By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
November 10, 2019
Luke 20:27–38 (ESV)
27 There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, 28 and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. 30 And the second 31 and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. 32 Afterward the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.” 34 And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, 35 but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, 36 for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. 37 But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”
What are the most important things in your life? Have you ever really thought about this? Yesterday after watching a YouTube video during one of my breaks at work, that question really came to mind. And that question really comes to mind when I consider this passage of scripture.
The things that are important to us are the things we talk about. You do not have to be in conversation with someone for very long before you get a glimpse into the most important things to them. There are very few people within my circle of acquaintances that have not mentioned one of their children, within minutes of the beginning of our conversation, unless they do not have children. For others I will hear about the Chiefs at least once within a conversation, usually it is the first thing mentioned. Many will talk about their career and others will talk about their hobbies. I have heard about restaurants, movies, games, comic books, TV series, pets, politics, pretty much anything you can think of they have entered a conversation. These are things that we are passionate about, and we love to talk about them. We devote time to these things. We will even devote hours within our weeks researching and learning more about the things we are passionate about.
I watched a YouTube video yesterday and I heard a guy talk about his church in the same way that I hear Kansas City Chiefs fans talk about the game. This guy was passionate about his faith, he was excited and the most interesting thing about it was he was not a pastor of a mega church with an awesome worship band and stage lights. He was a pastor of a Lutheran Church just outside of St. Louis. It floored me, to hear someone talk about theology and Church with the enthusiasm of a football fan. But this man loved his church, he lived church, to him everything was about church. At one point the guy that was talking to this man made a reference to a Marvel movie and the pastor did not even know what he was talking about because to him a movie had no significance. You might think this guy was out of touch, but to be honest in course of that thirty-minute video I almost wanted to go talk to him myself.
We talk about the things that are most important to us. If it is something that you find important in your life you cannot keep yourself from talking about it. That man could not hold a conversation about a popular movie but could speak for hours about gospel. And in that hour, he never once cast judgement on anyone, he did not condemn anyone, he did not even come across as offensive, because he spoke with genuine passion, and that passion was infectious.
Today we find Jesus speaking to people within one of the Jewish religious orders of the first century, the Sadducees. We hear of three distinctive religious orders within the Gospel. The Pharisees are the ones we are most common, next would be the Sadducees, and the Herodians. There was at least one more group that was not mentioned directly in the Gospel, the Essenes. Within these groups there are rabbis and scribes that teach and interpret scripture. But of all those groups we know the least about the second most mentioned group within, the Sadducees. I find this very interesting, especially since the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls has given us more knowledge of the group not even directly mentioned in scripture.
The Sadducees were a significant group within the Jewish community, but they were different than the Pharisees. Often people try to explain the differences between the two groups by comparing them to the two major political parties in the United States, but this is really a very poor comparison, because the only religious group that really made a significant political stance one way or the other were the Herodians, because their name pretty much says it all they wanted to restore the Herodian rule over the nation, because Herod married into the family that gave Israel freedom from Greek influence, and they saw that family as being the legitimate heir to the kingdom.
From what we do know the Pharisees were the religious leaders among the common people, and the Sadducees were often seen as the leaders within upper classes. Even that fails to some degree, but the Sadducees were more focused on the temple and the priests, and the Pharisees were more evangelical taking the teaching out instead of bringing the people in. Since the Sadducees were more connected with the temple than the pharisees, most of the information that we probably could have learned from them was probably destroyed with the temple. But we do know some about them, like this passage says they do not believe in the resurrection. From what we do know about the Sadducees we have an understanding that they only regarded the books of Moses as being scripture, so they did not accept the teaching of the Prophets as having any real value. Since they were more focused on the priestly class of people, they were also considered more aligned to Rome than the Pharisees.
These Sadducees came to Jesus and they asked him a question. I find the question very odd because they ask a question about something that they really do not believe. And that is the first thing that I contemplated as I interacted with the passage. They give this long-winded account about a man that gets married and he dies, and the widow and married by one of the brothers. There were seven brothers in total and each of them married the widow and then died without having a child. After they gave this account, they then ask to which brother is this woman a wife of in the resurrection since she had been the wife of all the brothers.
