In our Gospel lessons for the last few weeks, Jesus has been teaching about faith. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews gives us a nice succinct definition for faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). He then goes on to illustrate his point by naming some great men of faith and their perseverance in the face of unrealized promises and terrible hardships because they believed in God’s faithfulness. Jesus takes a different approach. My teachers out there might recognize Hebrews as the direct method of instruction and Jesus’ method as what we would call indirect.
Faith is not something that one can put on a scale and measure. Its presence or absence is reflected in the actions of the person. Jesus first told a wild tale about a person whose faith was a tiny as a mustard seed commanding a tree to uproot itself, walk a few hundred feet, and replant itself. Imagery that works well for Tolkien, but clearly not something most of us would attempt, nor did Jesus expect us to, but you remember the story. His point was we already have all the faith we need to accomplish any task God would set before us.
Recognition of our dependence upon God, obedience to the commands of God, and gratitude for the mercy of God are actions that reflect the presence of faith in our lives. Ten lepers called out to Jesus for mercy. They obeyed his command to present themselves to the priest, even though they had not yet been healed, and one returned to give thanks. To this one, Jesus pronounced, your faith has saved you. Jesus used this object lesson to demonstrate to his disciples the type of actions faith elicits.
Next Jesus illustrates two more characteristics of faith through a parable: perseverance in prayer and a desire for justice.
He sets up the story by describing “an unfair judge who neither feared God nor had respect for the people “(Luke 18:2).Jesus tells us that a widow comes before the unfair judge. She has nothing to bribe him with: no money, no political clout. At first he ignores her, but eventually, he gives her what she wants just because he is sick and tired of dealing with her. GOD IS NOT THE UNFAIR JUDGE. Jesus does not tell us to bug God to death and he will give us what we want. Jesus says if the unfair judge will rule justly in favor of the widow who can do nothing for him except make his life easier by going away, why are we afraid to ask for God’s help when he is just and he does care about us.
Then Jesus says, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” This is obviously a rhetorical question. The Son of Man is standing in the midst of them and he finds very little faith on earth.
This gets into today’s reading. Prayer is a sign of faith, but there are right and wrong ways to pray and it has nothing to do with eloquence. Jesus found plenty of people praying. They were praying, “Thank you God that I am not a prostitute, a drug dealer, or like my next door neighbor who cheats on his wife and his taxes.” They were more than glad to handle the Bible Study. “I fast twice a week. I tithe. I’m here every time the doors are open. Look at what a good example of today’s Bible reading I am.” They claimed to have enough faith to move mountains, but the only thing they were moving was themselves up the social ladder. They failed to recognize their dependence upon God. They followed the letter of the law, but not the spirit, making it a heavy burden upon others. Their feigned gratitude was an expression of their pride, not their humility.
In the same room, also praying was a tax collector. Perhaps it was the very tax collector that will show up next week in our gospel reading, a small man named Zacchaeus. This tax collector had about the worst job a first century Jew could have. He collected taxes from his own people for the Romans, and from what I understand, the only way to make a living doing this was to cheat and overcharge people. I suspect tax collecting was done much like we think of the mafia sending someone out to collect protection money or the stories that are told about the Sherriff of Nottingham collecting taxes for Prince John while his brother was off on the crusades. Men with little power exerted what little power they had over widows, orphans, the handicapped and those already beaten down by the hardships of life to line their own pockets and appease those who had power over them.
The tax collector in today’s story feels remorse for the position he has gotten himself in and how he has abused others to provide for himself, and perhaps his family. He weeps bitterly begging God for mercy, unable to hold his head up. Jesus says, this man was saved because of his faith, not those who bragged about their own righteous deed to God. Faith requires that we acknowledge our dependence upon God, confess our shortcomings, and ask God to help us be the people God created us to be.
Paul tells us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 15:17). He did not mean that we must be mumbling words directed at God constantly. He was talking about becoming prayer. He wanted us to become one in Christ both with Christ and with our neighbors to the extent that we become a conduit for God’s grace. Prayer is communication between God and humans. Imagine becoming the telephone wires or the cell tower through which all of the worlds needs are conveyed to God and all of God’s love is conveyed to earth.
There is a tricky part to being on a party line with God. You know the pain and suffering of others. You then have to make a choice: ignore it or do something about it. There is no unknowing once you know.
The self-righteous lacked faith, even though they went through all the outward motions of religion, because in truth they did not want justice. Justice before God would mean they would have to admit they were no better than anyone else. Justice before mankind might mean they would lose their position of status.
We claim to be a people of faith which means we must be a people of action. We must acknowledge our dependence on God, but also recognize that it is through us that God works. We must follow the commands of God, not just outwardly going through the motions, but inwardly allowing ourselves to be guided by the Holy Spirit in all we do. We must learn to have grateful hearts, not just thanking God for how wonderful we are, but thanking God for the opportunity to help others find out just how wonderful they are also. We must become prayer that seeks justice for all people out of and through the love of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.