31st Sunday of the Year Malachi 1:14b–2:2b, 8–10; 1 Thessalonians 2:7b–9, 13; Matthew 23:1–12
The tattoo Jesus challenged the self-righteous and forgave the sinner.
The great American writer Flannery O’Connor wrote a story called “Parker’s Back.” It takes place in the deep South, where O. E. Parker and his wife, Sarah Ruth, live in a rundown shack.
Sarah Ruth constantly nags her husband about his lack of religion. She also despises the tattoos that decorate his body.
One day, in a stumbling effort to improve his relationship with Sarah Ruth, Parker decides to have a large picture of Jesus tattooed on his back. When he returns home and displays his back to Sarah Ruth, she gives no sign of acknowledgment.
Don’t you know who it is? says Parker. It’s him! It’s God!
Sarah Ruth snarls belligerently, God don’t look like that! He’s a Spirit and no one’s ever seen his face.
Parker groans, Aw, it’s just a picture.
Idolatry! screams his Sarah Ruth.
Then she grabs a blunt instrument and begins beating Parker savagely across the back.
Flannery O’Connor concludes her touching story by saying: [Parker] sat there and let her beat him, until she nearly knocked him senseless and large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ. Then he staggered up and made for the door.
Later, when Sarah Ruth glanced outside, her eyes hardened even more.
There was Parker leaning against a pecan tree crying like a baby.
His tears were not from the savage beating. They were from the fact that Parker now realized there was nothing he could do to please his self-righteous wife.
Few stories better illustrate the two kinds of people Jesus dealt with most often in the Gospel: self-righteous people and sinners.
We see these two people dramatically portrayed in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The younger son portrays the sinner; the elder son portrays the self-righteous person.
The elder brother grows angry when he learns that his younger brother has repented and has been welcomed home by his father. The Gospel says of the elder brother:
[He] was so angry that he would not go into the house; so his father came out and begged him to come in. Luke 15:28
The elder brother refuses. He says to his father, This son of yours. He won’t even call him his brother.
The father recognizes this and says gently, But we had to celebrate. . . . because your brother was dead, but now he is alive. Luke 15:32
We are never told whether the elder brother ever came into the house. Jesus omits this detail because his parable was addressed to Pharisees and teachers (elder brother) who resented seeing sinners (younger brother) being welcomed home by Jesus.
Each Pharisee and teacher (elder brother) was invited by Jesus to write his own ending to the parable.
Would he welcome the sinners (younger brother) or would he end up leaving home himself?
We see these same two people in several other gospel parables.
Consider just one more: the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Luke 18:9–14
Both men go to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee says:
I thank you, God, that I am not greedy, dishonest, or an adulterer. . . . I thank you that I am not like that tax collector over there. . . . I give you one tenth of all my income. Luke 18:11–12
The tax collector, on the other hand, stood far off, bowed his head in humility, beat his breast, and said, God, have pity on me, a sinner. Luke 18:14
Jesus concluded his parable, saying:
I tell you, the tax collector, and not the Pharisee, was in the right with God when he went home. For everyone who makes himself great will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be made great. Luke 18:14
That brings us back to Flannery O’Connor’s story,“Parker’s Back.”
Sarah Ruth portrays the self-righteous person, and Parker portrays the sinful person. Sarah Ruth rejects Parker’s childlike effort to please her by having a picture of Jesus tattooed on his back.
Sarah Ruth not only rejects Parker’s effort but uses it as an occasion to impress upon him how religious she is and how irreligious he is.
Sarah Ruth ends by beating Parker’s back until large welts appear on the face of the tattooed Jesus on his back.
The reader is left pondering those unforgettable words of Jesus: Insofar as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me. Matthew 25:40
What Sarah Ruth did to Parker’s back, she did to Jesus.
Let’s end the way Jesus ends his instruction in today’s gospel. It is almost identical with the way he ends his parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector.
The greatest one among you must be your servant. Whoever makes himself great will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be made great. Matthew 23:11–12
Series II 31st Sunday of the Year Malachi 1:14b–2:2b, 8–10; 1 Thessalonians 2:7b–9, 13; Matthew 23:1–12
Lord of love Law’s purpose is to help us love God and neighbor better.
