The Last Resort

SJF • Proper 25c • Tobias Haller BSG
O hope of Israel, its savior in time of trouble, why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveler turning aside for the night? You, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name; do not forsake us!

It is more than a little disconcerting that on the day we’re celebrating our dear friend and fellow parishioner Arthur Longsworth’s retirement, that the Scripture readings appointed for the day should be of such a gloomy character. But I think if we peer hard enough through the doom and gloom we will see that there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel — and it isn’t a train heading in our direction!

I’m sure all of us have seen movies or TV shows in which a person on trial is losing his case, and his attorney recommends that he “throw himself on the mercy of the court.” That is, to a very large extent, what we see in all of our Scripture readings today — what it means to make use of the last resort, appealing to the mercy of the court.

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The prophet Jeremiah has long been recognized as the old master of doom and gloom. And he had good reason for it. He saw the fall of Jerusalem — not only prophetically saw it coming but actually saw it happen; he saw his hopes shattered and his worst nightmares realized. Yet even then — even in the midst of the destruction of Jerusalem, he knew that he could turn to God and throw himself upon God’s mercy.

His lament took an interesting form, however: the form of an appeal, an appeal to God’s own nature. Jeremiah reminded God — as if God could forget — that God has promised salvation, and that God does not loathe Zion; that God would not spurn, would not forsake, would not break the covenant with the people, even though they had failed to live up to their part of the bargain. Jeremiah knew that if the people repented God would forgive; he knew that God’s heart would be moved by the confession and the penitence of the people, and that it is God’s nature to forgive.

This reminds me of a very powerful scene in a Yiddish film that was produced in Germany just before the Nazi assault on the Jews began in earnest. In its own way it was as prophetic as Jeremiah.

The film is set in the previous generation, in Eastern Europe in the era of Fiddler on the Roof, when and where the main enemies of the Jewish people were Russians and Poles, not the Nazis. In this very powerful scene, a village has been reduced to rubble by a marauding band of Cossacks. They’ve burned down the synagogue, raped the young women and killed most of the young men in the village. One old man is left sitting in the midst of the devastation. And like a modern Jeremiah, he raises his voice to God in a lament:

Why have you done this to your people, O God? Why have you allowed this to happen? Down through the ages, again and again we are persecuted and killed for your sake! I will not be silent; I will raise my voice and cry out to you, like a child who calls out to its mother. “Mama, Mama; it hurts!”

That old man and Jeremiah both knew that God would hear this lament — though the response might be delayed, God the just judge would hear this plea, and ultimately save and deliver his people. When all else fails, when other defenders are ready to give up, when human justice fails, the only plea that makes sense is to throw oneself upon the mercy of the court of last resort.

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When we turn to the reading from Second Timothy we do find ourselves in something that sounds a bit like a retirement speech, Mr. Longsworth! Saint Paul reminds his young protégé Timothy that he has fought the good fight and finished the race. But even here he acknowledges that this was not done under his own steam — he reminds Timothy that it was the Lord who stood by him and gave him strength, even when others abandoned him. For far be it from Saint Paul to justify himself by his own works! No, if his work has been of any worth at all, it is because God has stood by him as the source of his life and his strength. God rescued him from the lion’s mouth and from every evil attack of those who tried to bring him down.

This is an important reminder to all of us as we seek to serve God and the Church. We can easily come to think that our work is our own, and become prideful and overconfident in it, forgetting that it is God, and God alone, who inspires both the will and the deed. This was, we must remember, precisely what got ancient Israel into trouble in the first place — as the people wandered away from serving the Lord, running after other gods and serving them instead of the one true God who was the source of their life, their savior in time of trouble. They treated God like a stranger in the land, like a wanderer in the night — and in return God treated them to exile, far from their native land, in captivity in Babylon.

Paul reminds Timothy — and us — that whatever good we do in the name of God comes from God. We are, all of us, in the last resort a bit like the child who asks Mama for a dollar to go and buy her a birthday card! Of course, Mama still appreciates the card; but as with all we do for God, God is the source of all the good we do. In the last resort, we have no other help but God.

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Finally, our gospel reading brings us full circle to something that looks very much indeed like that courtroom scene, in which one of the defendants literally throws himself on the mercy of the court while the other tries to protest his innocence or at the very least do a plea bargain. The Pharisee in this case is like a child who has forgotten that the dollar with which he bought his mother’s birthday card came from his mother. He’s very proud indeed that he tithes his income — that is, he sets aside that 10 percent — but he forgets thateverything he has, 100 percent of it comes from God — so anything he gives back to God is just like that birthday card. God may be pleased, but it’s nothing for the Pharisee to be proud about.

On the other hand, we have the tax collector — a man who may also have paid his tithes, but who also knows how far short he falls from all that he knows God wants of him and for him. He doesn’t even look up to heaven when he makes his confession, but stands apart with a lowered gaze and a hand clutched close to his chest. And he pounds on his chest as if by doing so he could hammer away at the gnawing pain of guilt — and in this knowledge he asks for mercy and forgiveness. He throws himself, in the last resort, on the mercy of the court. And — as we can be sure in answer to Jesus’ question at the end — he rises up forgiven and restored.

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This is the perspective with which God presents us this day: not to place our reliance upon who we are or what good we have done; not to try to avoid our responsibility for the wrongs we have committed, quibbling about this or that, straining at gnats of what is is, or trying to be let off the hook; but when all is said and done and we have finished our course, to place ourselves under God’s merciful judgment, knowing that he is himself our last resort just as he has been with us every step of the way. God’s love and mercy will never fail.

God will accept us as we are when we come to him as we are — honestly acknowledging our weakness and our complete dependency upon the One who is our Judge, but who is also our only Mediator and Advocate, Jesus Christ our Lord. +