2 Timothy 4:6-18
“Their flight may be likened to an immense snow-storm, extending from the ground to a height at which our eyes perceive them only as minute, darting scintillations, leaving the imagination to picture them indefinite distances beyond. When on the highest peaks of the Snowy Range, fourteen or fifteen thousand feet above the sea, I have seen them filling the air as much higher as they could be distinguished with a good field-glass. It is a vast cloud of animated specks, glittering against the sun. On the horizon they often appear as a dust tornado, riding upon the wind like an ominous hail-storm, eddying and whirling about like the wild, dead leaves in an autumn storm, and finally sweeping up to and past you, with a power that is irresistible. They move mainly with the wind, and when there is no wind they whirl about in the air like swarming bees…The noise their myriad jaws make when engaged in their work of destruction can be realized by any one who has ‘fought’ a prairie fire or heard the flames passing along before a brisk wind-the low crackling and rasping; the general effect of the two sounds is very much the same.”
That’s how the U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture described the locust plague that descended on the prairies of the American Midwest in 1874-75. Some two million acres of farmland were devastated, leaving poverty, hunger and desperation in its wake. This year, in Australia, the largest locust swarms in a century have decimated major crops and sent food prices soaring. On the island nation of Madagascar, already sitting on the edge of starvation, the second locust plague this decade is threatening to push 2.3 million people over the cliff into famine. Locust plagues are not just the stuff of the Old Testament.
But if locusts can devastate still in the 21st century, imagine how destructive they were in an age without modern science, without pesticides or international aid organizations. The first day, you notice a locust nibbling at the green head of barley at the edge of your tiny plot of land. You quickly crush it. The next day there are a dozen and you gather them all into a cloth sack and toss them to the chickens. The following day you start early, as the sun is coming up over the horizon, and in the pink light of dawn, your heart sinks. The field is covered. You grab your children and you all work feverishly, until the sun is so hot, no one can go on any longer—and still the damnable beasts come. Within a week, there is nothing of your crops left, and your neighbors’ fields are stripped as bare as yours.
Panic fills your throat—all you can think is that you have nothing set aside for the winter, nothing even for tomorrow, much less today. Total economic and environmental collapse spread throughout Israel in the fifth century before Christ in the locust plague referred to by Joel in today’s Old Testament reading.
The tiny nation, never a match for the great military powers of the region, had struggled for nearly a century after the exile in Babylon to just regain something of its pre-exile prosperity and it never quite got its economic house in order. Caught in the midst of larger geo-political struggles, the reborn nation was perpetually in the way of some would-be world ruler’s dreams of empire. The people felt completely helpless. Yett the prophet Joel knew that there was something the people could do—they could pray. Because in the midst of their fear, there was hope. In the midst of their panic there was the one thing that would carry them safe and secure into the Day of the Lord—the promise of Yahweh that he would give an early rain to renew their harvest—and repay them for the seasons of empty storehouses. Joel’s call to prayer and repentance is now part of our Ash Wednesday liturgy, and it still moves the hearts of those aware of their own failure and sin: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”
We don’t have the historical record of what happened next, but from what we do know of the years of silence between the last chapters of the Hebrew scriptures and the opening verses of the Christian ones, Israel shortly thereafter began a long period of spiritual revival with a restored Temple and a renewed priesthood.
And the ones most responsible for that revival were a group of scholars who followed in the footsteps of the great priest-scribe Ezra. Ezra strongly resisted the Israelite tendencies towards assimilation with their national neighbors and led the great revival of the Mosaic covenant. His followers, believing that it was abandonment of the traditions of Moses that had resulted in one national disaster after another, resisted the creeping Hellenization that occurred after the invasion of Antiochus Epiphanes, successor to Alexander the Great. Their story is told in the apocryphal books of First and Second Maccabees a thrilling record of their resistance to pagan influences in Judaism. They didn’t have a name then, but by the end of the second century before Christ, they became known as the Pharisees.
They were one of the two major Jewish denominations that existed in the first century world we read about in the New Testament. The other, the Sadducees, were most closely associated with the upper classes, the elite, highly influential ruling class, led by the priestly clan of Levites. The Pharisees were a populist movement that, according to the first century Jewish historian Josephus, had the support of the common people. They accepted as divine scripture, not just the Five Books of Moses accepted by the Saducees, but most of what we now call the Hebrew Canon, the Christian Old Testament, from Genesis to Malachi.
