Saturday 8 March 2014

Sliding scales: one last time on the parables

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

Picture a sort of sliding scale, from hell to heaven. On this scale let’s place some people, from very wicked people to very good people, and let’s keep it to famous – and infamous – people from modern times. Let’s start, at the bottom, with Hitler. I mean you gotta start with Hitler, right? Then let’s move on to, say, Osama bin Laden, who is kind of the personification of evil in the 21st century (so far – long way to go yet). Okay, now let’s move on to some indisputably good characters. How about Desmond Tutu or, earlier, Martin Luther King? But I guess we should remember that King was an adulterer. Mother Theresa then – there’s a saint for sure. But then remember that, in her letters, she confessed to doubting the very existence of God. Still, I guess a little atheism doesn’t stack up to the heaps and heaps of her good works.

But enough. You can argue about your own personal sliding scale of sinners and saints over lunch, but I think you get the picture: some people further away – maybe even out of sight – from being good with God, and others closer and closer.

Now picture a pub in, say, Guildford. A minister walks in with a bag full of Christian Aid envelopes. His collection has exceeded all expectations. He’s got a bruise on his left cheek. That’s because he turned it to the right cross delivered by a householder who thinks the church is full of hypocrites and he’d rather gnaw off his right arm than give to one of their bloody charities. The minister asks for a glass of mineral water. “Ice with a slice?” asks the elderly landlord. “Yes, please,” says the minister politely. “Anything to eat?” asks the landlord. “No thank you,” says the minister politely, “I’m fasting today.” He notices a collection container on the bar – two, in fact, one for the British Heart Foundation, the other for Macmillan Cancer Support. He puts a fiver in each. Then, just before he takes a sip from his mineral water, he says a little grace, in thanksgiving for the money he’s raised – and now given – for good causes. Then he takes his bag and his drink and goes to the rear of the pub to sit down. But there – there is this guy, slumped in a lounge chair, fashionably dressed but stinking of booze. The minister has seen this young man before. Yes, he lives in that huge gated house and commutes to the City. And he’s heard him bad-mouthing the Occupy Movement on a radio programme. “Merchant bankers,” thinks the minister, “what a bunch of crooks. And there he is, dead drunk on his unmerited bonuses and dodgy investments.” Then the minister hears the banker mutter something. He leans closer to hear. “What a mess I’ve made of my life! What a mess I’ve made of the lives of others! God, look what I’ve become!” And the minister thinks, “There but for the grace of God …”

The minister goes back to the bar. “Excuse me,” he says, “there’s a drunk sitting at the back. Could you get rid of him, please?” “Sorry, no,” says the landlord. “He’s my son. You can sit somewhere else – or leave.” “Well, I never!” exclaims the minister. Then he slams down his drink and leaves.

Another sliding scale of – only two – rather ordinary people this time, but one not so moral, a white collar criminal and sot, and the other a religious man living quite ethically, if a bit bad-tempered. Sort of contemporary Pharisee and tax collector, from our parable.

To make the connections you must, first, eliminate the idea that the Pharisee, or the minister, are hypocrites. Jesus says nothing about hypocrisy in the Pharisee, nor do I in the minister. The Pharisee tithes, that is, he gives a tenth of his goods for the upkeep of the Temple. By tradition there are numerous exemptions, but this Pharisee makes no exceptions, he tithes all his income. He’s a Big Giver. And his outward rectitude is matched by a spiritual discipline: he fasts. According to the Torah, fasting is required only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Pharisees, however, chose to fast two days before, and two days after, the three major Jewish feasts, twelve days a year. But this particular Pharisee fasts two days a week, over a hundred days a year! And here, in the Temple, he gives thanks, “There but for the grace of God ...” Yes, a very religious man.

Similarly, my minister works tirelessly for Christian Aid and he gives generously to any number of charities – and I could go on to tell you about his work with the homeless and asylum seekers, and about all the church committees on which he serves, and that he’s even written a book. And his spiritual discipline is as conscientious as it gets. Here he is fasting during Christian Aid Week – in May, not during Lent. And he says a little grace even before having a drink in a pub – non-alcoholic, of course. And in the manse he’s on his knees in the study before nine, and in bed, before going to sleep, he prays for his church members and family, and for desperate situations in the world. His church adores him.

Analogously, that tax collector and my banker – they are bad dudes. Remember tax collectors in first-century Israel were Jews who worked for the Romans. They were quislings. And they were notorious big-time rip-offs, working on a franchise, owing the exchequer a flat fee while collecting from their compatriots all they can squeeze out of them. Similarly my merchant banker. He is a crook, a white-collar criminal, and he’s an alcoholic as well. Both guys are morally repugnant. But the Pharisee leaves the Temple as a son on bad terms with the God who happens to be the Father of the tax collector too, and the minister leaves the pub on bad terms with the landlord who also happens to be the father of the banker.

The Pharisee and the minister – thank God we’re not like them. “There but for the grace of God…” But oops – that’s their line! Still, modestly, humbly, we can all say that we don’t look down on people who aren’t as virtuous as we are, on a sliding scale, I mean. And we’re delighted, aren’t we, that the tax collector and the banker go home right with God? (Yeah, I know I’ve made a pub-owner a stand-in for God. In defence I’d say that that is just the kind of scandalous thing that Jesus would do.) I mean, we’re not bothered that Jesus doesn’t say anything about the tax collector repenting and turning his life around, nor I, likewise, about the banker? So imagine, if you will, going back to Temple or pub a fortnight later, and there is the tax collector again, still bleeding people dry, and there is the banker again, still wheeling and dealing and drinking 20-year-old malts, both woe-is-me-ing and trusting to mercy – and getting it. And we’re not bothered, right? Right?

Or do we not choke, morally, on the unfairness of such a scenario? Imagine it repeating itself yet again. Surely there’s got to come a time – three strikes and you’re out – when the tax collector and the banker have got to resign from their occupations, the one taking his savings to reimburse those he’s defrauded, the other sending a five-figure cheque to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. A time when the Lord and the landlord can congratulate their children for their impressive repentance and new-found civic virtue.

But then, wasn’t it precisely their virtue and achievements that the Lord and landlord ignored in the Pharisee and the minister? Do we really want to say that, after all, it would be better if the tax collector were more like the Pharisee, the banker more like the minister? That mercy is all very well, but surely not without a little reform, and if no reform, then some divine vengeance? But if we do want to say that – and I think we all probably do, at least a bit – don’t we demonstrate that we’ve missed the point of Jesus’ parable?

The thing is, once we start sliding scales, from real bad guys right down to, well, me – and while I might not be a saint, hey, I’m not that bad a guy – which the tax collector and the banker, not making comparisons, precisely do not think, but which the Pharisee and the minister do – well, then grace has left the building. Unconditional grace. Limitless forgiveness. I know it’s foolish, crazy, certifiably insane. And I could tell you, more sensibly, that the scales of divine judgement are sliding scales, that God has only so much patience, that that the time will come when he turns nasty – Pay-Back Day when the worse-than-me will finally get what they deserve. Which the church often teaches, and it really packs them in. But not, as far as I can tell, Jesus, who died preaching to a congregation of two – one of whom heckled – and lives for everyone. Everyone. God’s scales don’t slide like ours. Jesus goes down – all the way down – and Jesus takes all of us back up with him. The self-sufficiency of religion – get over it. The all-sufficiency of grace – get used to it. That is the odd, disturbing, but very good news that we are privileged to hear again today.

Bethel URC, Swansea
12 May 2013, Easter 7 (Christian Aid Week)

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