Blessing and How to Wreck It (Joel 2:23-27; Psalm 65; Luke 18:9-14)
Here we are, almost at the end of October. Of course, here in the Midwest, the weather can be unpredictable, but this year, we’ve had a wonderful, warm autumn season to this point. So, I’m glad to think about Psalm 65 today, which is a public or community confession that it is God who gives the goodness we experience in life. It is good to be reminded that the Bible does not look at the world as “evil, fallen, nature” that exists apart from God, but as a good work of God done for human blessing. It is the very venue of God’s action. That I say the world is God’s work is not intended to be a statement of a particular process through which God must have gone to meet our standards of the faith. Nor do I intend it to be a statement about the specifics of our origins on this planet, but rather a confession of our own humility that the world around us is not ours to manipulate and do with as we like, but belongs to God who, in mysterious and wonderful ways that we are but beginning to fathom, has (in the words of Psalm 65) “established,” and continues to “make,” “visit,” “enrich,” “water,” and “crown.” Perhaps most mysterious of all, is the fact that (again, in the words of the psalm) God “answers us with deliverance.” And, God answers thus, “by awesome things.” At base, God’s will for the world is for fruitfulness, growth and blessing, and God’s actions free us to learn, to be surprised, to understand, and to participate in God’s creation. In short, God’s basic orientation to the world is to bless it, and us, not to enforce rules upon us, or to punish us or the world.
One of our problems in hearing this Psalm today is that, in our public (and even our private) lives, we are too used to giving ourselves the credit for all “awesome things,” on the one hand, while resisting mightily the fact that such self-centredness makes it difficult to accept God’s goodness and orientation to bless the world. It, therefore, also makes it difficult for us to imitate this divine orientation to bless others in our own public lives. We live in a culture that fancies humans as autonomous individuals that owe nothing to the world and very little to God. We have done it all ourselves and owe nothing to anyone but ourselves and, maybe, our families. Such attitudes even invade the church from time to time. So Psalm 65 may seem foreign.
The prophet Joel lived late in the Old Testament period, somewhere about the time that the Books of Chronicles were written and published (about 400-350 BCE). The people of God in what had been called the land of Judah (but was then really the Persian province of Yehud) were in a difficult time. Joel’s prophecy images this as an immense swarm of locusts – wave upon wave of them – that have picked the land clean. The locusts were followed by a withering, perishing drought that parched the remnants left by the locusts. Joel ramps up the volume on his images of destruction by comparing what has happened to the invasion of a huge and ruthless army that ravages the land from the traditional direction from which enemies of Israel come – the north. Eventually, the people of the north or the northerners, became an idiom for “invaders,” whether they actually came from the north or not. So, the locusts and the army are “northerners.” Joel’s people are in danger of perishing. Joel encourages them to “return to the LORD with all your heart” (2:12). What he means by this turn of phrase is, “Orient yourselves to God’s way of seeing things and God’s way of doing things.” In Hebrew psychology the heart was the place where human intellect, emotion, and will are integrated into thoughtful, emotive action. If we return for a moment to Psalm 65, we remember that God’s orientation is to bless. God’s orientation is to act with mercy, love, and grace so as to allow people to flourish fruitfully and in wholeness. So, Joel encourages the people to “return” to such an orientation for their own lives, and to witness their return by their public expressions of worship.
He says that, when people thus align themselves with God’s orientation, God acts in four ways. And these ways are set out in and around our passage today. Before we began reading, in verse 20, God “removes the northerner.” I’ve already mentioned that this means the locusts and the armies on one level, to be sure, but at a deeper level it means that God remove threats to the newly oriented people. Second, in verses 21-22, God restores the animal and plant life that the drought withered up. Third, God, refreshes human life with drought-ending rain (verse 23). Fourth, God re-grows the crops that the locusts had ruined (verses 24-25). This morning’s reading takes up in the middle of this list of renewals that God brings to people oriented to God’s grace, and determined to become conduits of that grace toward others. Joel sums it all up in verse 25: “I will repay you for the years the locust has eaten,” according to NRSV.
For people who orient themselves to God’s values with their whole heart – with the integration of all they have: thoughts, emotions, actions, God says that no matter what kind of “locust” has eaten your life away, and no matter for how long, God is committed to “repaying” you for that (in the language of the pew Bible). The word “repaying” is a less than happy translation of the Hebrew word SHILLEM, that comes from the same root as the word shalom, “wholeness.” It means to “make whole again, restore.” What God makes whole or restores are those wounds, those cuts, those negative things that have injured us and made it difficult for us to share God’s orientation to bless the world through what we do. Now, of course, we cannot un-live our lives – good or bad. The bad things that happen to us mark us, change us, and shape us. But what God is in the business of doing is “shaloming” such experiences and making them wholesome foundations for us to undertake an outlook of blessing and shalom for the world.
