Saturday, October 22, 2016

Richesse Oblige: Reflections on Luke 18.9-14 (RCL Proper 30C, 23 October 2016)

Richesse Oblige
Reflections on Luke 18.9-14

RCL Proper 30C
23 October 2016

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

         18.9 [Jesus] told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:  10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  11 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.  12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  13 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!’  14 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.”

         When my family returned from Germany in October 1963, I was enrolled in My Dairy’s Grade 5 class at Zebulon Pike Elementary School in Colorado Springs.  While we had been in Germany, the Colorado Springs school district joined in the movement of ‘streaming’ students.  ‘Streaming’ meant that, at an early stage in their education, students were identified as being ‘academically talented’ or ‘vocationally inclined’ or ‘average’.  The advantage of streaming was to permit students to do well in those areas where their gifts lay.  The disadvantage was the tendency to put students into particular boxes that they rarely escaped.  It must be said that racism often influenced how educators decided the stream that a student should follow.
         Mr Dairy was the teacher responsible for the ‘academically talented’ students and he was the first of the many teachers I had from grade 5 until I graduated from high school in 1971.  They took their job seriously and they demanded the best of us.  They taught us to ask the traditional ‘who, what, where, when, why, how’ questions and to love the ‘why’ question above all.
         But above all they taught us that whatever gifts and skills we possessed were not personal privileges to be hoarded and used solely for self-interest.  There was little to no tolerance for elitism.  If I could give a motto for the academic training I received, I would choose ‘richesse oblige’ --- ‘abundance brings obligations’.  Our gifts and skills were to be used for the common good.
         When I read today’s gospel, the tenth or eleventh time I’ve heard this story in the lectionary cycle, my thoughts went flying back to those days when I was a student in Colorado Springs.  In the first place both men have been ‘streamed’.  The Pharisaic movement within the Judaism of Jesus’ time shared many qualities with contemporary Anglicanism.  Pharisees loved the Scriptures but were sceptical of literal interpretations of what the Scriptures meant.  Unlike their primary competitors, the Sadducees, a elite and priestly party, Pharisees were primarily middle-class, professional people.  The Pharisees also believed that tradition, the lived experience of the community over generations, had a role to play in shaping how people lived their lives in faithfulness to the God of Moses.
         People looked up to the Pharisees.  Because the Sadducees were in charge of the Temple in Jerusalem, they tended to find ways to work with the Roman governor to keep matters in hand.  The Pharisees, on the other hand, were people of the synagogue, the local institutions where Jews gathered to study, to pray and to support each other.  If anyone wanted to know how to live a proper Jewish life, he or she would likely ask a Pharisee.  In many ways the Pharisaic movement abounded with ‘richesse’, whether financial, cultural or religious.
         On the other end of the spectrum of social respectability were people like our tax collector.  Here was a man who was working the system in order to make a living.  Most Jews despised them because they were agents of the Roman government and milked the population for tax revenues.
         Some tax collectors were wealthy, while others barely eked out a living.  Some became tax collectors cheerfully, while others took on this work reluctantly in order to survive.  Some travelled with armed guards, while others spent a far portion of the day looking over their shoulders.  If trouble brewed in a community, then you can bet that the local tax collector would likely be among the first casualties.
         And so these two men come into the Temple to pray, one blessed with the riches of generations of faithfulness to the covenant God made with the people of Israel at Sinai, the other wretched in the sight of his neighbours and uncertain of his place within the embrace of God’s compassion.  Jesus does not criticize the Pharisee because he tithes and prays and tries to be faithful to the covenant of Moses.  Jesus criticizes him because he has forgotten that the richness of his religious faith is meant to give life to a commitment to justice --- even for a tax collector, a commitment to self-giving love for one’s neighbour --- even a tax collector --- and a commitment to acknowledge our equal dignity in the eyes of God --- even a tax collector.
         These days we are constantly assaulted with messages that cause us to fear the future.  Will we have the resources for adequate health care?  Will we leave our children a better world or a worse one?  Will we have adequate resources to meet the needs of a growing number of ‘baby boomers’ as they retire?  Will we ever be able to repair our relationships with First Nations?
         Fear generates a feeling of uncertainty and scarcity.  We hold tightly to our resources, whether they be financial, cultural or social.  We may even turn inward and narrow the circles of our relationships to those who look like ‘us’ and act like ‘us’ and share the same history as we have experienced.  We forget the abundance God has given us and the obligations that our abundance puts upon us.
         We face real challenges in a society where religious faith is a way of life that many of our neighbours politely avoid.  We cannot deny that the character of our neighbourhood is changing.  But we can affirm that we face these challenges in the context of abundance:  a way of following Jesus that has depth and breadth, a heritage of generosity that has given us financial and physical assets, a commitment to our neighbours that has shaped our ministries.

         Richesse oblige.  The obligations of abundance are not burdens that we bear grudgingly but opportunities for ministry that we receive gratefully.  Abundance gives reasons for hope in what God is doing in us and through us to bring about the fullness of God’s purposes for us and for all creation.  So let us give thanks to God who has called us to ministry and given us the abundance to accomplish.

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