Oh How Can It Go So Wrong?

humilityWho among us has not felt the ugly cloak of self-righteousness upon our shoulders? For most of us, it is a humbling and heartbreaking experience, one that leaves us filled with shame and begging to be forgiven for forgetting who and what we are.

Not that I favor the constant not-really-so-humbling- practice of constantly confessing loudly our sinful nature. I find that rather self-righteous actually. I see no need to heap ashes upon my head on a regular basis. My failures and limitations are known to God and to me, and in the quiet of my own heart these things are pondered deeply and acted upon appropriately. All else is for show it seems to me.

Today’s liturgy focuses on the famous parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. As we all know, the Pharisee was among his peers an object of piety, a stickler for the details of Jewish law, and always quick to call for perfect compliance in the strictest sense. The tax collector, was an outsider within his community, working for the Romans, taking his pay as a cut from the exorbitant tax bills of his fellow Jews. The more he got from them, the more he got. He was shunned and hated by all those who saw him coming.

The Pharisee enters the temple and begins reciting all his virtues–how he is superior to most of his fellow Jews, especially this lowly tax collector. He apparently thinks that God needs reminding and remind Him he does. On the other hand, the tax collector dares not even raise his eyes heavenward, so ashamed of his sinful nature is he. He begs for mercy.

No doubt the Pharisee, perhaps not with words, but in intent does not beg at all, but merely asks to be given his due, what he assumes is his (wealth, prestige, power) because he is who he is, a Pharisee.  The tax collector expects nothing, but he trusts that this God of love will consider his plea.

We are led to recall the first reading from Sirach:

The LORD is a God of justice,
who knows no favorites.
Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.
The one who serves God willingly is heard;
his petition reaches the heavens.
The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay. (Sir 35: 12-14, 16-18)

Can we relate?

If there was ever a story to point out what Pharisees might appear like today it is this story:

A server at a popular Italian eatery in Kansas was shocked to find that customers had left behind an anti-gay message on their bill in lieu of a tip.

“Thank you for your service, it was excellent,” the customers had written. “That being said, we cannot in good conscience tip you, for your homosexual lifestyle is an affront to GOD. Queers do not share in the wealth of GOD, and you will not share in ours.

The customers continued: “We hope you will see the tip your fag choices made you lose out on, and plan accordingly. It is never too late for GOD’S love, but none shall be spared for fags. May GOD have mercy on you.”

No doubt any decent person finds this type of thing utterly shocking. One can easily see the self-righteous arrogance of the writer. So very sure they are right. So very sure they know the mind of God. So very sure they will be properly rewarded for their public chastisement of the young waiter. The slurs make it clear that there is no human love offered, but merely condemnation.

Good people of faith will of course be horrified and condemn this behavior for what it is, an utterly misguided reading of scripture, a failure to recognize the over-riding directive of love that we are all to obey first and foremost, and a blatant exhibition of raw bigotry.

Others will condemn the words used, but claim that the action was still appropriate because they too are sure they understand the bible correctly.

Some few others will remind us that it is our “job” to advise the sinful of their sins, since they may be somehow “unaware”. Christian duty is their cry.

People of no faith will nod their heads and once again point out that this is what “religion gets you”. If there is anything good in religions of any kind, it has long been lost to powerful interests within and their acceptance of “rules” that on their face are unfair, unjust, ugly, bigoted. No God who would create such a rule, they argue, is a God worth worshiping or following.

As I remain separated from my Church, I watch as it struggles with these issues. Pope Francis signals that at the very least, our rhetoric has been ugly and off-putting. It does no good to welcome with the one hand while the other is demanding that to be a member in good standing, one must cease and desist being who you are. There is no welcoming in this. There is only some sick pathetic attempt to portray something one is not.

One wonders how the patron at the restaurant learned such ugliness. Jesus certainly modeled no such behavior. The companies like Hobby Lobby who are suing the government in order not to be required to provide health insurance to their employees that includes coverage of birth control and other reproductive assistance is another example. Where does Jesus model this sort of “my way or the highway” approach. Did he not uphold the Samaritans on many occasions–a sect reviled by ordinary Jews.