I should say one more thing about Joel’s words. They are not addressed just to so many individuals, all living all apart, “me, myself, and God.” They are intended to be lived out together in community, one with another. It is in and through community that locust-eaten years are restored. The story is told of the little African-American congregation whose minister always had the them get in a circle and join hands for the benediction. He said, “Now look around you and hold on tight because you’re going to need the squeeze of that other hand this week.” Week after week they did this, and slowly, they found that, as “locusts” came to eat them up, people wondered what to do until they remembered the squeeze of those hands on Sunday. And their locust eaten years were “shalomed” by God in that community. And they began to share in God’s basic orientation to bless others in their lives!
Our Gospel Lesson this morning says much more than I will make of it, but, as this text converses with the others today, it points to train-wreck in the way of letting such new orientation happen. It’s clear from verse 9 what Luke wants to make of it: “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” These folk thought that there were two ways of doing things, their way, and the wrong way. Everybody else was a zero in their sight. We are used to seeing the Pharisee as a villain and the Tax Collector as a hero because we’ve heard the parable many times, but in Jesus’ day it would have been quite the opposite. The Pharisee was the paragon of the kind of people everybody wanted to attend their synagogue and admired, and the Tax Collector was a crook, complicit with the Roman government and despised. But, as I say, we know how it comes out at the end (and so did Luke’s readers): it is the bad guy who goes home from the prayer service “justified” or “found to be righteous” (by God), and the good guy doesn’t. It’s exactly because the Pharisee thought he had it all right, and everybody else counted for nothing. The Tax Collector knew who he was and what he was, and that he had no standing in God’s sight at all, and asked only that God have mercy on him.
Attitudes are funny things. It is exactly in the time when we think that we couldn’t be like whatever inadequate people are in our minds at the time (even Pharisees) that we’re in grave danger. I see people here at the office many days, in whose shoes I am very glad not to be. The danger is when I get to thinking that I couldn’t be, or that there’s something inherently special about me or my good judgment, or my faith, or my doctrine that keeps me from being like these folks.
The danger in this parable is not that the Pharisee will be condemned for eternity, that’s nowhere explicitly in the parable. The danger is that he will not go home today declared to be righteous by God. In Hebrew, to be righteous means to conform to God’s standard, or to use the language we’ve been using today, to align ourselves with God’s orientation to bless and bring wholeness through imitating God’s own love, mercy and grace in our community. The attitude that we’re right and everybody else is wrong, or that we would love to serve our community if they’d just come to church and do things our way, is the very attitude that causes us to think that we are the ones who can do all the good that is necessary on our own, and for our own. And we wreck the renewal and blessing that can come to us by the implicit attitude that we don’t need them. “They” (whoever they are) do. We don’t need to change, everyone else does. Just like the poor old Pharisee. And we can, like him, be good people and still wreck ourselves in this.
The attitude of the Tax Collector probably didn’t make him into a great guy or an acceptable member of the community, but he was, in his attitude, said to conform to God’s standard at that time and place, and was a start. The starting place is not having right techniques, doing worship “right” whatever that means, praying the “Sinner’s prayer,” using just the right words, or agreeing in doctrine, or else. It starts with the attitude that allows us to see our own locust-eaten lives as having been “shalomed” by God’s grace, or needing to be. It starts by trying, when we read or hear of the crimes or problems of “others” out there, to say, “Given the right circumstances, I’m probably capable of something like that.” It’s about understanding our own capacity for harming and being disagreeable, and, in that light knowing that we have to depend on God to reorient our own lives to blessing, love, mercy, and grace. That’s how we conform to God’s standard, by having Tax Collector’s spirit of dependence on God in us.
I must say that our country (and others, but ours especially) is suffering from an epidemic of thinking our “side” is right and the other “side” is a zero to be dismissed, not disagreed with, dismissed. Folks, it’s all around us, it’s killing us, and we’ve got to begin to count those who differ from us as valuable or it will destroy us. It’s not disagreement it’s dismissal. One thing I’ve observed as a pastor through the years is that perhaps the greatest marker that a marriage is over is when the partners are simply dismissive of the one another. “Whatever…” This will kill families, churches, and countries. They are like Joel’s devastating plague of locusts. We must do better!
To return where we started: God is the source of any good we do. The motive for any good we do is our gratitude to God. Let us allow the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus, who did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, and took the form of a servant. Let us, further, in this community, allow God to restore the years the locusts have eaten in our lives, so that we can be agents of that same restoration in others we meet; the last, the least, and the lost. At most basic let us engage one another truly and with respect and love for one another, for only then will we live.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.