Two People Went Up to the Temple to Pray

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“Two people went up to the Temple to pray, one a rule follower (a Pharisee) and the other a rule breaker (a tax collector).”

Last weekend someone who has become very dear to me got herself engaged to a lovely, kind, and hard-working young man. Theirs is a dear story of two young persons who met by chance and knew immediately that this is “it.” From the first time that she ever talked to me about him she used terms like “perfect for each other”, “so much alike”, “laugh at the same things”…in short, the sort of match that parents and friends hope for when it comes to their children. Time, which we pray they have plenty of together, will reveal how they are also different from each other, but hopefully, by the time those differences appear, these two will only see them as opportunities for loving each other more deeply and compassionately.

Already my young friend looks for ways to show her beloved how much she cares for him. She remembers small things that truly matter to him, and she looks for new ways to surprise him and make him happy. His occupation keeps him outdoors a lot in all kinds of weather, and I suspect he can get pretty down at the end of a hot day under the Georgia sun. She is always there to lift him back up. And because his character has been shaped by hard work under the Georgia sun, he is able to offer her a special kind of encouragement and broad perspective on life when, on occasion, she feels sad. In short, she exalts him when he is low and he anchors her to solid rock should she feel overwhelmed or anxious about what comes next.

No one would have characterized Jack and me as young or alike when we married. On many levels, we couldn’t be more different. But, the few things we shared in common early on have proved to be stronger indicators of mutual affinity than I would’ve thought. We both came from large families, and are roughly the same age. This means that we have consequently been shaped by the same world events. And the two strong and uncompromising religious traditions of our families challenged us to think critically, gave us a sense of peace when we did things right and a sense of purpose when things appeared to be going off the tracks. What we have continued to celebrate in our marriage is a deep appreciation for the unique worth of the other, always feeling “invited” to do our best, to stay a course, and to encourage each other. I am grateful every day that I get to be his wife. For me, Amos’ promise from the first lesson that God will “repay us for the years that the swarming locust has eaten” sounds like life with Jack to me!

Good relationships have a way of normalizing each of us – whether we are rule followers or rule breakers — bringing us up when we are low and anchoring us back to solid ground when we come unhinged from our base. Our relationship with God offers the same possibility for us to “find our right place,” what the Quakers would call our “right size.” We have heard the parable of the two men who went up to the temple to pray so many times that we jump immediately to the “moral” of the story.

But we know this is a parable, so, what’s really going on here? It can’t just mean only what it says at the end, otherwise we’d be caught in a continuous loop: As soon as we dropped low, God would exalt us, but once exalted, we’d be brought low again, like the first being last and the last being first…and then last again, etc. The Gospels are filled with warnings about reversals of fortune. That is true. But an equally prominent theme is that of changed hearts. What if that is what is at play here?

What if the rule follower and the rule breaker are just early unfinished versions of who God made them each to be? What if, as James Martin suggests in his book Becoming Who You Are the very desire to be our best selves to each other, to move closer to God, and move God closer to those we love (and to those we don’t love) is, in fact, a desire planted within us by God? And then, as we mature in years and in faith, our individual differences, our individual personalities are not eradicated as much as they are made fuller, more real, and finally more holy (Martin, 23).

Each of us is called to sanctity in different ways. The path to sanctity for my young friend is going to be different from my path. Overtime, one’s personal brand of holiness becomes clearer the more the true self is revealed. Once we learn to live as our true selves, we can never be satisfied with the charade of pretense again: it then feels so silly and superficial (23-24).” As Oscar Wilde concludes, we must be ourselves; “everyone else is already taken.”

God invites each of us to be the person God had in mind when we were formed in our mothers’ wombs, not a facsimile of ourselves, not who we imagine we ought to be, but who we are. Or, more to the point, who we are on the way to who God is shaping us to become. This process of gradual growth is not contrary to our theology of God incarnate within us. It does not mean that God enters us “gradually.” Even the initial incarnation of God in Christ Jesus must have involved the fully human and fully divine person gradually understanding who he was. For whatever compelled Jesus to show up at the Jordan River that day to see his cousin John the Baptizer, clearly things got sorted out fast once God spoke through the clouds, announcing exactly who Jesus was and is. Perhaps Jesus’ human personality drew him to his cousin that day, but God clarified for him when he got there the purpose of the personality he had been given at his conception.

Ok; so, we’re all different and God made us that way. The problem is that we don’t often appreciate our differences or recognize God at work. Let’s look at another story. In 1957 Roman Catholic activist Dorothy Day traveled from New York City by bus to an inter-racial farming cooperative near Americus, Georgia called Koinonia. Their barn had been set afire and their houses shot at. When Dorothy Day arrived, she was promptly shot at for her troubles, quickly getting back on that un-airconditioned bus and returning to New York only to write an award-winning series of very moving articles about her brief sojourn “down south” which increased her popularity and made her look very “Christian-ish.” Another Catholic writer of the same period, Flannery O’Connor – who actually lived in Georgia — deeply resented Day’s trip to Georgia, seeing it as salvation coming to town by way of the upper east side of New York. Although O’Connor admired Day in general she thought of Day’s trip to Georgia in completely derogatory terms, feeling exploited, finally writing that it seemed like a mighty long way to come just to get shot at. Clearly, these two disciples had their own styles of holiness and were short on mutual appreciation of their differences.

So, how are we to hold together in relationships once we discover that our differences may be God’s birthmark on us, and therefore quite impossible to change? How do we continue loving each other? We must seek the wisdom of the one who called us together, whose birthmark has made us unique, and who desires to plant within us the desire to be who we are – no more and certainly no less.

So, for my young couple, I love that they see how much alike they are today and can rejoice in these reflections of themselves in each other’s eyes. And I rejoice that they will only grow closer as their differences emerge, and they can see God at work on God’s creation, hopefully joining in God’s imaginative plan for how the world will be a different place because they are different from every other person God ever made for God’s glory.

Two people went up to the temple to pray, a rule follower and a rule breaker. One said I thank you that I follow all the rules and am not like people who break rules, and the other said turn your wrath away from me, a rule-breaker. And Jesus said “this time, that one went home justified, because he knew who he was in God’s eyes, he knew his “right size.” Hopefully, the other one discovered his right size eventually because God promises to lift up those who are low and anchor those who come unmoored and are adrift”, because God is love, and that’s what Love does: it opens up a space for each of us to become who God created us to be.

The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
October 23, 2016

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