They do not believe in the resurrection, so why do the care about the opinion of Jesus in this regard? This then made we wonder what they thought about marriage. The parable that they use to ask their question revolves around the teachings of the books of Moses. In the law if a woman was a childless widow, it was the responsibility of the next oldest brother to take the woman into his home as a wife and the children born to this union would be considered the children of the woman’s first husband. And because the children would be considered the older brothers’ children they were legally entitled to the inheritance before their biological father.
There are many interpretations as to why this was part of the law within the teachings of Moses. And often we read our own cultural understanding into the passage. If we were to really take this law at face value, there is not an exception to the law, the next brother will marry the woman and if he does not the family name will be regarded poorly. These brothers would marry the woman even if they already had a wife, because it was their responsibility to care and protect their brother’s name. Yes, that is correct this law supported the practice of polygamy.
It is important to know that the Sadducees approached marriage in this manner. In their view of the law, it dealt mainly with the land promised to the descendants of Israel. There view of a life beyond was not through resurrection but the unbroken transfer of land to each successive generation. We might find this a bit odd in our cultural understanding, but if we are honest it is still very much a part of who we are. Who will inherit our property when we move from life to death? Is your will in order?
Family and marriage were very important to these people. You might even say that they were focused on the family. They devoted their lives to passing their inheritance on to the next generation and preserving the family name. When we look at this passage through those eyes their question does not really seem as odd. It just does not sound very religious because their faith is attached to the world.
The next aspect of the story that I stopped at was the number of brothers, seven. Seven is a significant number in the ancient world. Even today we have seven days to the week and we often connect that understanding to the creation story. But I found it interesting as I read about seven this week, that that number was not only significant to the Jewish people, but to most ancient cultures, and was significant for the similar reasons.
Across the nation, many families that have children are working their way through piles of candy, because we celebrated Halloween. There are many interpretations of this holiday. And if you were to visit our Facebook page you would notice that within the Christian community there are different understandings of that day. It is a day filled with pagan superstition. Many want to condemn the holiday because of these pagan roots. That is fine if that is what you want to do, but my one statement to that is if you condemn that day you should condemn every day, and you should also condemn the calendar as well as the Sabbath day. Because in every ancient culture they tracked time using the same thing, the moon. We have seven days in the week because we have seven days with each phase of the moon. The complete lunar cycle determined the months.
Every ancient culture could see the moon and used the lunar cycle to mark time. The cycles of the moon can tell us when the seasons will change, and they assist us in remembering special dates. Even the church uses the moon to determine the date of Easter, which is Sunday after the first full moon after the March ecclesiastical Equinox, which the church says is March 21. This means if the full moon happens on a Thursday March 21 then Easter would the next Sunday March 24th. If the full moon in March happened on the 20th then the next full moon would be in April. So, the date of Easter can be anywhere from March 22 to April 25th. You might ask why we use the equinox to determine holy day for the church, and the reason is because that is what the Hebrew people used to determine their Feast days.
All this goes back to seven. Seven days in each phase of the moon, seven days of the week, seven days of creation, the seventh day is a day devoted to God. Seven represents completion. But what does seven have to do with the story? Probably nothing. But since these are religious leaders and seven is significant to them, they chose the number seven because it was in their mind.
Which brings us to the most important aspect of the story. These seven brothers all die and so does the wife, which of the brothers can claim her as wife in the resurrection? Jesus’s response is that none of them will be married to her, because no one is married in the resurrection. Usually I do not focus on this unless I am speaking out against religious groups that claim eternal marriage. I tend to not focus on it because I love marriage. It is one of the most meaningful aspects of our religious and human experience. If something is so significant in our lives how can it not be important in the life after death?
Marriage is at best a testimony or a sign of the ultimate relationship. It represents honor and loyalty, persistence and grace. It is important because it should show us an aspect of our relationship with God. In marriage life extends. Your life extends to include a spouse and that united life extend to others, even the creation of new life. Marriage is a shadow or a symbol of something even greater. We often celebrate marriage and it is good to do so, but do we not see that marriage is also a sign of sin? In marriage ceremonies we often hear of Adam and Eve being joined by God, and God commands them to be fruitful and multiply. But marriage entered human existence because Adam began to turn from God. Poor Eve gets blamed for the first sin, but Adam was turning from God before even was pulled from his side. Adam desired more, Adam thought that he was alone. Marriage is a sign that we are not alone, but the intimacy it points to is the grace of God.
