Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

On Luke 18:9-14 and the 500th Commemoration of the Reformation

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” Each day the queen would stand before her magical reflecting glass and pose this question. And each day without fail the mirror replied, “You are the fairest in the land.” Then the queen would happily go about her business. But there came the day when the queen, once again, stood before the mirror and queried, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” And the magical mirror, which could only reflect the truth, answered, “Snow White, Snow White is the fairest of them all.” The queen flew into a rage, unable to bear this truth and…. well, you know the rest of the story.

The Pharisee went up to the Temple to pray. He stood by himself and, praying before the mirror of the Eternal, he informed it of his exceeding righteousness: “I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector standing nearby. I fast twice a week: I give a tenth of all my income.” The mirror of the Eternal, like the queen’s magical mirror, reveals only the truth. But unlike the fairy tale queen, the Pharisee never asked the Eternal mirror to verify his righteousness. To the Pharisee, it was self-evident. Why question it?

But the tax collector, standing at some distance, did not even look into the mirror of the Eternal. Instead, he beat his breast as a sign of contrition, and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” If the tax collector had dared to gaze into the Eternal mirror, he would have been astonished to see the loving face of God gazing back at him. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

What do you see when you look into the bathroom mirror each morning? Do you see the image you expect or want to see? Do you perhaps wish to see a younger self, free of cares and wrinkles and puffy eyes? Do you gaze into the mirror carefully, looking over the individual details until the shaving, hair combing and make-up are complete? Would you honestly want to have a magical mirror which would always tell you the truth? Would you dare look into such a mirror?

Five hundred years ago Martin Luther held up such a mirror to the Pharisaic church practices of his time. Today many denominations remember this man who, without blinking an eye, gazed into God’ mirror and changed the course of history. Born in 1483, Martin Luther started out studying law as a young man. He eventually became a priest and an Augustinian monk. He was a brilliant teacher, but not very happy. He worried himself sick about how to secure his salvation. In this all-consuming concern, Luther merely reflected the church of his day, a church often guilty of praying the prayer of the Pharisee in the Temple. Preoccupied with preserving the institution, the church forgot the simple truth of God’s free grace, forgot the generous spirit of Jesus. Instead, it legislated heavy burdens of guilt on the people, burdens which could only be bought off with penance and money. This frustrated and angered Luther greatly, and he risked a trip to the mirror of the Eternal God: “Mirror, mirror of the Most High, who is your grace for?!”

Searching the Scriptures, Martin Luther encountered the abundant compassion of God. Especially when studying Paul’s letter to the Romans, Luther was struck by the free gift of God’s grace, a free gift to tax collector and Pharisee alike. After a number of attempts to defend his position with the clerical and secular rulers of his day, Luther finally said: “Unless I can be instructed and convinced otherwise, with evidence from the Holy Scriptures — since I am captive to the Word of God — I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience.” And then he added his famous words: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen.”

With these words Martin Luther was kicked out of the church, and the Reformation as a Protestant movement became a historical fact. The mirror of the Eternal God had become the weapon of choice claimed by friend and foe alike in the human quest to prove who’s right.

Five hundred years have passed. We are finally in the business of healing our divisions — slowly. Carrying the burden of centuries of strife, we now realize on all sides that the mirror of the Eternal God indeed bestows grace and righteousness in abundance on all who come before that mirror in faith and humility.

Now, our church leaders are sitting down with courage before this Divine mirror in the spirit of repentance and reconciliation. Our dear Pope Francis is leading the pack this month; beginning October in meetings with the Orthodox, then meeting and praying with the Anglicans, and ending next week in Lund, Sweden, with the Lutherans. Nothing is more powerful than putting words into actions; we do well to heed these growing bonds of affection, this common prayer and witness among all these church leaders.

Whether it is the sin of division in our Christian tradition, or our own personal sin that we try so hard to hide from, gazing into the mirror of the Eternal requires courage, but most of all the grace of repentance and humility. How willing are we to hear the truth? How willing are we to see God’s truth? Our answer is directly proportional to our willingness to gaze into our own sinfulness. To gaze into the mirror of the Eternal is to look into God’s eyes and to see there reflected the truth of who we really are. See that reflection, know it as the only truth that matters. Are we willing to ask God’s forgiveness, to let God change our image so that it conforms more closely to the image God intended?

We cannot do any of this ourselves.Tithing, like the Pharisee (although helpful to our faith community), or fasting twice a week, or any pious works we may practice cannot, by themselves, bring about conversion. All the talks between our various churches cannot in and of themselves restore our unity in Jesus Christ. Conversion begins deep inside ourselves, as God’s love and mercy and grace transform our hearts. Gazing into the mirror of the Eternal, we see our sinfulness, and as we gaze upon our sinfulness, we see a merciful God and find our true selves.

