More about grace, religion, and tax collectors …

3 11 2007

Texts: Isaiah 1:10-20; Luke 19:1-10

A few posts back I wrote about the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, or tax collector. The Pharisee did all the right things, was most likely an upstanding member of society, and was quite religious. His worship and prayer consisted of a litany of how wonderful he was, and how he was thankful that he was such a good man. The Publican, on the other hand, did nothing except stare at his feet and asked for God’s mercy. In this parable, I said that one of the things that Jesus was trying to teach us about was the futility of religion. We can be in church every Sunday, observe every fast and feast, tithe generously, and it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if we don’t show any evidence of humility or the work of God’s grace and love in our life.

Now, a distinction must be made between faith and religion. Our faith is what we believe. The religion is the contraption, the man-made “stuff,” the liturgy, the music, etc., that we should be using to express our devotion and worship. All too often, however, it becomes a means of justifying ourselves before God, when Jesus says that there is nothing that we can do on our own. Religion, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, as it can help us focus our thoughts and hearts towards God individually and corporately. But when we start to think that contraption is our ticket to eternal life, we eventually become arrogant, as our friend the Pharisee shows us.

In the book of Isaiah, we see the prophet being sharply critical of temple worship. He shows us all the window dressings and trappings of religion: the incense, the sacrifices, the observances … the people thought that was enough to remain in favour with God. However, God says “not so fast, folks! You’ve got me all wrong!” Again, none of these things are bad in and of themselves and they are quite useful and besides, very beautiful! I’m not trading in my Book of Common Prayer or my Daily Office for anything. But while all these are nice, what God really wants to see is our doing justice. According to Isaiah, he wants us to learn to do good; seek justice; rescue the oppressed; defend the orphan; and plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:17). Our hearts need to focus on the other, the outcast, the oppressed, the marginalized. It is no coincidence that Jesus began his ministry with the words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor … He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind …. to release the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.Worship and justice are so intertwined that the act of doing justice becomes an act of worship in and of itself. The ritual must reflect the relationship.

Our Gospel reading for this week shows us what happens when the Good News of God’s mercy, grace and justice reaches the outcast. In today’s passage, we find Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector of Jericho. We all know the very low opinion people had of tax collectors in those days. They were traitors … outcasts .. not polite company. What does Jesus do when he sees Zacchaeus in the tree craning his neck to get a view of this carpenter’s son from Nazareth? Jesus looks up at him and says, “I’m going to stay with you today.” This short, unclean unorthodox outcast from society gets wrapped up in the unconditional love of Jesus Christ. He offers to give a huge chunk of change to the poor and repay what he may have swindled out of his countrymen with interest. The fact that this man’s life was transformed is confirmed by the concluding statements in the passage, “Today salvation has come to this house … for the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” The heart of stone and the spirit of greed became a heart of flesh and generosity. Salvation has come to the outcast … the outcast rich and the outcast poor.

In the Old Testament, we see God showing us how working for justice for the outcast is an act of worship. In the Gospels, we see a wealthy man on the margins of society brought into the flock of the Good Shepherd … so where does that leave us, with all this talk of outcasts? The scandal is … we’re all outcasts on some level. We all need the grace and love of God to change our hearts and transform our lives so that we may worship him in spirit and in truth. We are all called to this radical love for each other. When we meet Jesus, we are changed, just like Zacchaeus. We are not told how it happens or what we must do to make it happen … we are just told that it happens. We find that our religion is not just all the beauty and majesty of a service or listening to a good sermon. It is much bigger than that … it is a life of worship in gratitude for the grace and love poured out for us all. Our worship takes the form of not just psalms and hymns and prayers, but even in the act of working in a soup kitchen or defending those who have no voice.

Amen.

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