Marriage is important to the world because it ensures the continuation of life in a devoted unit of care. It should be enjoyed and cherished, but marriage will not save us. Marriages will end, then what? This is what Jesus focuses on. Once our lives cease, we have no control. All we leave behind will go to others and they will do whatever they see fit. The family farm that great grandparents sacrificed and devoted their lives to obtain, can be sold by the next generation and the heritage is no more. The company you build, once you are gone is no longer yours and it may not even resemble what it once was, because your children may not have the same passion you had in building it. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection so all they had to hope in was their children learning their ways and passing them on to the next generation. But we all know that all we build can become dust.
Jesus then says, ” But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”
What is most important to us? What gets us excited? What drives our passions? Are they things of the world or are they the things of God? I love my family, I love my heritage, I love my country, and I love my community. But all those things are in the world. They are great and wonderful things yes, but they are dust just as I am, just one breath from extinction. But what if my passion is God? There is no past tense with God. At the time this verbal exchange occurred the bones of Abraham had been lost to time yet to this day we God is the present tense God of Abraham. With God there is life, because God is creator of life. With God we have life and hope, no death because death is the wage of sin. We have life if we believe that God so loved the world that he gave his only son not to condemn the world but to save it through his life, death, and resurrection. And we have life if we turn from the things of this world and focus on Him. What is your passion? What gives you life?
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
November 3, 2019
Luke 19:1–10 (ESV)
1 He entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. 5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. 7 And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 8 And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
The story of Zacchaeus has been one of my favorites from a very early age. As a child, I remember our pastor calling the kids up to the front so we could all sing, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man a wee little man was he.” There is something about those early years in a little country church that continue to keep me going. In that little church we did so much, it was not about making the services more relevant or attracting the attention of the community, but they encouraged each of us to learn about God in a fun way. We sang old hymns, and a few choruses, we did Christmas plays, we participated in Easter sunrise plays, and we learned. I fell in love with Jesus in a little country church. Each person in that church encouraged me. My great uncle spoke out of silence every Sunday morning, like clockwork. And every Sunday he said, “I thank the Lord for what he has done for me.” It used to annoy me, until one day I bought a game that depicted World War II, and he looked at the map and pointed out the places he was and what he did in those areas. He told me that he thanked God every day for keeping him alive when so many did not make it home. When my great uncle passed away, I missed hearing him say, “I thank the Lord for what he has done for me.” And sometimes I find myself thinking those words and voicing them in my head at the time he would have said them.
A few weeks ago, at the funeral service of my Aunt Belita, we shared our several memories. My aunt played the organ for our church. I loved listening to her play, and I loved singing the hymns with people that loved to sing them. My aunt was one of those people that got excited about things. She got a camcorder once and decided that the best thing to do was to make a movie about the birth of Christ. So, for several weeks all the kids in our church would run around the church yard acting like shepherds, angels, and a bunch of wise guys. The movie itself was terrible, but I remember the excitement of my aunt as she inspired us to try something different.
And then there was Edith our pastor for several years. Edith inspired me to love the Friends Church. She was a saint because she would keep all us kids after worship, and she taught us about the history and the practices of Friends. And she encouraged us each to participate even more. To make it even better Edith would play the accordion at times. We laughed at her for that at the time, but oddly enough when I hear the accordion, I am again transported back to a little church out in the country.
I think we forget a great deal about what church really is at times. We go around trying to make it into something, we work hard to do what other people are doing, but we forget what is important. We are a community of friends. Each person in a church can inspire and encourage those around them. It is interesting to me that a little story about a little man can cause memories to flow. But I think that is part of the beauty of this story.