Some years ago William Golding wrote a popular novel called Lord of the Flies. It’s about a group of 14-year-old schoolboys.
The boys become marooned on a deserted island when a plane evacuating them from England, during World War II, crash-lands in the Pacific Ocean. The pilot and the copilot are killed outright, but the boys all survive unharmed.
At first everything goes well for the boys. They enjoy the adventure of exploring the island and of being on their own.
But then everything goes sour. Bickering breaks out among them, and they split into two rival groups. Gradually they turn savage and start killing one another. One of the points that emerge from Golding’s story is that, left to itself, human nature turns violent. In other words, without laws and structures to guide it, human nature tends toward evil. It takes the path of least resistance, and chaos results. Put positively, Golding’s point is this: Society needs laws and structures if it is to survive. Without laws and structures, society soon degenerates into a kind of jungle. Nothing is sacred; no one is respected.
Ancient Jews had a similar philosophy about human nature.
They believed that laws and structures were necessary if Israel was to survive and grow as a nation.
There’s a scene in the Book of Nehemiah (8:1–8) in which the entire nation gathers and dedicates itself to keeping the law.
From that day on, the study of the law in Israel became one of the most important professions. These ancient lawyers, called scribes, took upon themselves the task of applying the major laws of the land to the tiniest details of everyday life.
For example, take the law that said a person could not work on the Sabbath.
The scribes spent hours discussing how that law applied to such things as walking. For instance, how far could a person walk before walking ceased to be recreation and became work?
And so there were laws saying that it was all right to walk half a mile on the Sabbath, but anyone who walked beyond that distance broke the law. The scribes went even further. They “built fences around the law,” to keep people from breaking it by accident. In other words, it was okay to walk half a mile on the Sabbath; but to keep people from breaking the law accidentally, scribes made it a law that they could walk only two-fifths of a mile.
Commenting on this exaggerated legalism, William Barclay, a student of Jewish law, wrote:
By the time this scribal interpretation of the law was finished, it took more than fifty volumes to hold the mass of regulations that resulted.
The upshot of all this was that many common people in Israel gave up trying to keep all the laws that were placed upon them by the scribes. They were totally discouraged and gave up all hope of pleasing God. Many of these common people even gave up trying to keep the major laws.
As a result, these unfortunate people were rejected by the scribes and the Pharisees as sinners and outcasts.
This explains why Jesus dealt so harshly with the scribes and the Pharisees. It was because they had prostituted religion and turned it into a set of rules.
This also explains why Jesus says of the scribes and the Pharisees in today’s gospel:
“They tie onto people’s backs loads that are heavy and hard to carry; yet they aren’t willing even to lift a finger to help them carry those loads.”
In contrast to all this legalism, Jesus held out love and forgiveness. He said the heart of religion was not a book filled with rules that only a few people had the leisure and the learning to keep.
Rather, it was a heart filled with love and compassion, which everyone was capable of.
Jesus emphasized this in last week’s gospel as you recall when he reduced all the commandments of the law to these two: Love God above all things and love your neighbor as yourself.
All the other commandments of the law are subordinate to these two.
In other words, Jesus is saying that you can make all the laws you want and keep all the laws you make. But if your reason for doing so is other than love of God and love of neighbor, you have missed the whole point of law and religion.
Saint Paul, who was a converted Pharisee, stressed this same point in his First Letter to the Corinthians, saying:
I may have all the faith needed to move mountains but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give away everything I have . . . but if I have no love, this does me no good.
Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs; love is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth. Love never gives up; and its faith, hope and patience never fail. 1 Corinthians 13:2–7 If there was any doubt about the primacy of love in religion, those inspired words of Paul dispelled it once and for all. Let’s close by quoting Mother Teresa. More than any person alive, she maintained a beautiful balance between love and law when it came to the practice of religion. She said:
Each person’s mission is a mission of love. . . . Begin in the place where you are, with the people closest to you. Make your homes centers of compassion and forgive endlessly. Let no one ever come to you without coming away better and happier. . . .
At the hour of death when we come face-to-face with God, we are going to be judged on love; not how much we have done, but how much love we put into the doing.
