A week ago last Wednesday night, Kathy and I, like many of you, sat watching the final stages in the rescue of the 33 Chilean miners from the San Jose Mine in Copiapó. That rescue was a dramatic event in its own right, but for people of faith it was something more: I don’t think any church person could have watched without drawing an unconscious parallel between the ascent of those miners in the capsule and the central act of Christian faith, the resurrection of Jesus. That the impromptu city gathered around the mine took the name “Camp Hope”, and that the rescue vehicle was called “the Phoenix” only added to the religious associations of the experience. These thirty-three men were presumed dead, and now they are alive. All of us felt lifted up and transfixed by this near-miraculous event. What else does a preacher need to say?
As stirring as this story is, though, it is only natural that we now begin to learn that we might have romanticized the miners just a bit, that they are actual human beings with both strengths and weakenesses. One miner emerged to be greeted by his mistress but not by his wife. Others have told stories of conflicts, cliques, and tensions that developed during their time below. There have been hints of violence and aggression between the miners. Though we should not be surprised by any of this, to some extent we are.
One of the problems of living in this culture is that we don’t have a very good way of describing or accepting human nature in all its fullness. Popular culture is sentimental about human nature and seems to hold that human beings are naturally sweet and good, and so it has no way of explaining conflict and aggression in human affairs.
We in the church have always understood that all human beings are capable of both all the virtues and all the vices. But perhaps because the church overstressed the vice and underemphasized the virtue, a modern secular culture has grown up in its place in which people reject entirely the idea or even the possibility of sin. It is our religious tradition’s understanding that people are a a complicated mixture of goodness and sin and need to be accepted as such. It is our culture’s assertion that most people are essentially good and only a “few bad apples” are evil. Hence our outrage when we hear of someone we thought we admired gaming the system, using steroids, or having their hand in the till. I understand the disappointment, but not the surprise.
There are many ways to go through life deluded, but chief among them is to think yourself incapable of selfishness, aggression, or evil. Because our culture rejects the idea of sin, it has no way to deal with failures of human judgment except to characterize those who act badly as somehow “inhuman”. But those who act badly are not inhuman. Nor are we inhuman when we act badly. Human beings are capable of generosity and sacrifice. We are also capable of selfishness and aggression. We are the totality of all those drives and characteristics. God knows and loves us as we are. To be sure, God calls us toward virtue and away from sin. But if God were only to call and love the virtuous, church on any given Sunday would be a very small gathering.
Listen again to Jesus’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector:
"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.'
(Well, there’s nothing wrong with that!)
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." [Luke 18:9-14]
In order to understand this parable, it helps to realize that the underlying image here and in much of the Bible is of a law court. Both the Pharisee and the tax collector appear in the temple to make their case before God. This conception of God’s presence as a court and our relationship before God as judge is one of plaintiff (if we have a complaint) or defendant (if we ourselves are accused). This is an old idea and has survived even in Christian liturgy, for example in the way the presider at the Eucharist holds up her hands in a way that was used by Roman advocates before Caesar. In this way of seeing things, when you and I appear before God we are making our case much as an attorney would. The Pharisee in this story is like a lawyer who thinks he has an ironclad argument. Look at me, your honor: I fast, I tithe, I’m not a thief, a rogue, or an adulterer. So I’m sure your honor will aggree with me by declaring me innocent!
And then there’s a tax collector. In New Testament times, a tax collector was a Jew who did the dirty work of the Romans, collecting exorbitant taxes through often unsavory means. A tax collector in Jesus’s day would be like a mobster in ours. This man would have been despised by all polite and right thinking Jews. And yet here he is, presenting himself before God with the simple words, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” For Jesus's audience, the startling point of the story, then, is that the judge decides for the low-life tax collector and against the upstanding Pharisee. The one who looks guilty is innocent. The one who presents himself as innocent is guilty, even if he doesn't even know it.
For me, this parable raises the question, “How do you present yourself before God?” It is a temptation to think of God as we think of other people, as One who can be deceived by appearances. But one deep point of biblical and Christian faith is that God sees and knows us human beings as we are, in all our complications and with our virtues as well as our faults. One of the problems of the spiritual life is getting the courage to present yourself as you are, not as you think you should be, in your prayers and conversations with God. So the Pharisee in this story stands for each one of us when we think that we can impress God with our resume. “Here, God, is a list of my recent accomplishments. I’m sure you will be suitably impressed.”
It isn’t that God rejects those accomplishments. It’s more that God does not want us to think of God’s love as something we have to earn by them. When Jesus says of the tax collector, “' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified,” we should hear that as one of the great, comforting moments in all of scripture. God knows us in the fullness of who we are, in our glories and in our limitations, and God wants to be with us in the totality of our being. If you think that you can only approach God when you’re on your best behavior, then you are misunderstanding the depth of the grace and blessing that God holds out before you. If the Chilean miners could greet their President in clothes they’d worn for 70 days without taking a shower, you can present yourself to God as you actually are. And it’s only when you come to God as you are and not as you think you ought to be that the healing light of God’s love can shine into and transform your life.
As it often does, our Collect for today—the prayer that we say at the beginning of the service—puts it better than I can. It asks that God increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity, so that we may obtain God’s promises by loving what God commands. When I’m honest with myself, I know that I don’t really love what God commands. Sure, I love some of what God commands, but I don’t love all of it. I love seven of the commandments, but not all ten of them. I’ll obey all ten of them, but I won’t really like it. I am like the Pharisee when I think of God’s commands as a checklist to be dutifully obeyed. But the hard thing about authentic faith is that it’s not just about obedience. It’s about love. Something in my heart resists the fullness of what God wants for me and the world. Sure, I’ll dress up and follow the rules and obey the law, but God wants something more than that. God wants me not only to obey the law. God wants me to love it. God wants me not to love 5 or 6 of the commandments; God wants me to love all 10 of them. I’m not there yet. And from the fact that I’m not there yet, I learn two things that I’d like to share with you.
The first thing I learn from my inability to love the law is that God is doing something in each of us that goes beyond making us mere model citizens. God wants to convert and transform our hearts, to put a “new heart and a new spirit” into us as the prophet Ezekiel says. God is up to something bigger and deeper in your life than you may realize. God is transforming you into someone who can obtain God’s promises. God is converting you into someone who can love what God commands. This is not a one time experience. It is the long-haul ongoing journey of the life of faith. So one bit of good news this morning: even if you cannot obey, much less love, what God commands, there is hope for you. God is working out a purpose in you that will result in your transformation into the person God made and calls you to be. That may not happen today or even in your lifetime, but God will prevail in this ongoing quest to know, love, and bless you.
The second thing I learn from my inability to love the law is what Paul knew so long ago and is about the nature of the law itself. Obeying the law is a good thing, but it will not finally lead to the kind of transformative, converting relationship with God that Jesus offers us in today’s Gospel. The only thing that will help me get there is an honest assessment of who I am before God. Like the tax collector in the parable, like the dirty, sweaty Chilean miners being hugged by their President, you and I are invited to open ourselves to God’s embrace however and wherever we are in life’s journey. When we do that, God will say of us, “I tell you, this one went down to their home justified.” That work is in God’s hands, but we can cooperate with it. And the best way to begin that process is to start with the tax collector’s heartfelt and powerful words, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'” If you can begin to say that in all its fullness, you will go down to your home justified. Amen.