Zacchaeus is a government official that lived in the city of Jericho. He is not only an official stationed in this city to collect taxes, he is a chief tax collector, meaning that he is the manager over the other tax collectors. I often wonder if he might have been Matthew’s boss as I think about this story, it is not something that is important, but it is one of those things that goes through my head. As I studied this week, I wondered why a chief tax collector would be in Jericho and not Jerusalem. I found that some people would say that tax collector was not the best description of the job this man, but toll collector might have been the more accurate description. They say this because Jericho would have been one of the first cities caravans would have pass through as they made their way across the Jordan into Israel, before you made your way into Jerusalem. Since this was one of the first places you would come to as you made your way to Jerusalem it makes sense that they would collect the tolls there so that as traffic increase closer to the city the tax collection would not be causing greater trouble. And Jericho is also an important community in trade as well. Several times as I read about Jericho and Zacchaeus’s job the production of Balsam was mentioned. Balsam is a plant from which a resin is extracted that can be mixed with olive oil that can be used to make medicines and perfumes. As the use of essential oils becomes more common in our society, we can understand how this might have been an important crop to the Hebrew people. It is said that it was used in many medicines and balms and is really where the term balm comes from. Zacchaeus might have been a toll collector, but he might have also been the governmental overseer of the production of medicinal herbs as well.
We are not told what exactly he did for the government, but we know that he was not well liked in the Jewish community. As Jesus was passing through this town, Zacchaeus hear about it, but he, being a small individual, could not get into a position to see Jesus. So, we are told that he ran around the crowd, he made his way up ahead of the multitude and he found a tree to climb up.
This story has many descriptions that catch the attention of those that read it. Rarely do we know the size of any of the characters within the gospel, yet we know that Zacchaeus was small in stature. I find that very interesting. The size of this man was something important to the people. We often hear derogatory statements about those of small size, things like small man syndrome, or a Napoleon complex. The Napoleon complex one does not really make much sense because Napoleon was not actually that small, but for some reason history has made him the patron of people of small stature trying to do big things. Zacchaeus was a small man, but very important to the government, and he obviously worked his way up to be the most important official in the area. Because of his position and the way this story plays, I would venture to say that his size was probably a topic of discussion and disdain to this community. It was probably the punch line of jeers and jokes, and Zacchaeus probably faced his fair share of abuse because of this. Even two thousand years later we sing songs about his small stature.
This man faced ridicule from the community for his size, and for his profession. He was different from the others and his difference annoyed people. When the crowds gathered, he was there, and people knew he was there, they watched as he ran. We know they watched because we know that he ran. For an adult man to run was socially unacceptable in this culture, it lacks dignity and was unprofessional. Yet, here Zacchaeus a chief tax collector of this city was running to get ahead of the multitude. To make matters even worse, he still could not see, so he climbed up a tree, which again is something men did not do.
This story is filled with humor, not politically correct humor, but humor all the same. Zacchaeus is climbing up the tree, but not just any tree, a sycamore tree. Even the variety of tree is mentioned in the story. But I do need to mention that the sycamore tree in Israel is not the same that we see here. Our tree was called a sycamore, because the leaf was similarly shaped to the one Zacchaeus climbed. And that is about extent of the similarities. The tree in this story is a sycamore fig tree, or the poor man’s fig tree. It is a fig tree, but the fruit it produces is not commercial grade, it is smaller, and poorer quality. It is a tree that is basically wild, and anyone can come and get the fruit from it.
The image of a government official running and climbing a sycamore tree is filled with symbolism. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, and he made a fool of himself to do it. He, being small, could not participate so he ran around the crowd, and he, being rich, climbed the poor man’s tree. You can almost hear the people laughing at him as they approach the tree. You can almost hear the people make derogatory comments each step of the way.
There is always more to the story than meets the eye. Zacchaeus means clean or innocent. It was a strong name during this era, because it was a name of one of the officers of Judas Maccabees and the name of a famous rabbi. It is a name that was given to patriots and the faithful, so a tax collector by this name is offensive. Tax collectors were often regarded as thieves and unclean. They were sinners in the eyes of the religious. This man represented everything wrong in the world, according to the religious elite. Yet Jesus comes to the tree Zacchaeus has climbed and he looks up and calls directly to him. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”
Imagine the scandal. This little man with a big title, this tax collector, this chief tax collector is being addressed by Jesus. There is grumbling among the crowd, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” Imagine yourself in the story, consider the perspective of the crowd and that of Zacchaeus. Imagine living your life constantly being belittled for your features and your job, never being accepted and facing constant rejection everywhere you turn. Your one desire at that moment is to simply get one glimpse at this famous teacher but being reduced to running and climbing a tree just to do that. Then in a moment you are seen and called to. You are sought instead of avoided. And in that moment of joy you hear grumbling.
