One way of understanding the Christian spiritual growth journey is the unending stripping away of the layers of resistance, ego attachments and self reliance until we can truly see. Luke chapter 18 can be read in this way – as challenging us to continue to be stripped layer by layer of what is not yet transformed in us and growing until we too can see the Christ. (Luke 18. Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25)
Last week in Luke 18:1-8 we heard the parable about the need of the disciples to pray always and not to lose heart and I reflected on persistence as a spiritual discipline. In some ways the rest of chapter 18 makes it clear about why we need to be persistent in prayer – because there are so many layers to our resistance, to our not-yet-fully-transformed natures.
In Luke 18:9-14 we meet the Pharisee and the tax collector in a wonderfully humorous and yet pointed parable. It is tempting to read this as a lesson against the Pharisee for being too religious and for the tax collector for being more genuine. At this moment in church history many of us will be tempted to read those in our denominations who have split along theological lines of exclusivity as having behaved like the Pharisee and we the more honourable tax collector (I confess to having savoured such a moment of self congratulations!) but that would be to seriously miss the invitation and challenge of the parable. It is not what the Pharisee does that is the problem – prayer, fasting and tithing are all good spiritual practices. Rather verse 9 suggests that it is his trust in himself (rather than God) and his contempt for others on the journey that is the problem. This parable is not, and should not be read as, anti-Pharisee but as a challenge to all of us who are overly self reliant in a spiritual sense and contemptuous of others and their spirituality. We might also note that the humility of the tax collector is a good place to begin – humility, surrender, reliance on grace – but it is a beginning place and the tax collector, if he remains open and ready for grace, will need to address how he makes a living, how he conducts himself. If the Pharisee and tax collector would open themselves to each other, each would have something to contribute to the other’s growth and wellbeing. Left or right, progressive or evangelical, liberal or conservative we are all called to humility and openness to one another. So at one time or another it is likely to be all of us who need to heed this parable.
It is interesting that immediately following this parable aimed at addressing contempt for others and over self reliance is this instruction to be like a little child in order to enter the kingdom. (Luke 18:15-17). It is clearly an antidote to the Pharisee’s self reliance and congratulations but also a challenge to the tax collector to step into the presence of God in a state of wonder and vulnerability and openness. Confession, shame, repentance are important reactions to self knowledge but they are not the states in which we are called to live. Rather we are called into the light of Christ, into the presence of Jesus, just as he invited the children, the unimportant ones. We are not meant to remain in the dark of self loathing and defeat.
If this is not clear enough our next little vignette (Luke 18:18-25) is the famous rich young man who is good, devoted, desiring spiritual progress but his stumbling block is his attachment to wealth (and all the things that wealth brings such as security, influence, prestige, busyness). What we value owns us to such a large extent, captivates our heart and keeps us busy. It is not that the rich cannot do good but that when we are invested in life as it is – be that economic or cultural or psychological – we are not really available to grow into something different or more or less. The empty handedness of the child and the poor is a more natural starting place for truly desiring that the kingdom come. And I confess that while I desire the world to be a bit different – as in better - and I’m not wealthy by western standards, I struggle to want things to be really different, for the way things are to be turned on their heads!
Seeing the goodness of the rich young man of course the disciples are very disturbed to see him fail at this challenge and are alarmed for their own state and wonder what more could be asked of them (Luke 18:26-30). The reply of Jesus to his disciples is rather veiled and open ended both reassuring and not for it is clear that there will be loss and disorientation for the sake of the gospel and yet there will ultimately be abundance and eternal life but there is no reassurance of a short cut to the kingdom without suffering and letting-go.
To make it clear that suffering and loss is part of the journey ahead Jesus takes the disciples aside and outlines what is ahead for him and therefore to some extent for them. But they do not get it, they are blind. (Luke 18:31-34) So to make it clear for the disciples then and for us now Luke finishes the chapter with this story of Jesus healing a blind man on his way to Jericho. (Luke 18:35-43) And the response of the one healed of his blindness is to give glory to God and to follow. Sometimes we too need a very obvious metaphor or example to see the stuckness of our way of doing and being and to be shown the way forward.
So chapter 18 of Luke certainly challenges a lot of our defences and attachments, our excuses and patterns of stuckness. If we only hear the reprimands or challenges we may be disheartened and give in to despair. Each story, by contrasting characters or responses, gives us a positive choice, a way forward. The widow teaches us to be persistent in prayer. The tax collector reminds us to be honest with ourselves about where we are at this moment. Jesus invites us to come as children with our innocence, our naivety, our curiosity and needs, our openness and vulnerability. And Jesus has great tenderness with us when we balk at letting go of our attachments and reminds us that what we struggle to do alone can be done with God. We are promised that even when faithfulness leads to losses and disturbance that ultimately we are growing into abundance and eternity in all that most matters. And when we acknowledge our blindness, our stuckness, the limitations of what we can achieve on our own then we will receive sight and see our Lord truly. We are not asked to give up what we are attached to in order to prove our allegiance or dutifulness but rather to free us from what binds us and blinds us so that we are empty handed and open hearted enough to receive the kingdom.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, and patiently, tenderly keep calling us until we can truly let go of what binds us and blinds us and know you as Lord.