There’s a bloke that sometimes stands on a corner opposite Westfields Parramatta. There, at the lights, he spruiks his particular line of religious belief with passion and desperation. Occasionally someone will sidle up and engage him in a conversation that encourages and affirms his hard-line, narrow stance. Very occasionally there is someone who has time and energy to take him on, but he gives no ground. His size and fierce, passionate manner can be intimidating but on the whole, most people simply ignore him and can’t wait to cross the road.
The rhetoric of this fellow is fire and brimstone and filled with dire warnings of what will happen to sinners, of which he assumes everyone attending to the lights, awaiting the green, are prime examples. We are all sinners, for whatever reason – most likely that we have a different view on life or faith or something to this man’s belief system.
Sinners, it isn’t a word used terribly much these days except in particular religious circles where there is a pejorative implication warning of the wrath of a vengeful god who is only appeased by believing in their particular views of faith and narrow interpretation of the Bible. We encountered this rhetoric in Israel Folau’s excruciating social media outbursts that condemned pretty much everyone – certainly that is the view of his father, who takes a hard-line view around the Bible and faith and what is true, false and worthy of Divine judgement. We are all sinners, claims such people but the basis of such sinfulness is the denying of particular ‘expressed truths’ that they adhere to. There are belief systems that people hold to, religiously, and use them to define who is in, out, lost… Sin, according to these overly zealous religious people, is grounded in doing what God doesn’t like and such actions, beliefs, thoughts… are worthy of judgement.
Is this true? Is this what it is all about? Is there a God sitting in some sublime heavenly residence watching the people below and marking out who is right, wrong, good or evil and prescribing appropriate judgement upon them like a Divine version of Santa Claus? Is this really what Christian (and Jewish) faith are all about? Is this the way Jesus lives and what he teaches? Does he not lift up those who are caught in cycles of life that are unhealthy to both the person and others around them and bring new life and vitality and self worth? Jesus, it seems, portrays a God who loves and nurtures in grace, so that human become the very best they can be – their truest self!
There’s a story Jesus tells this week (Luke 18:9-14), where two men go to the Temple to pray. A religious leader steps into the public area and before those gathered prays loudly and proudly. He thanks God that he is a good person who does all the right things and isn’t like the second man who is a tax collector. The religious man rattles off the long list of his virtues and proudly stands before God, justifying himself for all his goodness.
The other man, a tax collector who has probably ripped off his own people, collaborated with the Roman occupiers and transgressed several laws and cultural taboos, simply stands aside, bowed down low and seeks the mercy of God upon him as he is a sinner. Jesus, perhaps somewhat surprisingly to his hearers, suggests that it is the tax collector, not the religious figure, who goes away justified.
Two men go to the Temple to pray and only one goes away transformed and his self-descriptor is that of being a sinner. It seems, in Jesus’ actions and rhetoric, that God is less concerned with fulfilling belief systems and legal requirements – the religious man did all of this to near perfection. The man justified before God was the one who demonstrated a depth of self-awareness, to recognise his own personal failures in fulfilling his own sense of humanity. This man, it seems, recognises how he has failed himself, others and therefore God – this is not so much in transgressing laws but in becoming and being someone much less than the person he is created and enabled to be.
This, I suspect is the true nature of being a ‘sinner’. Whilst we deflect from this descriptor for all the negative connotations noted above, there is a deeply necessary recognition that we are drawn into life choices and lifestyles that deny us our true potential. The religious man in this story understands the legal requirements of his belief system – ‘believe this, do that, think something else and all is good in God’s world and I am one of the good guys (not like him, a tax collector!)’. This position lacks compassion, relationship and self-awareness. Does his belief system include people who are different, have a different experience of God, life, culture or see the world differently? It also presumes God is about law but the clear revelation of God in Jesus is about love, grace, mercy, compassion and inclusion. Jesus was relational and drew people into a relationship that offered a nurturing, growth-promoting potential within them. Jesus invites us into a place where we can recognise who we are and to gain a vision of who we can be. He treats people upwards to become who they can be, rather than to be judged through the distorted lenses of other people or the cultural norms that push us into categories that often demean and exclude.
There is a beautiful story that Biblical theologian, Marcus Borg tells in one of his books. A couple bring their new-born home and put him into his cot to sleep. Their 3-year old daughter asks if she can spend a few minutes alone with him. The parents are suspicious but they have an intercom between the baby’s room and their bed room so agree. The girl ushers them from the room and closes the door. They rush to their bedroom and listen in. She gently walks to the cot and then asks her new-born brother to tell her what God is like because she has almost forgotten.
Borg suggests that this and a myriad of similar style stories reminds us that our origin is ‘in God’. We are formed (‘created’) in God but as we are born into the world that is filled with distractions of all forms, we lose this connection and our lives are about finding our way home into the place and form of life we were first drawn into. Our lives are a journey into becoming more deeply and truly human and that is ultimately life ‘in God.’ Such life is not characterised by legalities and belief systems but in compassion, relationship, peacefulness, justice and inclusion. It is about love. Love is the essence of who God is and it is love into which we are drawn more deeply when we open ourselves to the possibilities and potential God has put within us.
The tax collector seems to have understood his failure to live into the fullness of his being. His life has wounded and impacted many, including himself as his greed etc has diminished his humanity, his true sense of being. He is not at peace but he recognises this within himself and seeks mercy. This is the path into deeper life and being – God!