Have you ever been there? Have you ever felt as if nothing in your life seems to go as you expected, and then in one moment you get a glimpse of joy only to have those around you grumble, attempting to take the joy from you?
There is much that this story can teach us. One of the greatest things our faith tradition promotes is the concept of “that of God in all people.” This simple phrase should remind us that everyone around us is created in the image of God, and because they bear that image they should be treated with a certain amount of respect. This manner of thinking leads into our testimony of equality. If all people bear the image of God, then all people are equal in the eyes of God, all are loved, and all should have the same opportunity. That is one of those things my pastor, Edith, taught me as a child. I never realized that there were faith traditions that did not view equality in this way until I was older. I had no problem with a female pastor, and I never considered it odd. But then I got older and heard grumblings. I loved the church, yet I listened to grumblings around me causing me to question and some of those grumblings even said I was wrong. How could a woman teach men they said, yet I learned to love God’s church through the teaching of a woman. I found joy in the very place they said I could not.
Those grumblings try to limit God. The grumblings are humanity’s attempt to control what God can and cannot do. Those grumblings often divide and exclude, they accept and reject, and ration the grace of God. Those grumblings say that some people are and are not acceptable. They say some people have value and others do not. Those grumblings deny God’s love.
Zacchaeus listened to the grumblings, and he looked at the face of Jesus. He heard the people all around him call him a sinner, and Jesus looked him straight in the eye and said, “I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus listened to the crowd as they cried out that he was a sinner, and he looked back at Jesus and he speaks. “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
We do not often see beneath the surface of this statement. Most translations give the impression that this is something that Zacchaeus will do in the future, but the English standard version and some of the newer translations indicate that the verbs used are present tense and not future tense. Meaning that it is something Zacchaeus is already doing. He already gives half of his goods to the poor and he already restores any injustice. We often see this as a sign of Zacchaeus’ repentance, but it could actually be Zacchaeus telling Jesus, they call me a sinner but what they are judging me for has no basis in reality that is not who I am. Zacchaeus in that statement is crying out to Jesus to accept him to love him not for the man others see, but for who he really is.
Who is Zacchaeus really? He is a man that would run and climb a tree just to see Jesus. He is a man that would take the teacher to his house even if it would cause people to grumble. He is a man willing to live the life he is in, to the glory of God.
I grew up in a little country church. While I attended that church, I saw the same faces for over eighteen years. I heard the same testimonies and sang old songs. I am a pastor today because some of those people did something that amazed me. They told me what God had done for them. They got excited about how they could use a new camcorder to encourage people to remember the gospel story. They encouraged me to sing and to read in front of them. They saw me sin, and they did not grumble but instead they shared their stories again. They saw me fail and they did not let me identify as that failure but accepted me as a child of God.
That little church showed the love of God, but they were not the only one. This little church was just as instrumental in my journey of faith. Both saw beyond the surface and encouraged something greater. Both did not care what others would say but promoted what God could do. We only have this one little story about the man named Zacchaeus in scripture, but tradition says that this wee little man would go on to be bigger. Some historians have said that Zacchaeus became the Bishop of Caesarea appointed by Peter. Some even say that he was Matthias the apostle the disciples chose to replace Judas. All we know is he wanted to see Jesus, and Jesus sought him too. And from this wee little man we can learn that we only see part of the story playing out in the lives of those around us. Even though we only see part there is much more than we know. Listen and encourage, give space to learn more, and share our lives with others. Because we might not realize that sinner, we see today might become a champion of faith tomorrow, if we were to show them how to love God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and to live the love of Christ with others.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 27, 2019
Luke 18:9–14 (ESV)
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This parable is one that I often find myself getting caught up in. There are days where I identify with one character or another. This is one of the reasons I often encourage us to use our imagination when we read scripture. It allows our spirit to more fully engage with the Word.
