Jesus often told stories to illustrate his points. Today’s Gospel is a story that Jesus tells to some of the religious leaders who were so “puffed up” about how good they were. They were like balloons full of hot air.
They are like the first man in the story. As this man prays, he tells the truth about himself. He does do what is right. He fulfills all the commandments – except the most important. He was so busy “doing” that he forgot the first commandment, what Jesus calls the GREATEST commandment:“love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
Jesus tells his disciples and us - God doesn’t want empty rituals. God yearns for your heart.
Rob Bell tells a story in the video, “Sunday.” He says, “What if I was to bring flowers home for my wife. I got just the right flowers, the right colors and surprised her with them. What do you think would be her response? She would be happy – right?
“But what if he responded to her ‘Well of course I got you flowers. I’m your husband. I’m just doing my duty. Or… ‘it was nothing - they were cheap. I wasn’t really thinking of you at all. I just picked them up so they didn’t rot in the store.’ Or… what if he said, ‘I thought you needed them.’
Would she even want them?
His wife wants his heart – not just a show. And that’s what God wants. God wants our heart.
In Jesus’ story, the second man is a tax collector. He is despised by other people – and rightly so. Like the Pharisee, he tells the truth about himself – and it isn’t pretty. He is not a nice man. He has broken all sorts of commandments – when he begins to pray, this man is not in right relationship with God. But this man turns back to God, acknowledging that he can’t do it on his own and that he needs God’s love and mercy.
God answers his prayer. The first man went away still feeling self-righteous. But Jesus said, this man, the one who asked for mercy because he knew he was a loser. He needed help and so he begged God for help. Jesus said, he is “justified.”
“Justified” is kind of a churchy word. Martin Luther uses it a lot. What it means is “being made right” with God – by God. The first man thought he was “righteous” by his deeds, his actions. The second man was “made right” that is “justified” by God’s action.
Because of God, the second man is “justified.” And so are you. At the beginning of the worship, you and I did what the tax collector did: we confessed. We confess that we can’t do it on our own. We need God. And, because God is gracious and merciful and answers our prayer, we are “justified.”
But being “justified” is not the end of the story. Being “justified” doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we want and just ask forgiveness afterwards. It’s not a “get out of jail free card.” Being “justified” means being right with God – and that means that we are in relationship with God – in an on-going way. That means that God is in on and helping us with all of our choices, including the choices about what to do with the time, skills, talents, and all of the resources that we call our own.
Remember, it all belongs to God. But God gives us the freedom to choose how we use these gifts.
The first man in the story had basically said, “Got it. I’ll do good things with the gifts you’ve entrusted to me. I’m good.” The first man didn’t think he needed God’s help.
The second man, the tax collector, said, “I’m not so good. HELP!”
We don’t get to hear any more about him – but if the story were to continue, we would discover, that, like Zacchaeus, that tax collector is changed. It doesn’t mean that he will be perfect. But that man is now in relationship with God. He asked God to be merciful – and when God answers that prayer God doesn’t just come into your heart and scrub it up like a janitor and then LEAVE. No, God stays. God takes up residence.
You see, God wants to be a part of your life.
God loves you and claims you as God’s beloved child – no matter your age or race or ethnicity or how much money you have or don’t have. God wants your heart – but not just your heart. God wants you –all of you. God wants to help you live into an on-going relationship so that, as Rob Bell says, your heart can beat to the same beat as God, so that we want begin to want what God wants for us and for the world. This is what relationship with God is all about.
So how do we live into this relationship with God?
Do you know the story of Old Turtle and the Broken Truth? It’s a wonderful children’s story – it’s a fable – but like Jesus’ stories, can speak to people regardless of our ages.
In that story, the truth came to earth – but on the way, it was broken into two.
One half of the truth, the part that they received, was that they were the beloved people of God. The people rejoiced in this good message of love. But… after a while… they became a bit… well… arrogant. They thought that they were “better than” anyone else because, after all, they were the beloved. And because each one of them thought that they were the beloved… they thought that meant that others were not.
Their world became full of greed, privilege and self-righteousness – kind of like the first man in Jesus’ story.
In the story of the Old Turtle and the Broken Truth, a young girl went off to find out what was missing – where they had gone wrong. She discovered the other half of the truth: not only was she beloved but that all the other people were beloved too!
God made us his beloved – not so that we would run off into the desert or to a mountaintop to be in relationship with God by ourselves - but to be in community. This is why Jesus, when asked about the greatest commandment, was quick to give the second greatest commandment as well: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He later told his disciples, “love one another as I have loved you.”
This commandment is harder than the first. It’s one thing to love God. After all, God is gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
It’s harder to love our neighbor. In this election season it is getting increasingly difficult to love our neighbor – those who are so crazy and ill-advised, and to vote for… “fill in the candidate.” Simply listening to the news can fill us with anger, fear and anxiety.
What is a Christian to do?
It’s really tempting to shut off the media for the next 16 days. But that would be like the early Christians who, hearing they were beloved, ran off to the desert to be in communion with God alone.
You are God’s beloved. God wants your heart because God loves you, forgives you when you fail to be the person who God made you to be and walks with you. And God has made you for community, to love one another just as Jesus loves you.
A pastor friend of mine, Bonnie, sent me a message with three pieces of advice that another pastor gave to his friends regarding the election:
1. Vote for the person you find most worthy;
2 Speak no evil of the person you voted against;
3) Be kind to those who vote on the other side.
This was the advice of John Wesley, the co-founder of the Methodist church, in 1774.
It’s good advice. It reminds us that we are to not only love God – but also our neighbor – even when they disagree with us.
God forgives us when we fail – and “justifies” us, makes us right with God. Shouldn’t we do the same for our neighbor?