Thoughts on Lent and Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, also known as “Fat Tuesday hangover day”, also known as the beginning of the season of Lent. The Gospel reading for today, from the Daily Office Lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14, TNIV)

We’ve all probably heard this passage time and again, and it certainly is a powerful message – the uber-self-righteous Pharisee getting his comeuppance while the humble tax collector is justified. Unfortunately, we often look at it as an example of “works righteousness” versus “faith” and use this parable to justify our own Protestant theology (on the falsehood of viewing ancient Judaism as “works righteousness” that was later corrected by Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings on “grace”, see the opening of my article on Galatians 3:28). We also have this tendency to assume the Pharisee is boasting of his own accomplishments for all to see, though where we get this idea that he’s bragging before other people I have no idea – the text specifically says he stood by himself.

We Americans love underdogs. Odds are, if you cared about the game, you wanted to see the lowly Giants knock the arrogant Patriots off their high horse in the Super Bowl last weekend; however, according to Vegas, if you bet on the game the odds are you bet on the Patriots. One might say we love the idea of the underdog, but when it gets down to brass tacks we want to go with the winner.

We love this parable for much the same reason we love underdogs – and in this case it’s a no-lose situation, because Jesus endorses this underdog. But if we understood this passage better… we might not see it in such black-and-white terms. Jesus’ audience surely would not have.

I think this parable is much better understood not as a contrast between the “works-righteousness” of the Pharisee and the “faith” of the tax collector, but rather between their ritual purity according to the Jewish holiness code. The Pharisee epitomized the utmost purity, and his sect was the most punctilious when it came to observing the law and the traditions they used to “protect” the law. The tax collector was the exact opposite – ancient Jewish literature refers to tax collectors as being no better than Gentiles. Given that they were Jews, and given the extreme importance of kinship relations in the ancient world, this meant not only that the tax collector was cut off from his immediate family but from the national life and his place as a member of the chosen people of God. Not only was the tax collector ritually impure, but he was a traitor to his people, and Jesus’ audience would likely have despised the character the moment Jesus introduced him into the story.

It is no accident that this story comes very shortly before the story of Zaccheus – whom Jesus proclaims “a son of Abraham”, which indicates that he has been brought into the people of God from being no better than a Gentile. His statement that the tax collector was justified essentially carried the same weight and would have been no less scandalous. For Jesus one’s identity is not based on national birth or on adherence to the purity code, but on the right recognition of one’s place before God and recognizing the necessity for mercy and forgiveness, receiving new life from God as a gift that enables one to participate in the world of New Creation, as a member of the family of the redeemed people of God.

This story ends here, but the story of Zaccheus in chapter 19 provides a coda of sorts to the parable – as we all know, Zaccheus pledges to give half his possessions to the poor and to pay back fourfold anyone he has wronged. Zaccheus’ repentance beckons us to look back to the parable and wonder what this tax collector would have done had Jesus continued the story from that point. It is likely that Zaccheus would have bankrupted himself in the quest to make restitution, as basically his entire income would have depended on coercing people out of their money, livestock, produce, property – whatever he could get out of them. If we are to truly see the tax collector in this parable as justified, that is to say made righteous, we ought to assume he would have gone home and done the same. The Greek word translated “justified” means “to be made righteous/just” and implies not only some spiritual state he would attain before God, but a real change in his being that would affect his outward life and daily praxis. Every time it or one of its cognates is used in the New Testament, it carries the connotation of reconciliation on both the “vertical” axis between the person and God and on the “horizontal” axis between the person and other people. As John Howard Yoder says in The Politics of Jesus, it is probably not too much to say that without reconciliation there is no justification (check out his chapter on justification by grace through faith).

We like the easy association with the underdog, but stake our well-being on the one we think is going to win. We identify with the tax collector on the surface, but are we willing to follow this identification through to its conclusion? Today begins the season of Lent, the time of self-reflection, fasting, and penitence during which we prepare to celebrate the Resurrection on Easter Day. Many of us associate Lent with “giving up” something, which becomes a chore to maintain, a burden to bear. I want to suggest an alternative mindset – I suggest that we do not primarily associate Lent with a “giving up”, but with the receiving of a gift – the gift of the Holy Spirit working in us to root out those places where we are not yet conformed to the image of Christ. If the tax collector was to be re-integrated into the people of God, there were many things he would have to do both to demonstrate and to solidify in his own self the new heart he had been given by God in the moment of justification. Old habits would have to be broken, old patterns of consumption discarded, old ways of thinking about people and possessions abandoned. In the same way, if we are to participate more fully in the kingdom of God and to be made more into the image of Christ as his body, we need the same.

In the season of Lent we have the opportunity built right into the church calendar to mediate on the scriptures and ponder our own selves and our relationships, especially our relationships with people and with possessions, and our nature as consumptive beings within this consumer culture. We have the solemn duty to reconsider our communal, social, and political affiliations and activity, to contemplate the ways our economic lifestyles and the ways of thinking, doing, and being we take for granted affect our neighbors, be they our neighbors across the street, our neighbors in Bangladesh, or our neighbors who will possess the earth after we are long gone from it, after our bodies have returned to the dust from which they came. “For remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

If we are to identify with the “underdog” in this passage, it is imperative that we ask God to search us in this time, to ask God to bring to our minds and hearts those ways we yet need to be made like Jesus, and to ask him to show us the habits that need to be destroyed, those things that have power over us that must be broken. We must be prepared to follow Jesus to the point of losing everything, trusting that God will raise us from the dead – and after all, if we really believe in the resurrection, what are we doing piddling around with our insane worry about cell phones, hybrid automobiles, and flush toilets? Christ came so that the dead could be raised and for no other reason. There is no other solution other than that we be put to death with Christ, and raised with him – dead to the world, to social position, to economic affluence, to political power, and alive with Christ the suffering Messiah who turned the violence directed against him around and defeated it, breaking its stranglehold on the world in the process.

Feel free to respond to this post and tell me not only what you are doing for Lent, but how it relates to your own reflective process and the ways you are asking God to seek you, to confront those areas where you have not yet given yourself up to be made into the image of Christ, and give them up and be transformed. Tomorrow or the next day I will post my own answers.

A reflection for Advent

I didn’t write this, but I wish I had.

A young man called out to Jesus from the crowd and said, “Teacher, command the trustee of my father’s will to give me my share of the inheritance!” Jesus replied, “I am not a lawyer or a judge—why should I get involved?” Then Jesus told everyone, “Guard yourself from every form of trying to get more in the world. When you finally get everything you want and more, then you finally realize too late that stuff is not what life is about.”

“There was an entrepreneur who ran his own business. One year, he did exceptionally well, and found that his business had outgrown his little store. So he was contemplating what he would do with his surplus profit, so, talking to himself, he said, ‘I know! I will rent a larger store, hire a couple of employees and the business will practically run itself! Then, over a few years I will have a tidy nest egg stored up and I’ll say to myself, “You have found the good life. Now it’s time to relax, and enjoy your retirement.”’ In that instant, however, God’s voice spoke to the man, ‘You are such an idiot. This very night your life is to be taken from you. So who will enjoy what you are planning?’ This is what happens to a person who works for himself and his family, but who never gives to God by giving to the poor.”…

See the rest at Young Anabaptist Radicals.