This is the truth of repentance and humility. This is the blessing of repentance and humility: that we can stand before the mirror of the Eternal and know the Truth — the truth that sets us free. When we take hold of this Truth, which God’s mirror reflects back to us, as the tax collector did, as Martin Luther did, and as Pope Francis, Archbishop Justin Welby, the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, and the Lutheran bishops are doing today, we no longer need to stand apart like the Pharisee, afraid to be contaminated by the tax collector’s sin. We no longer need to take comfort in presumptuous prayer. No need to set up barriers between “us and them.” We stand among brothers and sisters, no longer despising them because they are tax collectors or “those of that other church,” because we now see ourselves in them. Together we are totally dependent upon God’s mercy and forgiveness and love. And together we thank God for the abundant mercy and forgiveness and love.

Taking hold of God’s free gift of grace through faith, we can once again gather together as churches in common worship, common witness and common mission for the sake of the world. This is the work of the Almighty: to exalt us in our humble and sinful reality, and to love us there without measure, so that we can turn around and love one another without measure…

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Drowning in Debt

The church never changes, claim the die-hard traditionalists. Well, that’s only partly accurate. Without touching the basic tenets of our faith as stated in the Creed, the Christian tradition has changed enormously over time. Authority in the Church was exercised quite differently in the first millennium than what we have come to know in our day. The meaning of ordination has changed, the number of sacraments has changed, and so has the Church’s position on religious freedom and ecumenism, on marriage and divorce, on slavery, and on our relationship to the Jewish faith.

At the time of the changes, it is not always easy to predict what the long-lasting effects of such changes will be. And so the other day I found myself mulling over one of those changes made long ago about … usury of all things. You know, the practice of borrowing money and charging interest so as to enjoy a certain standard of living before we have our own money in the bank to do so. And I’m beginning to wonder whether allowing this practice was a good move.

A recent article in the Huffington Post reported that a significant number of Canadians are overwhelmed by debt. So I went back to try and find out what the original reason was for the change in the Church’s position on charging interest on loans.

The Hebrew Scriptures are clear about the command to lend freely and without interest to one’s neighbour in need (Deuteronomy 23:19). The Christian Church supported this and extended this command to apply to all humanity, making this a universal principle. There was a time when anyone who accepted interest on loans could receive neither the sacraments nor Christian burial (Third Council of Lateran, 1179).

But over the centuries business and commerce grew in the Christian world; loans were no longer just to a neighbour in need, but to a partner in commerce. The lender began to see himself as rightly expecting to profit from the loan. Production of goods demanded capital and capital began to come with a price tag.

At first, various rationales were brought forward with the aim to keep the command against usury. But as the world increasingly adopted the capitalist system, these rationales became more and more awkward. Christians began simply to redefine the term “usury.” Where originally it meant the charging of interest, any interest, it now got redefined as the charging of excessive interest.

John Calvin examined biblical texts concerning loans and reinterpreted them as allowing interest so long as it is not excessive. His teaching became widely accepted. Loans were thus no longer viewed as taking place among neighbours, but rather among competitors in a world of commerce.

Benjamin Nelson captured this change succinctly in the title of his book, The Idea of usury: From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood. The world is no longer a community of brothers and sisters but the impersonal realm of individual and corporate competition. This is the world today’s generations of young adults take as normal, with exorbitant debt loads as simply part of the course.

Some of my own adult children have so much of their monthly income tied up in paying off loans (including mortgage on a house) that, should their earnings ever decrease due to events beyond their control (job loss, sickness, accident), they’d be in huge trouble. No wonder the survey quoted in the Huffington Post article reported Canadians feeling overwhelmed by debt.

I wonder if we have gone from one extreme to the next. Generations before us lived by a golden rule of not borrowing money; they scraped together whatever few pennies they acquired and eked out a living. Some developed such strong habits of living below their means, that even when they had means, it stayed in the bank (or under the bed!). I wonder if these ancestors  discovered an unexpected secret along the way, one that today’s generations don’t even realize is possible, and that is that there’s an enormous freedom in living below one’s means, in not needing what the neighbours have, in doing with less.

Now we have created a society where we consider it normal to borrow from the future to live in the present. We do this with the plundering of the earth’s resources, we do this with money, we do it with material possessions.

So was it really such a good decision for the Church to change its teaching on usury, I wonder? Has the Church, over the course of time, subtly colluded with market forces until charging interest was no longer an issue of moral concern? Some days I wish we could turn the clock back. Less is truly more, for today as well as for tomorrow.

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