for certain monies. How those monies were obtained was up to the franchised tax collector. If that collector gathered twice as much monies – whatever was above the contracted amount was his. Most tax collectors were fairly wealthy but lived on the fringes of the religiously clean community.

And so Jesus juxtaposes these two characters. Both go to the temple to pray and here the paradoxes begin. The Pharisee stands aloof and prays. One translation (RSV) states, ‘this he prayed within himself’ suggesting a narcissistic soliloquy. His prayer which on the surface appears to be a prayer of thanksgiving is in fact a prayer of self-gratification and self-appreciation. He goes through a litany of all his good attributes and good deeds. He is in effect trying to buy favour with God, by comparing himself to the other people – he is not a thief, a rogue an adulterer or even a tax collector. In fact he is so much better, fasting twice a week and giving a tenth of all his income.”

Contrasting this then is the tax collector who, in a position of prostration (perhaps kneeling in Anglican circles) humbly and sincerely implores, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Unlike the Pharisee, he is aware of the gulf which stands between himself and God and he abjectly pleads for mercy.

The two prayers by their contrasts point out the corrective Jesus wishes his listeners to learn. Prayer – true prayer – is one of humility and contriteness, not of arrogance and self-satisfaction. It is also effective only when linked to an ethic of faithfulness. That ethic of faithfulness states that prayer is concerned primarily with God and the relationship between the creature and Creator. It is not about self nor about the elements of the day but rather about a focus on God and a patience or strength that God can provide. The ethics of that state, that what is asked or given in prayer is carried out in everyday life. Thus the tax collector went down to his house justified by God. What is presumed by the parable is that in being justified he received mercy. However to be effectual that mercy must issue in a right behaviour – as we saw with the Samaritan leper or the persistent widow. Right prayer results in a right behaviour wherein God is truly glorified not just by the words of prayer but by the deeds of the one who prays.

The one essential prerequisite for praying is that it be an honest recognition of our place before the justice and mercy of God. May we always be so aware and be able to live in and by faith praying humbly and sincerely in all matters.