Roger was lounging in the lobby as I checked into the Hotel Sandy, a cheap hostel just down the street from Rome’s Termini Station. It was nearly suppertime, and he was yawning and stretching, as if he’d just woken up. I asked him if he knew where to find a good pizza, and in a high-pitched New Zealand accent, he said he knew just the place if he could come with me.
We were unlikely dining companions: me, an earnest theology student, making my rounds of the shrines and ancient ruins; Roger, an accomplished carouser, wandering from club to club until the break of dawn. He woke up just in time for supper. But somehow, it worked. For five days, every evening we’d meet again in the lobby and head out for pasta, and share what we’d been discovering in the Eternal City.
The fourth night, Roger announced he would be leaving soon, and wanted some advice on what he really needed to see. His pious Catholic grandmother had suggested Rome, it seems, hoping it might nudge him a bit in the right direction, and he didn’t want to turn up in her parlor entirely empty-handed.
He needed to see the Sistine Chapel, I insisted.The rest of the Vatican Museums were magnificent and the Basilica, but if you were just going to see one thing, it would have to be Michelangelo’s masterpiece. I told him where to stand in line, and how to thread his way through the exhibition halls. It could not disappoint, I assured him.
At supper the next evening, Roger said he’d enjoyed the Chapel, but he was still a little puzzled by the experience. “Say more,” I responded. “Well,” he said, “that big painting behind the Altar was just fine, Jesus on the clouds and all the blokes going this way or that. But what about God touching Adam’s hand. It’s on every t-shirt around here. I thought that was in the Sistine Chapel, too.”
“It is,” I responded, “but it’s on the ceiling.” “The ceiling,” Roger grumbled back, “who would have thought of that? You know, everybody did seem to be looking up. The ceiling: why didn’t you tell me?”
You can lead a man to the Sistine Chapel, but you can’t make him look up. You can lead a Pharisee to the temple, the seat of God’s mercy on earth, but can’t make him ask for forgiveness. Sometimes it’s possible to be in just the right place, but to miss the point completely.
A Pharisee and a tax collector, Jesus says, both went up to the temple to pray. Jesus was describing a scene that any visitor to Jerusalem in his times would have known well. The majestic temple, overlaid in precious stones, stood atop Jerusalem’s highest hill, the center of the life of the Holy City. It was the place God had chosen for His glory to dwell, and the sacrifices offered at its altars expressed the deepest longings and highest praises of His people. All day long people filed into its gates to offer grain and animals in the procession of rituals that bracketed their lives: tithes at harvest, presentation sacrifices at the birth of a son, thank-offerings after an illness escaped or a new business opportunity discovered.
But the crowds came particularly twice in the day: mid-morning and late afternoon, when choir came out to sing and after an offering on behalf of the whole nation a priestly blessing was chanted. Those morning and evening sacrifices were like the opening and closing bell on wall street—they bracketed all the individual acts of sacrifice that filled the rest of the day’s business.
But the faithful also believed that they were thin moments, times when the long way between God and man stood open, and His mercy descended in power. The pious would time their daily prayers, far from Jerusalem to correspond to that transcendent moment, and they’d turn in Jerusalem’s direction on the sands of Arabia or in a Roman suburb to bow their head to God, the Father of Israel, at that sacred time when he would be sure to hear and grant their petition.
The tax collector though he was a foul sinner, knew that this was his moment of opportunity, and He bowed his head, crowded in among the faithful, and opened His heart to God. “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”
But the Pharisee, seeing the natural opportunity the crowd presented, began to sing his own praises. He claimed to thank God, but in truth He praised himself. Maybe he thought what people really needed was a good example. But to us, and to Jesus’ audience, his prayer is appalling, drawing back the curtain to reveal his pettiness, vanity and arrogance.
What is more, he has missed the gift of the moment. Who could dare to be so prideful to sing His own praise when the gates of God’s mercy stand open. Who could rejoice in just the way things are already when God was promising to act: to heal, forgive, and renew.
Jesus says that the tax collector went home justified, made right with God. His sin was put away. True reconciliation was made. He received new strength from God to lead a different kind of life. Jesus Himself had come as just such an agent of justification, changing the world by opening men’s hearts and pouring out the gift of God’s mercy. To meet Jesus was to encounter the deepest truth, the direct transformative power that all that the daily sacrifices gestured towards. And his bitterest scorn was reserved for those, like the Pharisee, who could see in religion only a form of sanction for the way things already are, the order in which they had landed at the top.
Life in Christ begins with Baptism, in which God’s grace comes to cleanse and renew us, and to fill us with His life-giving Spirit, who will not let us rest content. And life after Baptism follows just the same pattern enabled by God’s grace: seeking forgiveness, growing in understanding, developing new moral habits. Luther captured this perfectly when He wrote: “This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it…All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”
A few weeks ago, when I announced that my time with you would soon be ending, one of you came to me rather exasperated on your way out the door. “I’ve had about as much change as I can take. It seems like every time I come here, there’s somebody new standing at the front.” Believe me, I understand that frustration. We live in a world full of so much change, and much of it not very good. What we sometimes seek inside these doors is a reach toward the transcendent, something of enduring value, comforting because it stands firm.
But new leaders also bring new opportunities, as this person, a serious Christian later came back to me admitting herself. You are a wonderful group of people in many ways, but God is not finished with you yet. You are not yet what you shall be, but are growing toward it. The change that comes from God’s prompting, that moves you toward Him, will not disappoint you when you receive it with open hearts.
We are gathered around Jesus this day. This is the place of transformation. Don’t be at the right place at the right time and miss the point entirely. Don’t forget to lift up your heads and see what God is really doing.