If one believes that this is from God, then surely one must be horrifically wrong, for this is not love, this is not compassion, nor is it forgiveness, welcoming, community, support, loving kindness. There is nothing good here at all. There is only hatred, fear, and self-righteousness, that suggests that in finding you lesser I am somehow better.

And this cannot be so.

This cannot be God.

 

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*Gasp* They Were Communists!

Indeed, it’s true. I’m not sure how some of our conservative friends explain this wonderful uplifting section of Acts.

The community of believers was of one heart and mind,
and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own,
but they had everything in common.
With great power the apostles bore witness
to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,
and great favor was accorded them all.
There was no needy person among them,
for those who owned property or houses would sell them,
bring the proceeds of the sale,
and put them at the feet of the apostles,
and they were distributed to each according to need. (Acts 4: 32-35)

It doesn’t get more Marxist than that. Imagine, being of “one heart and mind”. Imagine there being “no needy person among them”.  Imagine everything distributed “to each according to need”.

It is a beautiful model of how we should be. Sure, we can agree that room should be made for those who wish, because of their own personality, to work with greater effort. Sure, we can give them a bigger house, or a car with more accessories. That is, as long as there is “no needy person among (us)”.  For we should be of “one heart and mind” that no one should desire or receive the yacht of their dreams while one person lives in squalor.

How did we get so far afield? How did that model fail almost as soon as it was instituted?

Perhaps it was because it functioned within a small environment, among a subset of a larger community. Perhaps it was because it had at its base a sufficiently large wealthy group who could sustain the poor within their ranks. Perhaps it was because they were not yet actively engaged in surviving persecution. Any number of reasons might be advanced, and surely it was a composite of many that led to the end of the “to each according to need” philosophy.

We can see that this was true in Paul’s efforts to raise money for the “church in Jerusalem”, and surely throughout his letters we find efforts being made to raise funds to support various fledgling communities of faith throughout the Empire.

But there was something more, that is clear from the Gospel reading in John. By the time John wrote his Gospel, the church is under much more stress. Persecution is a real thing. And what to do about it no doubt engendered much discussion and difference of opinion. John speaks to this church which is in some disarray and under threat. He tells them this story about Thomas.

On the evening of that first day of the week,
when the doors were locked, where the disciples were,
for fear of the Jews,
Jesus came and stood in their midst
and said to them, “Peace be with you.” (Jn 20: 19)

This is the state of the community–locked behind doors, fearful. Jesus appears, and as someone pointed out to me, his first words are PEACE. “Peace be with you” he says. These are people he knew, people he lived with, ate and slept with, prayed with. And the first word he says is peace. Can this mean that already the squabbling and arguing was afoot? I suspect so.

One has but to look at the history of the church down through the ages to realize that we are a contentious lot. We have managed to divide ourselves into tens of thousands of various sects, each claiming that it has the true, original, and correct interpretation of the three-year ministry of Jesus Christ. When Jesus returns to us again, more than likely the first word from his mouth will be peace.

I have no clue how conservative Christians explain the communism of the early church, or why at least it’s point: there was no needy person among them, isn’t upheld as the overriding standard. Should we not all, as Christians, demand that nothing less than this be the true state of affairs in our land before we talk of free markets and punishing people for being successful?

How do we get to prosperity gospels and such when millions of our brothers and sisters still live in squalor? How do we enjoy our cappuchinos when babies cry from hunger? How do we shrink in horror when government tries to step into the gap between the enormously wealthy and the terribly poor and provide minimum assistance? How dare we claim that this is the province of church–to take care of the poor.

How dare we use this language, when it is our province and when we have failed to do so. For 2,000 years we have tried, but we have failed. How dare we vilify the governments around the world who choose to step into that gap and fill it? They are only doing what the early church actually did aren’t they?

Aren’t they?

Amen.

 

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