The Justification of the Tax Collector

by Alexei Laushkin

We face limitations. Life is full of them. Limitations on our job, limitations of our resources, constraints on our time. Limitations are a central feature of life. We feel the constraint on our time and the weight of our responsibilities.

And in many ways this is a very very good thing, but at times it can lead to a sort of hardness of heart. The story of the tax collector is instructive.  Consider Luke 18:9-14:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Tax collectors were despised in Israel. They were symbols of oppression and the means by which Rome robbed Israel of its nationhood and the people of God of their dignity.  They were a constant reminder that Israel had no true king and was beholden to the nations. A daily reminder of how far they had fallen since King David.

Tax collector and sinner these were synonymous terms.

Tax collectors were betraying God. That’s how the people viewed them. Betraying the people. Imagine what this man must have felt, being a faithful child of God and yet being in a profession that put him squarely outside the camp of God’s people.

Yet Jesus says this man is justified.

This tax collector trapped by his circumstances is justified. Why is that?

Consider the heart of this man. He knows what he is compelled to do and it bothers his conscience, it trouble his heart. He cries out to God, have mercy, have mercy on me a sinner. 

Mercy Lord, mercy.

We often confuse the commands of scripture. We hear the story of the good Samaritan. We think that to truly do a just act requires me to bandage every wound, payout every expense, do everything in my power regardless of its impact, than I’ll be as holy as the good Samaritan. But when happens when we are constrained like the tax collector?

Not the sort of constraint of pride that led one man to bypass the injured man. Nor the constraint of disgust that prevented the other man from helping his brother. But the real constraint of time and resources and other good things that we are responsible for. What does scripture say about us?

The cry of the tax collector is a more appropriate model. The tax collector knew he was constrained to do what his heart did not want to do, and he cried out to God. He said Lord have mercy on me a sinner.

This is instructive. The tax collector had a soft heart. That’s to be our lived reality. A softness of heart, a tenderness of spirit, to take in the humanity of the circumstance before us.

On a recent visit to Auschwitz Pope Francis was asked what he was hoping for in terms of his time there. And he said something very constructive and simple. His reply- the grace to shed tears. In light of the circumstance he wanted the softness of heart to be present.

That’s the sort of life we are asked to cultivate. The life of presence.

One of the great challenges of living in a secularized age, is the lack of humanity we often experience. The rush of time, the pull on the inner individual, the slow death of feeling less and less human. Time that prevents us from just being, let alone time that never allows us to be as God calls us to be. A loving and compassionate people, regardless of our station and ability to help.

That’s what the tax collector teaches us. He teaches us to be troubled when we are doing something that is beyond our ability to control or even do. To take the time to be softhearted.

Repentance for the tax collector didn’t mean giving up his job, it meant living into the reality of the brokenness of his experiences and finding the grace and love of God that was much closer to him than his fellow pharisee. 

The Lord enables us to thrive in our circumstances by depending more fully on him, but a good start and a good check up for us is simply are we responding  well to what is truly before us. Are we striving more fully to adapt the heart and compassion of God to close friends and neighbors in need or circumstance that are unjust but beyond our control. For wherever we find ourselves, the cry of the heart to say, Lord I know this is wrong but I have no other out, please have mercy, that cry is a surer place for our hearts and our lives to dwell.

Alexei Laushkin is Vice-President of the Evangelical Environmental Network,  a Board Member of the Kingdom Mission Society,  and writer of the Foolishconfidence blog. His views are his own. 

 

On Mercy

by Alexei Laushkin

Mercy is about patience. The patience of God really more than our own. Consider God’s standards of mercy. He patiently waits. Consider these words from 2 Peter 3:8-9:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance

Now consider the words of Jesus in the gospel of Luke. Luke 13:6-9:

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.

The profound waiting and mercy of God. He will wait to see if life can come from this tree (us) and this soil (our circumstance). Yes he does discipline, yes he does allow for difficulties, but the overarching character is mercy. Even what he allows and the discipline itself is meant for us to do something else. For us to display some other characteristic than the ones we are so prone to.

