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There was a man in England who put his Rolls-Royce on a boat and went across to Europe to go on a vacation. While he was driving around Europe, something happened to the motor of his car. He phoned the Rolls-Royce people back in England and asked, “I’m having trouble with my car; what do you suggest I do?” Well, the Rolls-Royce people flew a mechanic over! The mechanic repaired the car and flew back to England and left the man to continue his vacation. As you can imagine, the fellow was wondering, “How much is this going to cost me?” So when he got back to England, he sent an email and asked how much he owed them. He received a reply from the Rolls-Royce office that read: “Dear Sir: There is no record anywhere in our files that anything ever went wrong with a Rolls-Royce.”
We’ve all been subjected to it more than once and many claim that it is a very misunderstood poem, but for today’s purpose…
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood…
(The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost)
I thought of that when it struck me that today’s parable from Jesus could begin, “Two roads diverged at the Temple doors….” I would like to say that I’m like the guy in the back, and there are some days that I may actually pull it off, but I know that there are other days when I am the Pharisee. To try and squeeze myself in either of the individuals is the square peg round hole problem—it’s not going to work, because I am not either/or… depending on the day, I am both, because there is a certain appeal to both.
The appeal of the Pharisee: black and white, right and wrong. The Pharisee does not really have to think about his faith, he only has to practice it. Thou shall have no other gods: check. Thou shall not commit adultery: check. Thou shall not murder:… ummm… check. Those are easy, until somebody comes along and says things like, “‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” That aside, why is there this appeal of the Pharisee and the legalistic approach to our faith?
Brennan Manning answered that one nicely in his book Reckless Confidence: “One of the telltale signs in the contemporary American church that trust in God is on the wane is the meteoric rise of legalistic religion. It will continue to flourish and attract an enormous number of devotees. For legalism is born of fear. It is a religious response to human fear. What makes legalism so attractive is that it meets a basic human need—security…. We create a very solid foundation for our lives, because the God who has been absolutized by us can never surprise us.” (p. 138)
Once the Devil was walking along with one of his cohorts. They saw a man ahead of them pick up something shiny. “What did he find?” asked the cohort. “A piece of the truth,” the Devil replied. “Doesn’t it bother you that he found a piece of the truth?” asked the cohort. “No,” said the Devil, “I will see to it that he makes a religion out of it.” (Source)
The appeal of the Pharisee is that he was given the truth in the form of the Mosaic Law, but instead of using the Law to follow God, the Law became the religion. The Law was what was worshipped and adored and not the Giver of the Law. Yet, it is appealing—give me a law and I can be secure in my legalistic faith as long as I follow that law. Give me a law and I can use that law to know who is in and who is out. Who I have to love and who I can cast away. Give me a law and I’ll use it to put you in your place and demonstrate to you how superior I am to you. Only problem: what happens when I’m the one who broke the law, which brings up the appeal of the second path, the path of the tax collector. We’ll call him the Rogue.
The Rogue stands at the back, dares not look toward Heaven. The Rogue is a rogue and he knows it, so speaking softly to God, he says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The appeal of the Rogue: grace, mercy, forgiveness. Going home justified. The Rogue knows he’s a rogue, even though he tries to be a saint. The Rogue humbles himself before a righteous God and begs to be made clean. And the God who created the Rogue, loves him, and makes him whiter than snow. However, the way of the Rogue is not without its pitfalls.
For starters, and this is something we talked about in Confirmation Class this past week: God may send the Rogue home justified, but the Rogue simply does not believe it. Pitfall: spiritual pride—we hear the words of our absolution, but we believe our sin too great to actually be forgiven. When we believe that, we are saying the Cross—the bloody sacrifice of Jesus—is too small to cover my sins, to justify us before God. The Apostle John teaches us, Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world,” and we add, except for mine. That is one pitfall of the Rogue, hearing that he is justified, but not believing it. Another is actually a combination of the two. Let’s call this one the Pharisaical Rogue.
The Pharisee is one who made a religion out of the Mosaic Law and worshipped it instead of God. The Pharisaical Rogue sits in the pews at church praying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” But at the same time denies others the same mercy and grace that he is requesting for himself. The Pharisaical Rogue has accepted God’s mercy for themselves, but has established his own law that determines who is in and who is out. It is another form of legalism, but it comes with a spiritual arrogance, for it professes to not only know the mind of God, but to also be the gate through which God’s mercy and grace will be allowed to flow. It forgets, “judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:12) The author of Proverbs writes, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.” (Proverbs 3:27)
“Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.”
(William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I)
We are not to withhold mercy, when it is in our power to show it.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood… Two roads diverged at the Temple doors… and I… I take them both.
What are we to do—and I say ‘we’… and I hope this doesn’t sting too much… I say we, because I know I’m not in this boat alone—What are we to do? I believe we should all remember a couple of things. The first is what St. Paul said to the Corinthians: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:10) The second is what Paul said in his second letter to Timothy when Paul was in prison in Rome and had gone on trial: “At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.” (2 Timothy 4:16-17a) On the last day, we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, and we will either be condemned for the evil we have committed and the mercy we did not show or, it will kinda be like the letter the man received from Rolls-Royce: Jesus will stand beside us and say, “There is no record in God’s files that you have ever done anything wrong. You have been shown mercy. You may enter your eternal home… justified.”
Allow God’s grace and mercy to work in you and allow that same grace and mercy work in others. Allow them to be justified as you have been justified.
Let us pray: Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, hail, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve: to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus, O merciful, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary! Amen.