Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The multiplication of God’s abundant love

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector ... a window in Saint Mary’s Church, Banbury

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute

Wednesday 27 October 2010:

5 p.m., Community Eucharist

Readings for the Fifth Sunday before Advent (Joel 2: 23-32; Psalm 65; II Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18; Luke 18: 9-14).


May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

There are so many parables and stories in Saint Luke’s Gospel that it often becomes difficult to find original thoughts and ideas, new perspectives on them when it comes to preaching on them on a regular weekly basis.

This is particularly true when it comes to the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 30-37), the Good Shepherd (Luke 15: 3-7), the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32), Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31), and, of course, the story of the Pharisee and the Publican, or the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18: 9-14).

It is even more difficult when you are standing before members of your own tutorial group, who have already torn this story apart in a Bible study only a week or two ago.

And so there were a number of easy options this evening.

1, I could have gone instead to our Old Testament reading, and talked about how in your ministry and mission you will need constantly to “dream dreams” and “see visions” and to encourage others to do so too (Joel 2: 28).

2, I could have gone to the Epistle reading, and urged us all on in our ministry and mission, to continue fighting the good fight, never to give up until we had finished the race, to keep the faith and to look forward to the crown of righteousness (II Timothy 7-8).

3, I could have been very forthright about tax collectors and the sneering attitude of those who are supposed to provide leadership in our society.

4, We have all been taught to make connections with society around us and what’s happening in people’s lives. So it might have been inappropriate here to stoop to jokes about how people in Ireland can tell the difference between publicans and tax collectors … how publicans, who were once liberal about cashing cheques, are being squeezed out of business; while tax collectors are squeezing everyone out of business because of those who were too liberal writing themselves cheques with our money.

5,There was a fifth option – to go to the readings for Bible Sunday, which were an alternative for Sunday last. But I know no-one here needs to be reminded of the centrality and importance of the Bible in the life of the Church.

And so I returned to this Gospel story, which may have been rehashed for you in many ways last Sunday, but still has so many strong images and so many built-in stories to explore.

We are constantly talking here about the need to make connections, to integrate each strand of our learning, and also to make connections with what goes before and what comes after. And there is an important connection to be made – most appropriately half-way through the week – between last Sunday’s Gospel reading and next Sunday’s Gospel reading.

Our reading this evening is sent within the context of Christ about to make his journey up to Jerusalem for the climax of Saint Luke’s Gospel, which is the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. He has already eaten with a Pharisee (Luke 14), the tax collectors and the sinners have been attracted to hear what he has to say (Luke 15), and now Christ is about to take the Twelve with him and is going up to Jerusalem (Luke 18: 31).

But before he calls the disciples aside and tells them where they are going, Christ tells this story of the Pharisee and the Publican, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector go up to the Temple to pray. That movement alone indicates they are probably not normal residents of Jerusalem. In a way, they are going up there before Christ. But they are provincial figures: the Pharisee may be a local religious leader, a rabbi in a provincial synagogue; the tax collector may be the richest man in his town, given the predilection of tax collectors at the time to make a nifty commission by squeezing as much as they can out of reluctant tax payers.

So they are the two leading figures among the sort of people who hear Jesus telling this story … one the local religious leader, the other the local get-rich-quick man.

Neither would have been expected to pray in the Temple on a regular basis. They might have gone there occasionally, but only occasionally, on High Holy Days, like Passover and Pentecost. But we know this is not a High Holy Day because they are there on their own, praying as two lonely figures, within earshot of each other.

Neither would have felt welcome in the Temple in those days. The Temple priests were, by-and-large, Sadducees with little time for Pharisees. And, anyway, the regular place of prayer for a Pharisee, week-by-week, was at home on Sabbath eve, or in the Synagogue. As for the tax collector, no-one would have expected him to go to the Temple, on High Holy Days or any other days.

Jesus has already dined with Pharisees. So, stretch your imagination, and imagine that the Pharisee is that same Simon who begrudges Christ’s anointing by a woman, an anointing that prefigures the women coming to anoint him in the tomb. And the Tax Collector is the same tax collector Jesus wants to dine with in next Sunday’s reading, Zacchaeus of Jericho. What a turning of the tables that would be!

The Pharisee, praying in the Temple, presents himself before God as upright and righteous. The Tax Collector, on the other hand, lays himself bare before God.

The Tax Collector reminds me of the small boy is always afraid that his father is only going to see his faults and is worried that every time he sees his father he is going to upbraided or reprimanded.

The Pharisee reminds me of the small boy who is always striving for stars on his copy books, prizes for his essays, medals for sports, not for himself but for approval from his father, but knows in his heart that when he comes him he will be ignored, that he will not get the attention he craves and desires.

How many people do we know who find it difficult to talk to about God’s love being like a father’s love for his children, either because their experiences of their fathers was difficult or as children they felt unacknowledged or unloved?

Both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector might have learned that God’s love is not earned by what we do or denied to us because of what we fail to do. God’s love is not dependent on our actions; it’s not a tap we can turn on or turn off.