Series III 31st Sunday of the Year Malachi 1:14b–2:2b, 8–10; 1 Thessalonians 2:7b–9, 13; Matthew 23:1–12
Kindness No one needs it more than someone who doesn’t deserve it. The greatest one among you will be the one who serves the rest. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, but whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. Matthew 23:12
Kent Nerburn is the author of several good books. One of his strengths is his ability to tell a good story.
An example occurs in his book Letters to My Son. He introduces it with a brief reflection on his aging father. He writes:
The man who could recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address by heart can no longer remember what day of the week it is.
And the man, who once stood tall and strong, and enjoyed doing many things, is now a shrivelled-up shell of a man.
He spends his days idly flicking the remote control button of the TV set, going from channel to channel, looking for something to watch.
Kent admits that this picture of his father should make him sad and it does. But his sadness is also mixed with awe. For it was his father who inspired and shaped his character and life forever.
For example, when he was ten, his father returned one day from his early morning walk along the beach wheeling a bicycle by his side.
It was the most beautiful bike Kent had ever seen: bright purple, with hand brakes and a gear shift. His father explained that he had found it down at the beach.
Possibly, the owner couldn’t remember where he had hidden it for safety. Or possibly, it was stolen during the day by someone and put there to be retrieved some night.
In any event, Kent’s dad decided to bring it home. He put it in the garage, covered it with an old blanket, and instructed Kent not to ride it, because it belonged to someone else.
Meanwhile, for the next few weeks, his father advertised in the newspaper for its owner. One day a man called and described it. Kent’s father knew the neighborhood where the man lived and offered to take it over to him.
When the man answered the door, he looked right past Kent and his father, at the bicycle.
Ignoring them, he wheeled the bike inside and began examining it. Without looking up, the man said, accusingly, “This bike has a lot of new scratches on it.” Then, he glanced at Kent’s father and said, “I suppose I ought to give you something for your trouble.” With that he literally tossed a wadded-up bill toward Kent’s father. His father handed it back.
As Kent and his dad left the man’s house, Kent grabbed at his father’s shirt and said, “Why were you so kind to that guy? He was really mean.”
His father said, “Well, after he thinks about it a while, maybe he’ll pass the kindness on someday to someone else.”
That was his father’s standard response to the many kindnesses he showed people. Kent concluded, saying, “My father never mentioned the episode again.”
This story is a living example of Jesus’ final words in today’s Gospel: The greatest one among you will be the one who serves the rest. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, but whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.
Jesus could have added:
Whoever follows this difficult teaching will impact the lives of many people and leave this world a better place.
This brings us to the important question: “What might Jesus be saying to me, personally, through his words in today’s Gospel?”
I don’t know about you, but for me, the story of Kent’s father comes pretty close to answering that question.
Had I been in his shoes when the man accused him of putting the new scratches on the bike, I would have probably said, “For your information, sir, I put the bike in my garage, covered it with a blanket, and spent good money to find you.”
Furthermore, I probably would have repeated the story again and again to illustrate how ugly and ungrateful people can be.
In other words, I wouldn’t have responded in the way Jesus counsels in today’s Gospel.
But not Kent’s father. He responded exactly as Jesus counseled. The story of Kent’s father inspires me to want to live my own life more in harmony with Jesus’ counsel in today’s Gospel.
The story also reminds me of something I tend to forget and need to be reminded of from time to time. No one needs love more than someone who doesn’t deserve it.
If we wait around until they deserve it, before we love them, we will wait around the rest of our lives. It is precisely in loving them that they become loveable.
That’s why Jesus said, “Love your enemies.”
Finally, the story reminds me that if I follow the words of Jesus as Kent’s father did, I too will impact people’s lives and leave this world a better place. Let us close with an image that sums up what Jesus might be saying to us, personally, in today’s Gospel.
John Ruskin lived before the age of electricity. City streets were lit by gas lamps. Lamplighters went from lamp to lamp lighting them with a flaming torch.
One night when he was old, Ruskin was seated in front of a window in his home.
Across the valley on a hillside street, a lamplighter was lighting street lamps. Ruskin couldn’t see him; he could only see the torch and the trail of lights that he left behind him.
After a few minutes of watching, he turned to a friend and said:
“That’s my idea of a true Christian. You may never have known him. You may never even have seen him. But you know that he passed through this world by the trail of lights he left behind him.”