Open to God’s GracePosted: October 27, 2013
TWO BY FOUR
The Pharisee in our Parable this morning is a good example of a bad example. He is such a bad example we might be tempted to overlook our own tendencies to indulge in the same behavior. And so I have to constantly remind myself of another parable: “why can you see the speck of saw dust in your friend’s eye, but you cannot see the two by four sticking out of your own eye?” And so I hope with an appropriate degree of humility I am embarking upon a meditation about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
SCUM OF THE EARTH
To grasp how radical Jesus’ teaching was in this parable we first need to understand that the Pharisees were considered to be some of the most faithful Jews in the First Century. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries for instance would have considered him to be a very liberal Pharisee. Most Jews in the First Century considered Tax Collectors to be like the scum of the earth. They were working for the Romans. The zealots considered them to be traitors and often assassinated Tax Collectors.
The whole method of tax collection encouraged extortion and corruption. In fact it was called tax farming. Tax Collectors were sold the right to collect tolls and taxes in given areas. They had to pay for their office out of their collections. But then everything they accumulated over and above what they had paid for their office was theirs to keep. You can image how making taxes into an entrepreneurial activity would lead to dishonesty and how unpopular these officials became.
NOT OPEN TO GOD’S GRACE
So when Jesus compared a Pharisee and a Tax Collector, he was making a radical point with his audience. The problem with the Pharisee is not that he kept the law, but his self-righteousness prevented him from being open to God’s grace. He was so convinced of his own goodness, he could not see his own short comings. He was not open to God’s grace.
RICH YOUNG RULER
The second story in our passage actually has a similar theme. A rich young man came to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus answered, “Keep the commandments.”
The young man replied self-confidently, “All these I have observed from my youth.”
So Jesus looked upon him lovingly and said, “One thing you still lack. Sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But the young man went away sadly because he had great possessions.
MY WEALTH IS A SIGN OF GOD’S BLESSING
Many commentators have noted how casually the young man claimed to have followed all of the commandments. And somehow I think his sense of righteousness was tied up with his wealth. In First Century Judaism people often believed that personal wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. We still have people today who assume that their good fortune is the result of their own hard work and God’s blessing for their goodness following all of the middle class norms, while people who have less must of necessity by lazy and shiftless and obviously less righteous before God. Jesus, however, didn’t see it that way. For Jesus, wealth was the opportunity and obligation to share. Sharing is a sign of God’s grace – our ability to give in response to God’s gifts to us.
OPEN TO GOD’S GRACE – AWE AND WONDER
The key is learning to be open to God’s grace, and that begins when we experience awe and wonder in our lives. We look up in the sky and we find ourselves lost in the stars. Or we encounter the magnificent beauty of a forest or a canyon and for a moment we are lost in our simple appreciation of creation. Sometimes it happens when we witness the birth of a child, or when a loved one draws a last breath. Those moments of awe and wonder are the beginnings of our awareness of grace. We exist. We have been given life. We might just as well have never have been. But God says the party would not have been complete without us. And so we are here. We are a part of the magnificent whole that is the Universe, we are experiencing a gift that is altogether unearned, and the only appropriate response beyond our immediate sense of awe and wonder is gratitude.
The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “If the only prayer we ever say is ‘thank you,’ that will be sufficient.” Speaking of prayers of thanksgiving I am reminded of a true story from a Bible School many years ago. It was in the 4 year old class, and the teacher at the close of the day got the children in a circle and asked them to think of something for which they could thank God.
The first little girl prayed, “I thank God for the flowers.”
The second little girl prayed, “I thank God for my Mommy.”
Finally going around the circle it came to one little boy who prayed fervently, “I thank God I didn’t pee in my pants today.” As I get older I find that prayer more significant.
BASIC THANKS FOR BASIC THINGS
Basic thanks for basic things like this prayer of thanksgiving:
O God, we thank you for this earth, our home; for the wide sky and the blessed sun, for the salt sea and the running water, for the everlasting hills and the never-resting winds, for trees and the common grass underfoot.
We thank you for our senses by which we hear the songs of birds, and see the splendor of the summer fields, and taste of the autumn fruits, and rejoice in the feel of the snow, and smell the breath of the spring.