There is a popular myth that the love of God is in scarce supply. The truth is there is no scarcity. God’s love flows in over-abundance. And we celebrate and rejoice in the over-flowing abundance of God’s love particularly when we celebrate the Eucharist.

Although this parable is normally heard as a story about prayer, it is also a story about how we love and how we love others.

On the surface of it, the Pharisee is a deeply religious man. But he prays for no-one – not for God, not himself, not for others. Where is his love?

Those who first heard this story would not expect the Tax Collector to be a religious figure. Yet, he at least prays for himself. His cry is the cry of the blind man at the gate of Jericho, the cry of the Penitent Thief on the Cross, the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the Sinner.”

And if I crave God’s mercy and love for myself, rather than presenting myself to God as smug and satisfied, then I may, I just may, begin to understand the needs of others too.

If I am aware of my own need for God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s light, then I might just understand, be sympathetic to, minister to the needs of others for God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s light.

The tax collector in next Sunday’s Gospel reading feels the strength and the warmth and the embrace of that love. It is so empowering that he is willing to take up the cross, figuratively represented by the tree that Zacchaeus climbs.

He experiences the mercy of God so generously that he pours out mercy in such multiplied abundance that it is four times as generous as it ought to be.

He is bathed in Christ’s light so much so that he is more than eager to dine with him.

Both Pharisees and Tax Collectors are welcome at this Eucharist ... for, if the truth were known, we are all like the tax collector and we are all like the Pharisee, in our own different ways.

• God loves us as a true Father loves, not because of anything we do to please him, or any demands for his attention.

• God loves us as a true Son loves, eager to have that love returned.

• God loves us as Holy Spirit, delighting in the ways we find to share that Divine love with others, with humanity.

When we dine with Christ this evening in the Eucharist, let us not come before him thinking we have earned his mercy or love or approval ... they’re there for the taking.

Let’s not think that we have to prove ourselves as worthy ... God’s worthiness is good enough for me.

Let’s be so eager to dine with him at his table, that we want to share this in multiplied abundance, that we want to invite others – that we want to invite the whole of humanity – to the Heavenly Banquet.

And so, may all we think say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Community Eucharist in the Institute Chapel on Wednesday 27 October 2010.

Seven brothers, a bride, and questions about eternal life

Seven brothers … tables outside the Seven Brothers Taverna in the old Venetian harbour in Rethymnon

Patrick Comerford

Luke 20: 27-38


27 Προσελθόντες δέ τινες τῶν Σαδδουκαίων, οἱ [ἀντι] λέγοντες ἀνάστασιν μὴ εἶναι, ἐπηρώτησαν αὐτὸν 28 λέγοντες, Διδάσκαλε, Μωϋσῆς ἔγραψεν ἡμῖν, ἐάν τινος ἀδελφὸς ἀποθάνῃ ἔχων γυναῖκα, καὶ οὗτος ἄτεκνος ᾖ, ἵνα λάβῃ ὁ ἀδελφὸς αὐτοῦ τὴν γυναῖκα καὶ ἐξαναστήσῃ σπέρμα τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ. 29 ἑπτὰ οὖν ἀδελφοὶ ἦσαν: καὶ ὁ πρῶτος λαβὼν γυναῖκα ἀπέθανεν ἄτεκνος: 30 καὶ ὁ δεύτερος 31 καὶ ὁ τρίτος ἔλαβεν αὐτήν, ὡσαύτως δὲ καὶ οἱ ἑπτὰ οὐ κατέλιπον τέκνα καὶ ἀπέθανον. 32 ὕστερον καὶ ἡ γυνὴ ἀπέθανεν. 33 ἡ γυνὴ οὖν ἐν τῇ ἀναστάσει τίνος αὐτῶν γίνεται γυνή; οἱ γὰρ ἑπτὰ ἔσχον αὐτὴν γυναῖκα.

34 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Οἱ υἱοὶ τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου γαμοῦσιν καὶ γαμίσκονται, 35 οἱ δὲ καταξιωθέντες τοῦ αἰῶνος ἐκείνου τυχεῖν καὶ τῆς ἀναστάσεως τῆς ἐκ νεκρῶν οὔτε γαμοῦσιν οὔτε γαμίζονται: 36 οὐδὲ γὰρ ἀποθανεῖν ἔτι δύνανται, ἰσάγγελοι γάρ εἰσιν, καὶ υἱοί εἰσιν θεοῦ, τῆς ἀναστάσεως υἱοὶ ὄντες. 37 ὅτι δὲ ἐγείρονται οἱ νεκροὶ καὶ Μωϋσῆς ἐμήνυσεν ἐπὶ τῆς βάτου, ὡς λέγει κύριον τὸν θεὸν Ἀβραὰμ καὶ θεὸν Ἰσαὰκ καὶ θεὸν Ἰακώβ: 38 θεὸς δὲ οὐκ ἔστιν νεκρῶν ἀλλὰ ζώντων, πάντες γὰρ αὐτῷ ζῶσιν.