In other words, the Pharisees were the good guys: rooted in scripture and tradition, they were intent on keeping Judaism pure, so that their nation would never again have to endure near total destruction. They were on the lookout for the Messiah, the descendant of David, who would complete their work of purifying the nation. They read their Bibles, fasted, prayed and tithed. They stressed moral purity, and faithfulness to the covenant that set the children of Israel apart as a special, exceptional nation.
That’s why it seems so surprising that Jesus has his most tense encounters with the group of people most predisposed to have been his followers. But there was something about how the Pharisees viewed their own faithfulness that got under Jesus’ skin. Today’s Gospel lesson lays it out:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Tax collectors were among the most despised people in Israel, and with good reason: they were collaborators with the Empire, collecting the tribute that paid for the Roman troop patrols of the occupation. Like every Empire, Rome needed huge outlays of cash to pay for its conquests and for the grand public works programs that kept the occupied territories in a state of relative calm. As in every age, whenever there are huge outlays of government cash, corruption and graft are not far behind. Tax collectors were not just traitors in the eyes of the Judean people, they were mobsters who collected protection money on top of the Imperial tribute to enrich themselves and consolidate their own power. The thought of a tax collector going into the Temple was bad enough, but the thought of one going in to pray was downright preposterous.
Pharisees, on the other hand, were quite at home in the Temple and the houses of prayer throughout the land, known as synagogues. This was their space, and they lived to protect it and keep it strong and proud. The Pharisee, from his place off to himself, could probably look out from the Temple mount onto the crowded streets below. Surrounded by the beauty of the gold-domed Temple, high above the holy city, he probably felt his heart thrill with patriotic pride. He was part of the very fabric of this place. His prayers for the protection of the Temple and the keeping of the Law insured their continued place as the center of Jewish life. He was glad he was not like other people, caught up in their lives of sin and immorality. He delighted in the Law and took joy in the sacrifice of tithing. He was righteous. He just wasn’t saved.
The tax collector, on the other hand, had no personal righteousness to lay claim to. He was a sinner, he was lost, and he knew it. He couldn’t even pray a decent prayer. Overcome with intolerable memories of his sin, all he could say was “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” But that’s all it took. God justified the tax collector while the Pharisee’s prayer bounced off the ceiling. It sounded good to him, but God found it somewhere between silly and irrelevant.
Now, the temptation for us in examining today’s Gospel is to congratulate ourselves in not being like the Pharisee. After all, we know we’re not righteous, we know we’re sinners saved by grace, we’re accepting of others and conscious of our own failings. We must be justified, right?
The truth is that the very act of our self-justification over against others makes us far more like the Pharisee than the tax collector. And that’s especially true in our actions and views towards those with whom we disagree. Those Episcopalians who are on the liberal side (full disclosure: that includes me), often see ourselves as the vanguard of truth, the defenders of the Gospel of grace, the only thing standing between the complete collapse of Anglicanism and the post-modern world. We are glad that we are not like those fundamentalists who hate gay and lesbian people, who believe that women should be in submission to men and deny that Jesus is a Democrat.
Nor are we the only ones. A friend recently told me a story of attending a worship service in another Diocese, where the preacher railed against the “Phariseeism of the liberals.” My friend was outraged. When he told me about it, I laughed. Of course, the preacher was right. Liberals have long held conservatives in contempt, making no secret of their disdain for those whose view of scripture and the nature of the Church is traditional. The problem is, conservatives have done the same thing.
We’re both Pharisees, more concerned with being righteous in our own eyes, with saving the Anglican Communion, with winning the argument whatever the cost in people hurt, spiritual lives destroyed, and the Gospel trampled, than in recognizing our common lostness. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
The Gospel today offers us an opportunity to understand our sense of being lost as the key to being found. It means recognizing ourselves as sinners, having the humility to acknowledge that we just might be wrong about something, and throwing away our foolish pretensions to righteousness.
Joel’s call to Israel to repent contained not just the promise of rain and a renewal of the economy, but a promise that the Spirit would be poured out in return. For those who have wandered in locust-stripped lostness, Yahweh promises to repay the years the locusts have eaten.
Each week right before the Great Thanksgiving, we kneel and say the sinner’s prayer:
It’s a simple prayer, but says Joel, it is literally earth-shaking. It rattles the foundations of everything that we believe, everything we stand for, everything we think we know. Because it’s Yahweh himself who’s doing the shaking. It is Yahweh himself who forgives us, not for our sakes, for the sake of his Son, who is our righteousness. The locusts are gone, the rains come, the earth sprouts anew.
And everyone, Pharisee and tax collector, liberal and conservative, righteous or not, who calls upon the Lord will be saved. Amen.