Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass the Last Sunday after Trinity 2016

Ecclesiasticus 35:12-17
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Whenever we read the Bible as believing people we are trying to draw together two worlds. There is the world in which the passage was written, and the meaning it has in that context. And then there is the world in which we are reading it, our own context can be very different. How do we apply that meaning to this context?
Today’s Gospel reading is a case in point. It assumes a world that is in many ways different from the one in which we find ourselves.
Jesus tells a story about two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector. And although the point of the story is to make a contrast between them, in fact they have many things in common. The story is set in the Temple. You might like to imagine a picture of the scene framed by the Temple buildings. This is not neutral ground. It is sacred space. Sacred architecture is about expressing the presence of God in the world.
And both of the men go up to the Temple to pray. So this story supposes a movement, an orientation of society towards God. Both of these men believe in God, and both believe that God is righteous and demands righteousness in his world.
The difference between them is how they think that righteousness can be achieved. The Pharisee tells God about his religious achievements – fasting and paying tithes – and congratulates himself because he thinks this makes him better than thieves, rogues and adulterers.
The tax collector can’t do that. Tax collectors were collaborators with the Roman oppressors, often corrupt, and hated by the people. He knows he has no righteousness that he can boast about. All he can say is “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
But he is the one who goes home justified. Because he, in the depth of his need, has understood that God is merciful. And he sees himself truthfully. He sees how ridiculous it would be for him to treat God as an equal – which is what the Pharisee has done. “You and me, God, we’re alright, we are, not like other people…”
The tax collector knows he can’t do that. Unlike the Pharisee, he has understood that righteousness can only be God’s gift, and not our achievement. He has approached God with nothing to offer, seeking mercy. And mercy has been given to him. He has received God’s righteousness as a free gift.
But the Pharisee hasn’t asked God for anything, and therefore he hasn’t received anything. He, too, needs the mercy of God, not least for his presumption in relying on his own achievements, which compared to the righteousness of God are nothing at all. But because he does not see his own sin, his heart is not open to God’s mercy.
There is a clear message in this story for people who have faith. God is merciful. That is at the heart of our faith. Pope Francis has said “Mercy is the name of our God!”. Our righteousness is God’s gift, our merits are his mercies. For the good things we achieve we must thank the Holy Spirit directing and inspiring us; and we must confess our sin, ever more fully as we progress in the path of faith, and our need for constant repentance. We must never tire of asking of God’s mercy, and we must never look down on other people who are in need of God’s mercy too.
But reading this story in our own context we are, as it were, looking at the picture from outside. That framework of the Temple, of sacred space, is increasingly different from the world we live in.
The idea that there is a God, and that God is righteous and demands righteousness in his world, is now a strange idea to many. Is it right that is should be expressed or allowed in public debate? Faith now has to coexist with many different accounts of the world and its meaning, including a culture which seems to say that the world has no meaning, and we may do whatever we can get away with doing.
A candidate for the US presidency boasts about not paying income tax, claiming “that makes me smart”. There was a time when a sense of right and wrong would at least have shamed people into not saying that in public, even if they thought it privately.
Or in our own country in this last week, we have seen some really spiteful coverage of the refugee crisis in some parts of the press, fueling hatred for those fleeing the horror and atrocity of war. Those who claim that, higher than national interest, there is a moral imperative to care for those in need, are subjected to abuse in tabloid headlines.
In a world like that, faith has to tell a different story. We need to put back the frame of sacred space around society, not to make everyone religious, but to say that everyone has a place, everyone has value, in the world God has made.
And within that framework, we need to tell the story of mercy: the Creator is good, loving and merciful, and the creation should reflect that. Human society, as the thinking and speaking part of creation, has an orientation towards God, an inner call to go up to the temple and pray. And that call is especially for those who have gone most astray and are most in need of mercy.
The love, mercy and goodness of God have come into our world in person, in Jesus Christ. In his life and teaching, he shows humanity how it should live. Through his death and resurrection he has opened to all the gates of mercy, so that all may receive God’s righteousness as a free gift. And righteousness is not simply about being right with God as individuals. It is also about all of society reflecting what God is like.
Our call as ambassadors of Jesus Christ then is not just to reach out to individuals who may want to become Christians and join us on the path of faith. It is also about transforming society for all, so that greed and hatred and violence give way to love and mercy and righteousness. But we do so as recipients of mercy ourselves, as tax collectors and not as Pharisees.

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him”, says St John. And we too must look on the world as the Father looks on the world, with the eyes of mercy. The Father’s desire is that the world will reflect his righteousness, and righteousness, in his mercy, is his gift in Jesus Christ, for all who have hearts open to receive it.

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