Consider 1 Samuel. Salvation and rescue is going to come through Samuel, and the young boy is born to a barren woman. A very minor person. What is happening here? Don’t we see the echoes of the Virgin Mary, or Sarah.

God is searching the earth to see if any have sought after him. And in the anguish of infertility he finds a woman whose heart is open, who is zealous to be used. Though her story seems so small and insignificant, her life would be integral in God’s work of bringing  back his people to himself in the midst of gross infidelity and waywardness.

Consider the Mercy of God

In a few chapters into Samuel, Israel will be defeated, though they had the ark of the covenant in their midst when battling the Philistines. This will be a watershed moment. A moment so shocking that the very identity of the nation will be thrown into question.

And yet, the story we are to follow isn’t the calamity (which is significant to awaken the people), but the broader story of the clearing of corrupt leadership and the establishment of Samuel and eventually of Saul (who would prove unfaithful) and David.

A high-mark of God’s faithfulness and his work among his people is around the corner, and yet the calamities are necessary to make the story and life of David even possible.

The mercy of God isn’t about getting what we want when we want it, it is about seeing the broader story of how God turns wayward hearts back to him. As with Israel so with us. We are wayward in our tendencies and yet God will use the circumstances of life and his goodness to make the possibility of restoration and faithfulness possible again.

His ways are not our ways, nor our his thoughts, our thoughts, but we can be assured just as he was and is faithful to Israel that he will be faithful to his bride the church, and that he will even more like a tender shepherd be with each of us, as he arranges the circumstances of our lives in such a way where faithfulness and holiness, and mercy can take root. For all these stories are ultimately about our dependence on Christ and our seeming inability to see where we need to depend more deeply or see where we have not done so at all.

Alexei Laushkin is Vice-President of the Evangelical Environmental Network,  a Board Member of the Kingdom Mission Society,  and writer of the Foolishconfidence blog. His views are his own. 

Spending Some Time with Amos

by Alexei Laushkin

If you follow the Protestant world much, you’ll undoubtedly be aware that Mainline Protestants will use the Old Testament and the Prophets to justify all sorts of public policy positions. I can remember being at an event early in my vocation and it was an evening service, the Prophet Amos was being read. We came to some powerful lines, Amos 5:24:

But let justice roll down like waters,

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The immediate solution, free third world nations from their debts and obligations. That was the application to Amos 5. Let justice roll down like waters, free a wide range of actors from debt. Hallelujah.

I was recently back into Amos and had a very different take. I am very concerned with matters of justice and I think the scripture is too, but the narrative of Amos isn’t what you might think, although it does follow that what is happening in the life of the people of God ought to match their actions, no doubt about that, and in such a realm thinking about justice seriously and even arriving at certain conclusions is within the realm of prudential judgement. I.E. you could read the text and advocate for a progressive policy solution, but if that’s all you did with the scripture you’d be missing a lot.

Let’s take a longer section. Amos 5:6-15:

Seek the Lord and live,
lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph,
and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel,
O you who turn justice to wormwood
and cast down righteousness to the earth!
He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name;
who makes destruction flash forth against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
They hate him who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor him who speaks the truth.
Therefore because you trample on the poor
and you exact taxes of grain from him,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not dwell in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and turn aside the needy in the gate.
Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time,
for it is an evil time.
Seek good, and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
as you have said.
Hate evil, and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

Imagine if you will the character of the people who are oppressing the poor, neglecting them, and essentially going about their day to day life as though nothing has happened. They don’t know that they are doing this, it doesn’t occur to them that their day to day actions have any bearing on the poor. It’s doubtful that the core audience knew what the Prophet was saying.

Consider some other passages of Amos. Here’s Amos 8:11:

Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD

God is angry with his people, they are so out of step with his ways, that the possibility of finding those ways are being dried up before their very eyes. He is so disgusted with their slackness and inability to see how unjust their practices have become that their prayers and their worship has become unbearable to hear. It would be like listening to someone’s prayers and thinking it was just babble.

