Proper 25c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
O Lord, have you completely rejected Judah? Does your heart loathe Zion? Why have you struck us down so that there is no healing for us?
Today we conclude our series of readings from the letters of Paul to Timothy. As we’ve seen over the last few weeks, Paul has been encouraging Timothy in the struggles that he faces with and among the congregation over whom he has charge. People have been caught up in controversies about the interpretation of Scripture, indulging in false teaching, and wandering away into myths. People have been casting doubt on Timothy’s authority, in part due to his relative youth, but also in rebellion against the very gospel message that he delivers. And at every stage at which people have sought to cut Timothy down, Paul has encouraged him to remain strong and to fight the good fight with all his might, to proclaim the gospel fearlessly, and in the knowledge that God’s power is with him.
Now Paul himself, it seems from the passage we read today, is about ready to retire from the combat. As he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Using once more the analogy of a footrace, he portrays Jesus as the scorekeeper and judge who will give him his crown at the end of the race — the race he has run so faithfully.
But not before Paul will have what the English call a bit of a good moan first — you know what that’s about! Sometimes you just feel better when you let it all out and complain for a bit — not to make a habit of it, but just to let off a little steam of frustration. Contrasting the heavenly grace he expects with the earthly problems he has encountered, all the things he has been running through, Paul complains that everyone has deserted him and no one has supported him — except the Lord himself. In fact, Paul is using how low he has been to show just how powerful God is — who can lift up one who has been abandoned and betrayed. The message Paul shares here with Timothy, based on his own experience, is, No matter how low you have fallen in your own confidence, no matter how much you have been cut down by adversaries or problems, God will raise you up.
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Today’s gospel presents us with a different kind of up and down — but ends with a similar message. Jesus portrays two people: a proud and self-righteous Pharisee and a humble and penitent tax collector. I almost picture them standing on a seesaw or teeter-totter: the Pharisee high and lifted up, and the tax collector down in the dumps. For it seems that the very reason for the Pharisee to be so high is because he is so pumped up and proud of himself, because he sees himself in relation to others, whom he regards as sinners worse than he. It is the weight of the sin of those on the other side of the scale that gives that Pharisee his boost, his exaltation, his pride. He has no consciousness of sin in himself, and he plays that off against those whom he regards as “obvious” sinners — thieves and adulterers — or even like this tax collector here.
But enough about him — as I can imagine he learned better when he finally did face the Almighty judge at the end. (And let’s hope he was ashamed of himself and at the last accepted God’s forgiveness!) I would rather focus on that tax collector down there.
Jesus portrays him as being low in comparison to the Pharisee being high. If you picture that seesaw I mentioned there is no doubt that the tax collector is on the heavy end of the scale. We do not know what his sins are — unlike the Pharisee who declares what his sins aren’t and catalogs a few of the things that he imagines make him virtuous, the tax collector does not enumerate his sins — he merely repents. He beats his breast in that ancient act that forces home to me that it is I who am at fault: (for when I beat my breast I am forcibly reminded of my own physical reality and presence! And maybe we all need a little of that spiritual CPR, now and again, to remind us of where we are, and help us rediscover the true meaning of our lives.)
Jesus promises that this man, this man on the low side of the scale, who has humbled himself will return home exalted and justified. And so the message here is that it is by lowering yourself that God will raise you up. As a proverb (3:34) quoted by both James (4:6) and Peter (1P 5:5) puts it, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Or, as someone with even greater authority, Mary the mother of Jesus, put it: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the humble and meek.”
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So the clear message appears to be consistent through all these readings: whether you have been brought low by others, have fallen low in your own estimation and disappointment, or humbled yourself in the knowledge of your sins — however you came to be low, or however low you came to be, God will raise you up. Let the teeter totter as it may, and swing us down even so low that we can feel the warmth of hell-fire toasting our feet — even then God can and will bring us up again, so long as we turn towards the one from whom our help and rescue comes. Even if we don’t look God’s way with our eyes — for recall that the penitent tax collector was so cast down he dare not even raise his eyes to heaven — even if we don’t look God’s way with our eyes, if that is towards God that our hearts are turned, God, who after all looks into our hearts and knows us better than we know ourselves, will also know that we have turned our hearts towards him, and God will raise us up from where we have been cast down, or fallen, or lowered ourselves.
God is not like that famous statue of Justice — the one who holds the scales but wears a blindfold, blind to the relative weight of sin or innocence, and simply allowing the scale to tip as it may. God is also not like the Egyptian god Thoth, who weighs the heart of the dead against the feather of innocence, and condemns all of those whose hearts tip the scale towards guilt.
No, my friends — and it is a good thing for us — God is neither blind like Justice nor a mere secretary like Thoth recording the result shown by the scale. No, my friends, the good news for us is that God tips the scales in our behalf, for the mercy of God is greater than the justice of God, and although God is just, the heart of God is love and mercy and forgiveness.
When God sees we are cast down by the assaults of others, God will raise us up. When God sees that we have abased ourselves in our own eyes, discouraged or despondent, God puts a powerful arm around us and raises us up. And when we are sunk low in the depths of the knowledge of our own faults and failings, God pushes that lightweight Pharisee from the other end of the seesaw and presses it down with a strong arm and a mighty hand — and O my friends, are we in for a ride!+