— A Sermon by Gary L. Bagley —
Luke 18:9-14; Sirach 35:12-17
One of the struggles we humans have is that of trying not to become a legalistic fanatic while attempting to become a better person. What I mean by that is that we tend to become mechanical, rigid, and obsessive. One law prompts another until we lose sight of our hearts and original desire.
Don’t get me wrong. I think having laws and guidelines are very important. A land with no laws or government becomes a place of chaos. No organization without rules will function long. Hence, we have speed limits for our highways and Robert’s Rules of Order for meetings. As a nation, we have a Constitution and a Bill of Rights. But if we aren’t careful, our rules and regulations become more important than that for which they were created.
On one occasion, a young prominent Jewish man came to Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” which in first-century Jewish language meant “what must I do to experience life in all its fullness” or life in “the Kingdom of heaven.” It was not a question related to life after death. Jesus first encouraged him to keep the Jewish laws, which the young man said he had done since his youth. Jesus then turned to matters of the heart. “[If that’s not doing it, then] sell what you have and help the poor, then join me and my disciple in our work,” but he couldn’t; or…didn’t want to do that.
If loving God is only about following rules, how predictable, boring, and unfulfilling that would be. Loving God has to do with the heart. When Jesus was asked what the greatest law was, he responded with a partial quote of the Jewish Shema prayer, which begins with, “Hear [O] Israel…“ Jesus said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Then, he added a post scrip, “and the second is equally important: love your neighbor as you love yourself.” There was nothing about idols or adultery or murder or stealing. It was first and foremost about the heart.
When our hearts are right, everything else in our lives will find its rightful place.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 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!’ (Luke 18:10-13) Kyrie eleison in the Latin liturgy.
Jesus was saying to those listening, that the person who finds his or her way to God is the person who relates from his or her own heart rather than being preoccupied with following rules.
Today’s gospel passage has a cornucopia of good topics. I’m going to pick two—a caution against religious legalism, and an encouragement toward healthy generosity.
I’ve been a curious observer and student of legalism since I was a young pastor—observing good, enthusiastic people trying to get others to say the “magic phrase” about their belief in God or pray the “sinner’s prayer” with little or no interest in the thoughts and feelings of the other person; the “prosperity gospel” proclaimed by some (send in $50 to our ministry and God will give it back to you ten-fold); obsessive curiosity about supposed hidden prophecies in the Book of Daniel or Revelation to give a clue about the “end times” even though a person can’t do anything about it other than live a good life; being sure you always pray “in Jesus name” in order for your prayer to be answered…even Jesus never suggested such nor did his disciples ever practice such.
Throughout much of our nation’s history, some of our well-intentioned political leaders have thought that we can make our nation and world into a more ethical place—or I should say a more Christian nation or world—through legislation…by legalistically forcing people to ascribe to a certain religious practice, in a certain specific manner I should add.
A few years back, an Alabama judge was ultimately removed from office for placing a two-and-a-half ton granite monument with the “Ten Commandments” in the state court house, then defying a court order to remove it. A few years later, one of our own state U.S. politicians was interested in a similar project to place the Ten Commandments in the nation’s capitol. Yet in a televised interview, he was unable to list what the ten were, initially recounting only three and finally remembering seven of them…being that such was so important.
Part of the problem with this particular legalistic approach to ethics is that three different versions of the Ten Commandments exist in the Old Testament—Exodus 20:1-17, Exodus 34:10-26, and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Plus, Leviticus 19 contains a partial list. If you are making such a monument, which version do you use? Then while promoting this Judeo-Christian set of ten laws to be placed in a public court of law (which conflicts with our Constitution’s First Amendment), why leave out the other 603 laws attributed to Moses books of Jewish law (first five books of the Old Testament or Jewish Bible). Of course, one of those 613 “laws of Moses”—not eating the flesh of pigs or touching their carcasses (Leviticus 11:8)—would eliminate two favorite American rituals: BBQ and football.
Loving God with all our heart creates great compassion for other people and requires that we evaluate each situation. It causes us to be much more tolerant of others. It opens the doors of our lives so that truth is welcomed, regardless of how uncomfortable we may be at the time.
The Reformation had its beginning on October 31, 1517. On that day, according to the traditional history, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg, Germany. These theses or statements of theological and institutional church convictions, in Luther’s case, expressed Luther’s opposition and protests to the practice of the Roman Church granting indulgences to those who paid an appropriate sum of money. The document of indulgence eliminated the need for one to confess his or her sins and promised a reduction (short-cut) of time in purgatory. Luther maintained that the experience of God’s grace was a matter of the heart, and so began the Reformation…all of that in “Readers Digest” form. The Church reformed and always reforming, so goes one of the Presbyterian or Reformed watchwords.
Our coming to faith has to do with the heart; our growing in truth and knowledge has to do with the heart; and, the foundation of all generosity begins in the heart—not legalism and not guilt —but the heart. The opening page of Anne Lamott’s Tender Mercies begins:
My coming to faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another. Like lily pads, round and green, these places summoned and then held me up while I grew. Each prepared me for the next leaf on which I would land, and in this way I moved across the swamp of doubt and fear.
This brings me to the second nugget (of several) in today’s gospel reading, complimented by the Old Testament-era reading from Sirach. You’ve probably heard me say at least one time this past summer during Bob’s sabbatical that generous people are healthy and happy people. An article I saved years ago from an October issue of “Portfolio” magazine’s Philanthropy section said much the same in different words. Speaking of it as a “statistical anomaly,” Arthur Brooks
says that a study within the Giving U.S.A. Foundation confirms that giving stimulates prosperity for both individuals and nations. In the pithy words of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions—he had money too.”
I’ll confess that trying always to do my best and encouraging the best from others has a selfish dimension. Whether it’s buffing-out the more-than a thousand slotted screws in my 93-year-old Seeburg coin operated player piano/nickelodeon or preparing to lead worship, trying to do my best—striving for excellence—in myself and others is always important. It’s a matter of the heart.
Lisa Eiseley’s poem, “The Star Thrower” has been adapted by many and has taken numerous forms. In one more creative way she is saying, “It’s a matter of the heart.”
As I walked along the seashore
This young boy greeted me.
He was tossing stranded starfish
Back to the deep blue sea.
I said “Tell me why you bother,
Why you waste your time this way.
There’s a million stranded starfish
Does it matter, anyway?”
And he said, “It matters to this one.
It deserves a chance to grow.
It matters to this one.
I can’t save them all I know.
But it matters to this one,
I’ll return it to the sea.
It matters to this one,
And it matters to me.”
1 Anne Lamott, Tender Mercies (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), p. 3.
2 Arthur Books, Portfolio magazine, “Giving Makes You Rich,” p.
9 He also 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. 11The 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. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But 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!’ 14I 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.”
35:12 Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford.
35:13 For the Lord is the one who repays, and he will repay you sevenfold.
35:14 Do not offer him a bribe, for he will not accept it;
35:15 and do not rely on a dishonest sacrifice; for the Lord is the judge, and with him there is no partiality.
35:16 He will not show partiality to the poor; but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.
35:17 He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan, or the widow when she pours out her complaint.