God’s people don’t know this, but God is very upset with how out of sync they are with his purposes.

God’s Justice

When many American Christians think about God’s justice, they think of Sodom and Gomorrah, his wrath or the plagues in Egypt. Meaning they think of punishment. Someone is wrong and will be punished.

Yet the picture in Amos is very different. There is a dearth of God’s ways, compassion, kindness, self-control, humility, people seeking the God of people outside of their economic or social group, people seeking after holiness in body (sexually) and spirit, people cultivating love and deep affection. These things are absent and so God is gently feed-up with everything.

God can no longer work with his people so calamities must come in order to see if the experience of hardship might produce better fruit.

The dynamics are so strong that Amos has a word of caution to those who see these things. Amos 5:13

Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,
    for the times are evil.

Let’s not even begin to talk about what this might mean for the present day church. After all the council of Amos is wise, it is prudent to keep quiet in such times.

Alexei Laushkin is Vice-President of the Evangelical Environmental Network,  a Board Member of the Kingdom Mission Society,  and writer of the Foolishconfidence blog. His views are his own. 

New Habits of Solitude is that Even Possible?

re-posted from the Church of the Ascension blog. 

Habits and small practices. Our days are filled with them.

C.S. Lewis reminds us that in little ways we either choose faithfulness or enter into the lack thereof. These decisions guide whether we become the glorious children of the life to come or we continue a sort of slow descent into a world of torment.

Do habits really make that big of a difference on where we end up?

Surely we are in God’s good graces, believing the right things in the right proportions? Can we hold firmly to our theology but oh so carefully avoid self examination?

In the book were are reading as a church this spring, Invitation to Silence and Solitude, Ruth Haley Barton’s confessions on what brought her to a life crisis should make us all very uncomfortable. Read these quotes from her first chapter; maybe you can relate and quietly admit, “oh I know this feeling”.

“True transformation in the places that really counted seemed just beyond my reach.”

“Was my best hope for transformation some distant possibility beyond the grave?”

“What was motivating the frantic quality of my life and schedule?”

If we live in Northern Virginia we can identify with these questions. I myself find it deeply ironic that I had a hard time reading the book or writing a blog because the pace of my days had grown too frantic.

There is a challenge to this book that is worth mentioning. An impression if you will. This book and many like it echo something I’ve found stated directly by St. Theophan the Recluse, an 19th century Russian writer. St. Theophan counsels the need for some time away from the pace of hectic life to get well. And even Barton herself seems to take for granted that we need space to cultivate habits.

While space is critical, the notion may seem rather frustrating for those of us who can barely find a moment to read let alone space to be silent. What is the use of silence when our silence and the corresponding noise it creates is often louder than our own exhaustion? Why spend time in what just seems more difficult?

But as a word of encouragement, I don’t think cultivation requires some escape. What it does require for those of us living very busy lives is a change in habit, like embracing Haley Barton’s example of practicing 10 minutes of silence with God a day. It might not be fun … it might take months to make it regular and natural. The heart is that slow and that resistant to change.

A few years back I wanted to cultivate morning prayer … but like a bad New Year’s Commitment I would get a few weeks in and stop. Nobody had told me to keep pushing, to keep at it past the first flush of being motivated because slowly, every so slowly my heart would adjust to the new. Remaining present and keeping at a habit, waiting for God’s grace to enable is the biggest challenge to cultivating a new space.

Is it possible in Northern Virginia? God led his people through the desert, surely there is still a sabbath rest reserved for the people of God. May each find the space and the courage to enter therein.

Alexei Laushkin is the Vice President of the Evangelical Environmental Network and Chair of the board of the Kingdom Mission Society. His views are his own.

Inward Alienation

This emptiness which was formed in him as a result of falling away from God, kindles in him an incessant craving that nothing can satisfy. This craving is vague but constant (St. Theophan the Recluse).

That times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you– even Jesus (Acts 3:19-20).

The hunger for fullness and the reality of Jesus. How many times in the gospels is it recorded that Jesus went out of his way to personally touch and heal. Recount the hemorrhaging woman, recount the blind man, how many times does the encounter include a deeply personal and holy interaction.