27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’

34 Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37 And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’

Introduction:

This is the Gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for the Sunday after next, the Third Sunday before Advent (Sunday 7 November). There is an old Hollywood musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, starring Jane Powell and Howard Keel; there are any superstitions about the seventh son of a seventh son; I even know a restaurant in the old harbour in Rethymnon in Crete called “The Seven Brothers.”

But this reading about seven brothers and one bride is primarily a story about questions about the resurrection (for parallel readings see also Matthew 22: 23-33; Mark 12: 18-27). How does this relate to the approaching Advent theme?

Contexts:

1,
Where do the events in this Gospel reading take place?

Last week, we were in Jericho, where Jesus dined with Zacchaeus. I spoke of the pace of Luke’s narrative was now being geared up, for Jesus is on his way from Jericho to Jerusalem. We are being built up to anticipate the climax of the Gospel.

By this week, we are in Jerusalem. The closing verses of the chapter before this reading, which have been skipped over in the allocation of lectionary readings, tell us that by now Jesus is teaching in the Temple every day (Luke 19: 47), and that the religious and secular authorities – the chief priests, the scribes and the leaders of the people – “kept looking for a way to kill him, but they did not find anything they could do ...” (Luke 19: 47-48).

2, Could you make connections with the widow who plays a prominent part at the beginning of the next chapter (Luke 21: 1-7)? Does it matter to this widow or to Christ who she was married to? Are those who are widowed easy prey? Surely this is not how they are to be seen in the Kingdom of God?

Looking at the reading:

Verse 27:
The chief priests and the Temple leadership were mainly Sadducees, who regarded only the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, as authoritative Scripture. Not finding any mention of life after death in these books, they rejected its existence. The apostles had a similar encounter with the Sadducees when they were preaching the Resurrection (see also Acts 4: 1-4), as did the Apostle Paul when he faced the council (see 23: 6-10).

Verses 28-33: The Sadducees, in an effort to trap Jesus into speaking against the Law, ask him a question about levirate marriage. This is not about the marriage of Levites, but comes from the Latin word levir, meaning a brother-in-law. There was a sense in which a man was seen to live on in his son. So, if a man died without sons and heirs, his brother was required to marry his widow and give her a son, thus continuing the family line (See Deuteronomy 25: 5-10; see also Genesis 38: 8).

Verses 34-36: Luke makes the same point as Matthew and Mark, but in somewhat different language: human relations in the home do not exist in the same way beyond death. Jesus distinguishes two ages and kinds of existence. Mortals are part of this age by the fact of physical birth, and of the age to come by resurrection verse 36; Romans 1: 4).

Verse 34: “This age” (verse 34) is the current era; “that age” (verses 35-36) is the era to come, when Christ returns. In God’s kingdom, marriage will no longer exist. Those who are admitted into eternal life for their faith (“considered worthy of a place...,” verse 35) will all be “children of God” (verse 36). This will be their family relationship. They will be immortal (“cannot die anymore”) and will be like “angels,” who, in the time of Jesus, were considered to be sexless.

Verses 37-38: Jesus argues for life after death, and for the resurrection, from the Pentateuch, the very five books to which the Sadducees limited their understanding of what is Scripture. In the story of the Burning Bush, God tells Moses: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham ...” (see Exodus 3: 6). Because God says is (not was), Abraham is alive now. He died, so he must have been brought back to life, resurrected. God is truly “God ... of the living” (verse 38). God is not frustrated by physical death (verse 38).

Making connections:

1,
How would you make connections with the other readings for this Sunday:

Haggai 1: 15b to 2: 9 – this too is a pre-Advent reading, with the promise of God’s future plans for heaven and earth being fulfilled. However, those who are using the paired readings will find the Old Testament reading (Job 19: 23-27a) makes more obvious connections with the Gospel reading: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth” (verse25).

Psalm 145: 1-5, 18-22 – which can help to make good connections with the Old Testament reading;

II Thessalonians 2: 1-5, 13-17 – talks about eternal comfort and good hope (verse 17).

2, What happens afterwards?

Verse 39: Some scribes, who are believers in resurrection, are pleased with Jesus’ argument. Verse 40 says that the Sadducees “no longer dared to ask him [Jesus] another question.” Jesus has evaded the trap that was set for him. What does this say about how we should deal with those who question and challenge the Christian faith?

3, The Gospel reading for the following Sunday (the Second Sunday before Advent, 14 November) is Luke 21: 5-19. Pointing out that the reading we have been looking at is located in the Temple may prepare people for the next Sunday’s reading.

4, Can you think of other Gospel parallels? How about the story of the Samaritan woman at the well? How does this reading compare with those stories in which Jesus uses the wedding banquet as an illustration of the Kingdom of God?

Some pastoral questions:

1,
Death and November: How would you approach this reading in the context of November, which is often associated with remembering the dead, including All Saints’ Day (1 November), All Souls’ Day (2 November) and Remembrance Day (11 November)?

2, What response to this reading might you expect from people in your parish who are widowed, or in difficult or broken marriages, or people who have never married? How would that shape and influence any sermon you write?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on 27 October 2010.