Last Wednesday during our mid-week service we had a discussion revolving around one of the queries found within our faith and practice. We often have one of these discussions when one series ends so we can start fresh with the next study. I love these discussions because the queries become a tool to assist us in examining our spiritual lives. This week we discussed the first query from our faith and practice. That query states:
Do you earnestly seek to maintain a life in fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ? Do you practice the daily reading of the Scriptures in your families, giving time for waiting upon the Lord? Are you watchful not to be unduly absorbed by temporal affairs? Are you careful to avoid all places and amusements inconsistent with a Christian character?
At times we do not always know what to do with the queries. Frequently, we look at these questions and make attempts to answer yes or no. Do we look beyond the surface? We could say yes or no, but what if we were to ask how?
We have two characters in this parable, a pharisee and a tax collector. When Jesus uses these two individuals in a parable, he is asking us a query of sorts. The parable is told to cause us to question ourselves.
It is at times difficult to understand where and to whom Jesus is speaking when we are reading through the gospel accounts. When looking at the context of this passage we would find that shortly before last week’s passage, Jesus was speaking to a group of Pharisees. During that encounter with the religious leaders, Jesus was asked when the Kingdom of God would come. This question is one that is often asked even today.
For two thousand years, the followers of Christ have been anxiously anticipating the coming kingdom. Those of the first century had a similar anticipation. For thousands of years the religious leaders taught about the coming kingdom and one group, wishing to hasten the advent of the kingdom, studied scripture in depth in order to prepare for their coming king. They believed that the hesitation of the coming king was due to the lack of religious piety. This group sought to purify the nation. This group is known to us as the pharisees.
I have often said that we give the pharisees a hard time. We often see them as religious fanatics. But are they much different than us? Their desire was to make the people of their nation holy. Their teachings encouraged adherence to the law, everything they did was to promote greater connection to the teachings they received from Moses. This desire of holiness is an honorable pursuit. It is a pursuit that many religious societies for centuries. Each group sees something within the world that they perceive to be hampering the kingdom of God and they do all they can do to change the course of society. Even our own religious tradition began with this lofty pursuit, the pursuit to encourage a closer walk with God. If the Pharisees were a religious order that encouraged greater devotions to God, why did Jesus continuously oppose their activities?
This brings us again to the parable. I mentioned the context because it is always important consider who is speaking or being spoken to. Since the pharisees were the last group mentioned we might consider that they were the ones who were listening to this teaching. Many scholars say that this is not the case, but I do not know if this is true or not. The only thing we do know for sure is that Jesus was speaking to people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt. This is an interesting statement made by the gospel writer. They were not recognized by their denomination but their activity.
Two men went to the temple to pray, Jesus says. One was identified as being a member of a religious order, the other was from a social class that was considered opposed to the kingdom of God. The pharisees were the group seeking to usher in the kingdom of God, while the tax collectors were the ones that collaborated with the kingdoms of the world. I find this symbolism striking.
These men enter the temple to pray. Both those that promote the holy lifestyle and those that seem to be more closely connected to the world. Both come to pray, yet like many of the parables Jesus uses the characters within do not coincide with our perception of reality.
The Pharisee enters, and takes his place in the sanctuary. He stands by himself. Setting himself apart from the others within this holy place, but aware of all who is within. The wording creates this image that this individual set himself up to be the center of attention. Visually dominating the aesthetics. He begins to pray, “God, I thank you.” If we were to stop there, we could possibly write a book about the gratitude of the pharisees, because gratitude is a discipline to desire. It is important to constantly remind oneself of the many blessings that we enjoy. He continues, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.” I cannot even at this point condemn his method of prayer, because we are to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves, so to thank God for who you are is ok. I am very thankful that I am a unique individual. I am thankful that I am fearfully and wonderfully made by the God that has known me even in my mother’s womb. But at this point we can sense a problem. This individual is measuring his against others.
“God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” I want to be honest; I think I might vote for this pharisee. But this is not the campaign trail, this is the place of worship, and the worst part is he is directly discouraging one of those within his community. The prayer continues, “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” This prayer that started, “God, I thank you” quickly turned into idolatry of self.
He speaks of his own personal greatness. I am not an extortioner, I am not unjust, I am not an adulterer, there is nothing wrong with me. Even more I fast not once but twice a week and everyone is aware at how much I give. Look at me God, maybe you should be thankful that you were wise enough to create such a spectacular human specimen.
