By Linda Rex
October 27, 2019, Proper 25—Standing next to my husband at my mother-in-law’s visitation, I listened as he spoke with a family friend. He had grown up with these people and as part of a small farming community, they were each connected in a variety of ways, most specifically by their common history of family farms. As I listened to him talk, I realized the radical difference between someone who is isolated from and unfamiliar with death, and someone who sees death as the normal outcome of any creature’s existence, whether human or animal.
When someone has cared for animals, as farmers do, he or she has often experienced the life cycle from birth to death and understands that death is the normal end to any creature’s existence. But death is also devastating and destructive, and it is often fought with every weapon available. Because we value life and reject death, we often spend thousands of dollars to attempt to prevent or postpone a death which in the end is going to happen anyway. This can be one of the greatest struggles we face as humans—dealing with the reality of death and dying.
Indeed, it is a tragedy when we lose someone dear to us, when our life is shattered by the loss of someone who gave us great joy, love, and companionship. When we wake up each morning without our spouse or loved one, we are faced anew with the pain of our loss and the deep grief which goes with it. It is especially tragic when death takes away a baby or a child—someone who was just beginning their life—it seems so unfair and unjust. These are great losses, and they pierce us down to the depths of our heart, and they don’t just go away over time.
I believe the reason it hurts so much to lose someone to death is because this was not what we were created for. God intended us to eat of the tree of life and to live forever. He never wanted us to experience death and the separation that goes with it. But we made that choice—and continue to make that choice—as we choose to decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil, and we continue to believe and live out the lie that God doesn’t love us and doesn’t want what is best for us.
I would not want to think that I choose death, but when I reflect upon my life and the choices I have made about different things, I find that death is often the ultimate outcome of the choices I have made. Perhaps it is healthier, though, to recognize and acknowledge this than it is to believe that I have only chosen life. The gospel passage for this Sunday tells a story which reminds us that we need to see ourselves with clear vision and not to ignore our capacity to choose death over life.
Jesus told this parable, according to Luke, to “some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt.” He told of the Pharisee, a very righteous man who prided himself on following the law and keeping every rule established by the Jewish leaders. This man stood, as a good Jew would, and praying to himself, told God how grateful he was that he wasn’t like the tax collector who stood at the other end of the room. He named all the things he wasn’t and reminded God of all the things he did right.
He started out his prayer saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men…” What he failed to see or acknowledge was the simple truth—he was just the same as everyone else on the planet. He was just as much a sinner as the tax collector—he just didn’t see it and certainly didn’t want to admit it. One day he would die just like every other human being—and then what? What good would all his efforts be then, when he would be faced with the reality that he was a sinner just like everyone else?
A companion passage for this Sunday’s message is 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, where Paul has a frank conversation with his protégé Timothy, letting him know he is nearing the end of his life. Paul embraced his death, not fearing it, but rather looking forward to the receiving the “crown of righteousness” he would receive from Jesus in that day. He knew that the source of his righteousness did not lie within himself, but solely in the Lord Jesus. He did not fear death, but bravely walked toward it, trusting in the love and faithfulness of God in the midst of whatever situation he found himself. He knew in his next moment of consciousness he would be with Jesus and would live forever in glory with him.
The transformation of the solely pagan Roman Empire into one which accepted Christianity was partly due to the way in which early believers treated death. Many, when faced with torture or death for not renouncing Christ, chose to happily, with a song or word of praise on their lips, go forward into death. They did not fear it, but chose it over abandoning their faith in Christ. Death was not seen as an enemy but as a conquered foe, and as a passage into real life, life evermore in the presence of Jesus Christ.
They could do this because they were honest with themselves about the reality that they were sinners saved by grace. They knew the source of all life, of all their hope for the world to come, lay in the Lord Jesus who had entered into our suffering and death as God in human flesh, and had risen again, bearing our humanity into the presence of the Father. He brought all of us out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light—from death into life—giving us an eternal hope in the face of death and dying.
But the struggle we have as human beings is coming to the place where we are willing to say, “I’m no different than any other man—I too am a sinner.” We each need to come to the place where we acknowledge our need for what God has done for us in Christ.
We are each in the garden again, and God is inviting us to eat of the tree of life—choose Christ! What we don’t want to do is to continue to choose death by insisting on our own path of self-justification, of deciding for ourselves what is right, what is wrong, and how to get our own selves right before God. Jesus did all that is necessary—he invites us to turn to him in faith, trusting in him for all that we need.
Come to Jesus Christ and allow him to share with you his right relationship with his heavenly Father. In Christ, you are a forgiven, accepted, beloved “sinner”—a child of God. Believe it. Receive it. Embrace it. Live!
Dear Abba, heavenly Father, thank you for giving us life in your Son Jesus Christ and sending us your Spirit so that we may participate in this divine gift. May we humbly confess we are sinners who are in need of all Christ has done, is doing, and will do—free us from our self-justification, our self-righteousness, our stubborn resistance to life and insistence on the ways of death. Thank you for your faithfulness and love, and that you will finish what you have begun, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.’” Luke 18:9–14