A minister received a phone call one morning whilst sitting down to his breakfast. Just as he placed a spoonful of cereal in his mouth the phone rang. Chomping through his muesli he managed to answer the phone and mumble his name. No sooner was his name out when his caller announced herself and began to tell him she was in a crisis and needed him as soon as possible. He swallowed the muesli and attempted to ask what her problem seemed to be. She refused his question, growing more agitated by the minute and insisting he come around immediately. He’d had experience with this woman and offered to be there in an hour, to which she agreed and was suddenly much calmer.
The minister completed his breakfast, washed his dishes, had a coffee with his wife, did some emails and finally got into his car and drove the 5 minutes to this parishioner’s home. On the way he formulated a plan to deal with this woman’s tendency to blow any small incident into something huge. When he arrived she offered him a cup of tea, which he accepted. They sat down and before she could launch into her story he held his hands up to quieten her. He said he had some conditions. He would hear her story but he only had 1 hour and before she could pour her heart out with her current problems, she had to spend 15 minutes telling him her blessings. She looked shocked and sat with a confused and horrified look upon her face. After a few minutes of silence, he calmly asked her if she was okay. She told him that this wouldn’t work because she would actually need all of the time to tell him her blessings. For the remainder of the hour she recited an endless list of the wonders, beauty, joy and blessings she experienced in her life.
When he stood to leave she thanked him and her smile was radiant, her problems forgotten in the light of the good things in her life.
Recently someone suggested that I/we are blessed. I wasn’t sure what to make of that at first – what did they mean? All around me was rhetoric pointing out how difficult things are at the moment. There is a budget deficit that is worrying to many. There is climate change and weather problems, lack of rain, bushfires and big questions about the environment. Of course the threat of terrorism is always before us and asylum seekers seem to present eternal difficulties such that we should not allow them in…
I felt like the woman – a little flabbergasted, even annoyed. If we are so blessed then why are all these big problems surrounding us? Then I stopped and realised that the world in which I live is actually a blessed, enchanted world in which the presence of God is so abundantly real and wondrous – but I don’t always think this, see this or feel it. All of the blessedness of life – the people, the world of nature (trees, animals, stars and sky, rivers…), food, health, gadgets and gizmos, music, art and so on – is abundantly free or accessible. The truly good things are freely available to all of us. We are blessed.
With this in mind I read this week’s Gospel story (Luke 18:9-14), a parable of Jesus where he speaks of two men who go to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee (a pious Jewish religious leader) who stood out by declaring that he was not like the other, a tax collector (usually grouped in as a sinner). He declared that he was righteous, law-abiding, not dishonest, perverted or corrupt… This, of course, was all true. He was a righteous man who observed the law religiously and was very respectable.
The other man stood at a distance and bowed down, never looking up. He spoke from the heart saying, simply, ‘God, I know I do the wrong thing – please have mercy on me.’ Again, he was right. He was a cheat who ripped his own people off as he worked for the Romans, the enemy. Everything the religious leader said about him was true. In commenting on this story Jesus said that it was indeed the tax collector who went away justified.
My instant reaction was to think, ‘Good! You self-righteous Pharisee! Who do you think you are??!’ But then I wondered how I might sometimes be in his position and genuinely thank God that I am not like others; that I am okay as I look upon them in their struggles, misery or lostness. All too often I feel in a better position to others – not superior, just in a better place with better outlook, perspective, faith or whatever. Everything the Pharisee said was quite correct but it was also all about him. Often it’s all about me – what about you?
The tax collector couldn’t even look up but he didn’t go on about how bad he was. He declared that he did the wrong thing and sought God’s mercy – it was about placing himself into the grace of God. There wasn’t much he could do to fix everything – he didn’t even promise to but opened himself to God’s mercy. As one commentator put it: ‘This parable… was and is an attempt to shift our attention from ourselves – our piety or our passions, our faith or our failure, our glory or our shame – to God, the God who delights in justifying the ungodly, welcoming the outcast, and healing all who are in need.’
So the parable is not about being humble, although that is a desirable quality. Nor is it about living with the heavy burden of the recognition of or, guilt and shame of ‘being a sinner’. It is about recognising our blessing, a blessing that comes from beyond us, wraps itself around us, holds us even when we walk outside its gracious path, deviate from its virtues or blithely live oblivious to its holy presence in our life. This benevolent gracious mercy comes to each of us and dwells within each of us. It is the presence in which we live and move and have our being. It is the deep love at the heart of the universe, the rich grace of beauty, wonder and kinship. It is more precious than the air we breathe or the water that quenches thirst, refreshes and renews us. This blessedness is an act of God who cannot but surround us in rich blessing and fill us with delight and wonder. It is for all – the righteous Pharisee and the sinful tax collector. Except these designations become meaningless before gracious holiness and we simply become people, loved and cherished in the Divine heart. We are children who are loved deeply and for whom this gracious God yearns and lavishes abundant generosity. Perhaps we might look up and out and rejoice in the abundant, lavish blessing that surround us and give thanks!