We live in a time where intimacy is too tied in with sensuality. When the sort of intimacy that Jesus brings is wrapped in light as with a garment, its covered in holiness, its filled with whole love, a love that brings us more fully into who we are. This love takes us more deeply into ourselves, when we encounter it we feel more fully human. We become like Moses at the burning bush or the Apostle Peter at the Mt. of Transfiguration. We know we are seeing something holy and we give way to what is before us.

Inward Alienation

Perhaps the hardest thing to heal for each of us is inward alienation. An alienation born by sins of the flesh, the world, and the devil. An alienation born of trying circumstances, a lack of stability in our closest relating, an alienation born of our own pride and inability to seek the good and our own deep woundedness and the wounds of others. Consider Henri Nouwen on his journey towards wholeness “This place had always been there. I had always been aware of it as the source of grace. But I had not been able to enter it and truly live there.”

Nouwen saw the vision of wholeness in Rambrandt’s the Prodigal Son in the kind and loving embrace of the Father. A moment of profound blessing and love in the middle of ruin and sin. The Father is like the Holy Trinity reaching out to us in the midst of our pain and misery and turning, as we doubt as if to say ‘is this too good to be true’ the Trinity says ‘blessing, wholeness, fullness, life.’

Consider the gospel of Luke on this moment “his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

Les Miserables moves us for similar reasons. Especially towards the end of the story, to find love and grace and to end one’s striving in holy love moves us deeply. It is our most natural desire, its what orients us at times, to find some peace for the inward alienation.

But being moved by these stories and seeing it from afar is not the same thing as dwelling and inhabiting holy love whether in our love for God (more common) or even in a particular relationship (less common).

So what helps us heal our self-alienation. As St. Theophan puts it our constant but vague craving? How do we like the children of Israel enter the land of milk and honey.

If we try and go into that land or that place of healing before God is ready for us or the dynamics are good, we will easily fail.

So what is the way forward? How do we start? Consider these words of scripture:

Be holy, because I am holy (1 Peter 16).

The pursuit of God and seeking first the kingdom not only in pious practices (prayers, scripture, and worship), but practices that overflow into our actions and relating (mercy, forgiveness, compassion, self-control) build the muscles and lay, all of these lay, the groundwork for the healing of self-alienation. But in and of themselves these practices and actions are insufficient for the healing to begin. It is grace. The free gift of God acting in each of us and in particular relationships that establish this level of closeness in our relating with God or with a particular person.

When we are inwardly alienated what stability can be used to heal this? What dynamics can the Trinity work with when we are so easily tossed like the seas, one day pursuing God, the next pursuing the world, the next pursuing our favorite team, the next trying the next fade, and so on and so on. Or if we are like the elder son, lulled to sleep in the service of the Lord. We neither experience the full embrace of the Father, but simply experience a dullness in our faith. A dullness which leads to slackness and sin as full and entangling as that of the younger son. Without vibrancy we don’t have much to stand on in our journey towards Christ.

The sure fire method and approach is to cultivate a soft heart. A heart that grieves fully over ones own sin. If we are the younger sin we must focus our efforts on repentance, realizing the extreme danger we are in. To repeat the Jesus prayer often is one method to cajole the heart ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner.’

If we are the elder son we have much work to do because we have already disregarded our Father’s house. The elder son may begin with habits that are hard for his pride to bear, such as regular prayer (praying the holy hours for instance), humility, repentance that leads to tears. If the older son in us can be humbled and God grants the gift of tears than surely salvation has visited his inner abode and the path towards amendment of life can begin. We should not forget that we are to persevere to the end and not easily give up, especially if our heart is already hardened, in good time our gracious Father will give us a right spirit instead of a heart of stone.

The gospel is not just partial good news. It’s not merely a set of beliefs, it’s beliefs that are fully embodied and dwelt in. The children of Israel weren’t just given a land they were told to dwell in the land. Consider the words of the Psalms “dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness” (Psalm 37:3). It’s not a simple possession but a full embodied dwelling therein.

