Proper 5 ~ Lectionary Year A ~ June 8, 2008
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar
Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early
…I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity
Let us remember how the people of Jesus’ time felt about tax-collectors. They loathed them. It wasn’t just a matter of the normal exasperation at paying taxes. These tax-collectors were collaborators and cheats who profited from Roman oppression. In our time, it would be as though Jesus had gone out to dinner with an Enron or Blackwater executive. When His followers objected, Jesus told them “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners,” and sent them away to study today’s prophecy about love and mercy vs. sacrifice.
Today also, Paul continues his great theme of justification by faith, which is really the same thing. Because the “sacrifice” is shorthand for the whole observance of the law. And from the prophets on God has been announcing that the Law is less desirable to God than steadfast love. Paul HAS gone back and learned that lesson, as Jesus commanded. Paul was one of the great Rabbis of Israel ~ the star pupil of the great Gamaliel. And as is clear from today’s passage, he didn’t renounce ANYTHING when he received his blinding revelation. We refer to it as his “conversion”, but he didn’t see it that way. The late Bishop Krister Stendahl demonstrated conclusively that Paul was not a Hamlet-like figure wrestling with questions of conscience (the prevailing view since at least the time of Luther). Instead Paul wrestled with profound theological problems concerning Jewish law and the meaning of sin. If we are justified by observing the law, then how could Abraham have been justified? How could he become the “father of many nations?” Paul, the Rabbi, concluded from the Hebrew religious tradition itself that justification is not about observing the law. Or at least that the outward observance of Torah comes after Justification. Justification, is about “hoping against hope”, as Abraham did, in Paul’s unforgettable locution. Justification, in other words is about FAITH and about Hosea’s steadfast love.
Faith was why the astounded Matthew followed Jesus to dinner. Faith in the sense of trust, of course, not that he believed anything in particular about Jesus. Matthew was surely more surprised than any of the followers. Why would Jesus sully Himself with a creep like him? But Matthew “hoped against hope”, just like Abraham. He certainly didn’t think he had anything to offer that would gain anybody’s favor. He was NOT righteous. Jesus told His followers that His whole mission was to call sinners. He didn’t even say “call sinners to repentance”, but just “call sinners”. And He said it in a way that is often overlooked: “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” In other places, this is softened with metaphors such as “the healthy have no need of a physician. But the sick.” Here, it is more brutal: Jesus is not INTERESTED IN YOU, IF YOU ARE RIGHTEOUS. That’s because, as Paul figured out, there isn’t anyone in that category to be interested in: as he said last week, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. As long as you think you’re righteous on your own, there is nothing Jesus can offer you.
Like His Father, Jesus doesn’t need our sacrifices. He doesn’t care a thing for what we imagine will justify us in His sight. It is those, like Matthew, who have nothing to offer who are justified. This is the paradox ~ the Mystery ~ that blew Paul away. As he told us in other place, Paul was Mr. Law and Mr. Observance, until God revealed to him the deeper meaning of Torah: the outward observance of its commandments doesn’t make us acceptable to God. We are ALREADY acceptable, just as Abraham was, not through any merit of his own, but just because God is God, “Who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Our righteousness, our justification, does not exist. God calls it into existence. We do not make it, God does. That is what our tradition calls grace.
We can refuse it. We are not robots. We have a choice. God can only call us. Abraham did not have to pull up stakes and leave everything in the middle of his life and set off to a “land that you know not.” Matthew did not have to follow Him to dinner. God doesn’t force us. But God does make the offer. What Matthew had in common with Abraham was that he was NOT righteous, and he knew it, but nevertheless, he hoped against hope, and followed. If either of them HAD thought they deserved the invitation, the call, they would never have heard it. Even God cannot pierce the delusion of self-righteousness, and reliance on my own observance can get me nothing but wrath.
Torah is a blessing, not a curse, unless we imagine that the sacrifice it commands is the means to rather than the result of our justification. If we think our sacrifice will justify us, we don’t love God; our love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early. If with Abraham, and Matthew, and Paul, we recognize that we have nothing to offer, and if we can accept the wondrous fact that God doesn’t care, we are on the way to steadfast love, and the knowledge and vision of God.
COME, LORD JESUS