Grant us a heart wide open to all this beauty; and save our souls from being so blind that we pass unseeing when even the common thorn bush is aflame with your glory, O God our Creator thank you.
Gratitude is humble. Gratitude understands that all we have even our very lives has come to us as a gift – grace. Humility always comes before God open handed. In order to receive our hands have to be open. Clenched fists are not open to grace. Clenched fists are the symbol of anger and holding on unwilling to give unwilling to gift.
JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER
And that reminds me of the story of John D. Rockefeller. He was the very first person to reach the status of billionaire. He was a man who knew how to set goals and follow through. At the age of 23, he had become a millionaire, by the age of 50 a billionaire. Every decision, attitude, and relationship was tailored to create his personal power and wealth. But three years later at the age of 53 he became ill. His entire body became racked with pain and he lost all the hair on his head. In complete agony, the world’s only billionaire could buy anything he wanted, but he could only digest milk and crackers. An associate wrote, “He could not sleep, would not smile and nothing in life meant anything to him.” His personal, highly skilled physicians predicted he would die within a year. That year passed slowly in great pain. As he approached death he awoke one morning with the vague remembrances of a dream. He could barely recall the dream but knew it had something to do with not being able to take any of his successes with him into the next world. The man who could control the business world suddenly realized he was not in in control of his own life. He was left with a choice. He called his attorneys, accountants, and managers and announced that he wanted to channel his assets to hospitals, research, and mission work.
On that day John D. Rockefeller established his foundation. This new direction eventually led to the discovery of penicillin, cures for tuberculosis and diphtheria. The list of discoveries resulting from his choice is enormous.
HEALED BY GOD’S GRACE
But perhaps the most amazing part of Rockefeller’s story is that the moment he began to give back a portion of all that he had earned, his body’s chemistry was altered so significantly that he got better. It looked as if he would die at 53 but he lived to be 98. Rockefeller learned gratitude and gave back from his wealth. Doing so made him whole. He became open to God’s grace. It is one thing to be healed it is another to be made whole.
GIFT OF TIME
Start each morning with “thank you” on your lips. We have been given another day. We have been given the gift of time – time that cannot be purchased or earned only received as grace. So allow me to close with a poem by the French poet and priest Michelle Quoist:
I went out, Lord.
People were coming and going,
Walking and running.
Everything was rushing:
Cars, trucks, the street, the whole town.
People were rushing not to waste time.
They were rushing after time,
To catch up with time.
To gain time.
Good-bye, Sir, excuse me, I haven’t time.
I’ll come back. I can’t wait. I haven’t time.
I must end this letter–I haven’t time.
I’d love to help you, but I haven’t time.
I can’t accept, having no time.
I can’t think, I can’t read, I’m swamped, I haven’t time.
I’d like to pray, but I haven’t time.
You understand, Lord,
They simply haven’t the time.
The child is playing,
He hasn’t time right now…Later on…
The schoolboy has his homework to do,
He hasn’t time…Later on…
The student has his courses,
And so much work…Later on…
The young married man has his new house;
He has to fix it up…He hasn’t time…Later on…
The grandparents have their grandchildren.
They haven’t time…Later on…
They are ill, they have their treatments,
They haven’t time…Later on…
They are dying, they have no…
Too late!…They have no more time!
And so all people run after time, Lord.
They pass through life running–
Hurried, jostled, overburdened, frantic,
And they never get there. They haven’t time.
In spite of all their efforts
They’re still short of time,
Of a great deal of time.
Lord, you must have made a mistake in your calculations,
There is a big mistake somewhere.
The hours are too short.
Our lives are too short.
You who are beyond time, Lord,
You smile to see us fighting it.
And you know what you are doing.
You make no mistakes in your distribution of time to us.
You give each one time to do what you want him to do.
But we must not lose time,
For it is a gift that you give us,
But a perishable gift,
A gift that does not keep.
Lord, I have time,
I have plenty of time,
All the time that you give me,
The years of my life,
The days of my years,
The hours of my days,
They are all mine.
Mine to fill, quietly, calmly,
But to fill completely, up to the brim,
To offer them to you, that of their insipid water
You may make a rich wine
Such as you made once in Cana of Galilee.
I am not asking you tonight, Lord,
For time to do this and then that,
But for your grace to do,
In the time that you give me,
What you want me to do.