The only type of thing that truly heals our inward alienation is for our inner desires and our orientation to move towards something that’s much more full. Again St. Theophan on this point:

Every feature of the divine order condemns and rebukes him with his former unreasonableness and carelessness. This impresses him all the more because, at the same time, his spirit sees the obvious insignificance of the former sinful order, which deserves his contempt. By this action the heart is released from its former bondage and becomes free.

This freedom and character than takes work to mold. This is but the beginning of repentance. Repentance is followed by the pursuit of holiness, the fully taking off of sin (lust for money, power, significance, other people, selfishness) and replaced by actions commended by Jesus himself (mercy towards those who have specifically wronged you, compassion towards those in dire circumstances, love for those who also pursue the Lord fully, self-control to not be bothered and perturbed when one encounters sin, peacefulness of heart which guides every moment).

As this builds the dull ache changes. Instead we find joy ineffable. We find holiness. At times the gift of a spiritual brother or sister who can be closer to us than our very hearts because there is holiness and wholeness in the inner chambers and recesses of our soul is given.

Here we can can find peace and true rest which enables creative love and kingdom fruit. At such points it will be said of us he has acquired peace in himself and look how those around him flock to find that peace as well.

On Forgiveness

If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. (John 20:23)

These are words of life. Not just words that express some ideal, these are words to put the nature of sin in oneself to death by. We are to be marked by mercy, by grace, by our forgiveness.

When we begin to delve deeply into this passage on forgiveness we begin to feel the weight of our obligation before God and each other. As we dig into this passage, we can no longer carry the words that we are more prone to carry. Words of indifference. The indifference that characterized the grave act of sin between Cain and Abel, when Cain murdered his brother, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’

We realize that in the new reality, the new covenant, the life that starts and finishes with the author of life,  forgiveness is not a concept to just be past over. Left for the unskilled and the uninterested parts of our life to attend to.

When Jesus says to ‘seek first the kingdom of God,’ he means seek first, make it of primary importance. The first thing you think about when you rise, the last thing when you sleep, and in the countless moments throughout the day orient your lives towards God and God’s ways. If you try you’ll find how hard it is to live this life, and it will drive you to repentance and from repentance and mourning into the grace of his forgiveness. When we experience that kind of forgiveness we dare not hold the debts against those who have sinned against us. We forgive and repent so that no root of bitterness might take root. There is no time for merriment apart from God, taking a break from his ways and only returning to them for prayer. There is no full way of being human apart from the life of faith.

Seek first the kingdom, means to be deeply inwardly changed. To have the wellspring of life transform you. Not to change yourself, but to have God do work that only He can do. It’s not simply the absence of sin and evil but the presence of Life and even Life evermore.

Before the Children of God are sent off to the wilderness there is this interesting promise in the Book of Exodus:

“He said, ‘If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you’ (Exodus 15:26).

The healer, the great physician, the God who does not change his character, his love or his nature. For in him we live in light ineffable.

Forgiveness removes us and our hurts from the center of the brokenness that we experience in our lives. Our need for forgiveness from God, reorients our experience of others. We are no longer the center of our own pain and wrongs committed on us, but instead we see ourselves as a fellow beggar in need of daily manna from heaven. It’s a type of humility that says if I were in the situation of another, I know that my character apart from God is of such a quality where I may have very well done the same. It makes us live into the reality that the only good things in this life are truly gifts from above, that apart from God we can do nothing.

So instead of things to be consumed, relationships become the gift of a good God. The maintenance and commitment of such a relationship depends on the Lord working in the relationship itself. If we are others oriented the Lord can use that to bring some remarkable and family like dynamics with those we love and are in relationship with. Apart from that we can still practice peace, patience, kindness, and the heavenly and holy fruits in all our relating, even if it is simply for a season.

Forgiveness is a balm that brings us into the reality of the frailty of others and our own frailty. True forgiveness frees us from ourselves and orients us back to the well-spring of Life which is Jesus.