Law as a mirror.

Homily 532 – 34 APE
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
February 5, 2023
Epistle:  (296) 2 Timothy 3:10-15
Gospel:  (89) Luke 18:10-14

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

We know from a very young age when we hear this story that we are supposed to be like the publican, and not like the Pharisee.  But why?

Well, both are praying.  The Pharisee is telling God how good he is – and how bad everyone else is.  The publican tells God how bad he is, and how much he needs God’s grace and mercy.

The publican has nothing to fall back on – but his prayer, his focus of repentance, is about himself.  The Pharisee doesn’t indicate a reason he needs to or should repent.

Now, remember, repentance means change – change of focus.  It is different from contrition.  What the publican is offering in his prayer is contrition.  The desire to turn from that way to the way of God is repentance.

Here’s the interesting thing about the Pharisee.  In the Pharisee’s mind he doesn’t need to repent!  Before we judge the Pharisee too harshly, let’s look at the world from his perspective.

The Pharisee has a target – that target is the Torah, the Law of Moses.  If he can follow the Law of Moses exactly, and the sacrifices, and temple rituals, and all the disciplines, he will be saved by God.  That is the promise of Judaism.

But – a critical miscalculation.  The Law focuses on behavior – but God focuses on intent of the heart.  The Law of Moses exists not to establish some sort of minimum standard for compliance and obedience.

The Law of Moses exists to ensure that when we deviate from the target – the target which is God – we notice the change.  The Law is the warning indicator that we are off course.  It’s the klaxon going off.  It is the speedometer.  It’s the blood pressure cuff or glucose meter.  It is that thing that tells us to repent.

Christ even doubles down on the Law as a warning device.  Not only are we not to have our neighbor’s spouse, he said if we look at someone not our spouse with lust – that is, to desire them – it is as if we have already committed adultery.

In other words, Christ expands the Law to include not just our behavior, but also our inclinations and our thoughts.

This is how we know the Law is an alarm.  God doesn’t punish us according to the transgression of the Law.  Rather, He forgives us – He has already forgiven us for each and every transgression, of thought, word, and deed.  Even the ones we don’t recall.

The purpose of a law is that transgressions are punished.  We transgress the law, we speed on the highway or park where we aren’t supposed to and we pay a punishment – a price.

But God has already provided forgiveness for us – an escape from punishment.  Why?  Why would God set out a law and then choose not to punish us?

The answer is not that complicated.  God’s law is not for punishment, or even obedience.  It is rather to let us know when we are living a Christian life or not.  It lets us know if we are on track, on course, to becoming Christ-like.

So, through the alarm of the Law, by examining our lives and our thoughts and our behaviors in terms of Christ-likeness, we can understand the deviation from the right path.

And, because God forgives us, has already forgiven us everything we have and will ever do, we are then empowered to repent – to return to the path of Christ-likeness.

The publican, the tax collector, saw this.  Just like Zacchaeus the tax collector saw it last week.  Both saw that their lives were not approaching perfection.  Both asked, begged, for mercy.

The Pharisee, like the rich young ruler before him, didn’t see this at all.  The Pharisee took the position that some take still today – offer God thanks for who you are.  It’s yours to have.  Name it and claim it, as some would say.

God I am so thankful that I am good.  That, in essence, is the prayer the Pharisee offers.  God, I am so thankful that I am chosen.

In that prayer, though, the Pharisee betrays something about himself.  He betrays that he is focused not on God, but on his ego.  He has become his own idol.  He is worshiping himself, not God.

Now surely we don’t do that today.  We don’t live like God owes us something.

Hopefully nobody does, but I confess I do from time to time.  That is the struggle we have.  That is the reason we must struggle to suppress, even kill, our ego.

There are times when my thoughts betray my true feelings.  God, I’ve given up a career, a pretty lucrative career, and status and prestige and even power – all to serve you.  So, God, how am I going to be rewarded?

Don’t I deserve something special?

And then, God reminds me that my reward, is not of this world.  And, in truth, my reward isn’t anything special, because I haven’t done anything special.  I can’t expect praise for doing my job – what I was called to do.

Best I can hope for – really, the best any of us can hope for – is to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

But until then – there is a reward.  Our lives are so much easier and so much less stressful when we allow God to have the future.  We can be focused on becoming like Christ, giving to those in need, and worshipping God according to the worship in heaven.

And in so doing, we have the joy of simply abiding in God’s presence.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God.