Jesus then shares the prayer of the other man that went to pray that day. The tax collector enters the worship space knowing full well what those around him think of him. He enters and stands far off. He stands looking down, he beats his breast and you almost get a sense that he is barely able to remain on his feet. And he says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
I am often caught up in this parable. I sit and imagine the scene. There are times when I read through this passage and I must stop and examine my life and consider who I resemble most. There are times where I imagine I am neither of these characters and am just another member of that congregation eavesdropping on the prayers of others. And as I consider this, it scares me.
It scares me because I am an individual that loves the expression of my faith. I love wearing t-shirts that proclaim my faith. I especially like clever t-shirts that highlight Quakers, and I am still sad that Quaker Gear is no longer making shirts because I need a new one. This parable scares me because I can easily be the man praising himself. Because as far as I am concerned the world would be a better place if everyone would just realize that my way is really the best way. It scares me, because I go around every day encouraging people to come join us for worship, and maybe in my zeal for the church I might come across as judgmental and self-righteous.
It scares me, but it also encourages me. It encourages me because I know who I am. Humility is being honest about yourself. And this parable encourages me because I know who I am and where I come from. It encourages me because I know what God has done for me, and I stand within his mercy speechless.
Through all of that it causes me to pause and consider my life. I often speak of my life, and every time I speak about myself, I am afraid that I might be like the pharisee in the story. But I speak of myself because I know who I am. I know my weaknesses and I know what God has done through me. I speak about myself because no matter how elegant my words there is only one person I can control. Me. And the only person you can control is yourself as well. I can plea and encourage, I can scream and berate but at the end of the day the only person that I have any power over is myself.
“God have mercy on me, a sinner!”
Every religious movement begins at that point. Every religious movement looks out at the world around them and they say this is what is wrong, and I am the reason it is so bad. I have not given enough charity to those in need, I have taken advantage of situations for my own gain. I have sinned and God have mercy. People are attracted to the authenticity of that movement because the leaders are willing to admit their own weaknesses. If we were read scripture, we know that the Apostle Paul even says everything I have done is rubbish, is trash, because I am the chief of sinners and I will only boast of my weaknesses because in my weakness Christ is strong. Every religious movement, even that of the Pharisees began in that place, I am the problem and I repent.
We begin with repentance, but quickly we forget who we are. Those groups that blossomed early in their history become institutions, and those institutions can often begin to forget from where they emerged. They begin to say we are great because we did things right, and they begin to maintain exploit the power they have within the institution forgetting where they began. Their prayers become “Look at me, I am great!” and they forget where they began, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner!”
As I drove home from the elders meeting yesterday afternoon. I again drove through the flint hills and I looked out over the rolling his of grass. This time I was reminded of our Friends history. And I thought about George Fox and the struggles he had as he began to seek God. He looked out at the world and all he saw was empty words spoken empty people. He earnestly sought God, he desired God more than anything in the world. Many people believe that Fox had the entire bible memorized because he spent so much time reading it, yet he struggled with faith. He struggled because what he saw in scripture did not resemble what he saw in the church at that time. And in his despair, he went to the wilderness and sat. He basically gave up on the church, yet when he was out in that isolated place, God met him there. I looked out at the hills along the turnpike and I wondered what changed? Fox climbed up a hill and saw a vision of a multitude of light overcoming darkness, and I looked out over the hills of Kansas and wondered what changed? Have we become too focused on ourselves and our institution?
As I drove along that highway, I again considered the query we discussed on Wednesday:
Do you earnestly seek to maintain a life in fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ? Do you practice the daily reading of the Scriptures in your families, giving time for waiting upon the Lord? Are you watchful not to be unduly absorbed by temporal affairs? Are you careful to avoid all places and amusements inconsistent with a Christian character?
Are we seeking God, are we allowing time for God to speak to us? Are we unduly absorbed by temporal affairs? And are we mindful of how our lives affect those around us? Are we beacons of hope or jurors of despair? As we join in this time of Holy expectancy let us consider those questions, but not just consider in a legalistic manner of yes or no but pull back the layers and see the core. If we say we are how are we showing it?