September 28, 2008
Last week in my sermon I quoted the great Reginald Fuller, who said: “[This] is what God is doing in Jesus’ ministry—giving the tax collectors and prostitutes an equal share with the righteous in the kingdom.” That was a shocking statement for many of us. And it should be. It should shake us to our very core.
This week that point is being driven home to us, when, in explaining the parable, Jesus says to us: “Truly I tell you, the tax collector and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
It’s a huge statement for him to make. But I think, like many of his statements, it has lost the full weight of its meaning for us, in this day and age. We can grasp the understanding about prostitutes—after all, prostitutes are still looked down upon by our society today. But tax collectors? Why all this talk about tax collectors not getting into the kingdom of heaven? No doubt, few of us like the prospect of tax collectors. Few of us are overjoyed at the thought of taxes or anyone having to collect them. But certainly they are very rarely if ever classed alongside prostitutes in our day, unless under some scandalous circumstances.
In Jesus’ day however, tax collectors were essentially viewed as traitors. They worked for the occupying Roman government collecting taxes from their own people. From a religious point, they had another strike against them. Because they handled Roman money, on which the image of the Roman Emperor—who was considered a god—was etched, they were considered unclean because of their handling of these pagan images. The tax collector of Jesus’ day was an unclean traitor and as such was the worst of the worst.
Prostitutes were also considered to be unclean of course and were looked down upon by literally every aspect of society. Unlike tax collectors, prostitutes are another segment of our society that we tend to forget about it in today’s culture. But we really should give them concern. And I don’t mean from a judgmental point of view. I mean, we should give them our compassion. We should be praying for them often because we often hear the horrible stories of what prostitutes have to deal with on the streets. The stories of what drove them to the streets are horrendous enough. But the stories of what keeps them on the streets are just as bad. And the dangers they face—day and night—are more mind-boggling than anything we can even imagine in our safe, comfortable lives. Truly prostitutes throughout history have been the real exploited ones. They are the ones who have lived on the fringes of society. They are the ones who have lived in the shadows of our respectable societies. They have lived dangerous, secret lives. And much of what they’ve had to go through in their lives is known only to God. They need our prayers. They need our compassion. Conversely, they don’t need our exploitation and they don’t need our judgment. As uncomfortable as it is for us to confront them and think about them, that is exactly what Jesus is telling us we must do. Because by going there in our thoughts, in our prayers in our ministries, we are going where Jesus went. We are coming alongside those people he tells us will inherit the kingdom before us. And rather than using them, rather than continuing the exploitation they have lived with in their lives, we must see them as God sees them. We must see them as children of God, as fellow humans on this haphazard, uncertain journey we are all on together.
And, more importantly, we must see in them ourselves. There, but for the grace of God go us. Had we been born in different circumstances, had life gone wrong for us in certain areas, who are we to say we wouldn’t have been there? Or who we are to say we wouldn’t be the exploiters?
The point of this morning’s Gospel is this: the Kingdom of God is not what we think it is. It is not made up of just people like us. It’s not going to be like going to the country club or the executive lounge. It is not even going to be like going to the Episcopal Church. It is going to be made up people who never go to church, who may never have gone to church. It is going to be made up of people we would never imagine stepping foot in a country club or an executive lounge. It will be made up of those people we don’t notice. It will be made up of those people who are invisible to us. It will be made up of the people we don’t give a second thought to.
In our society today we have our own version of tax collectors. They are the homosexual, the lesbian, the recluse. They are the AIDS patient, the Alzheimer’s patient, the cancer patient, the mentally ill. They are the welfare cases. They are the homeless. They are the alcoholics and the drug addicts and the drug dealers. They are the depressed among us, they are the lost among us, and they are the ones who are trapped in their own sadness and their own loneliness. They are the gang leaders, they are the rebels. They are the radical Christian, the radical Muslim, the radical Jew. They are the ones we call pagan, or non-believer or atheist. They are the ones we, good Christians that we are, have worked all our lives not to be. This is what the Kingdom of heaven is going to be like.
And when we, in our arrogance, in our self-righteousness, think that we have all the answers, when we think because we do this and do that, that somehow heaven is our inheritance, that is when Jesus stands up to us and says to us, “No.” It is then that he shakes his finger at us and reminds us that the inheritors of heaven are not us at all, but those people we passed on the way to church on Sunday morning. They are the people who look up at us from their marginalized place in this society. They are the ones who peek out at us from the curtains of their isolation and their loneliness. They are the ones who, in their quiet agony, watch as we drive out of sight from them. They are they inheritors of the kingdom of God and if we think they are not, then we are not listening to what Jesus is saying to us. We are plugging our ears and closing our minds and we are turning our backs on the Gospel.
Recently I read a book put out by the Red River Genealogical Society about the Cass County Cemeteries. What few of us know is that, just a few blocks north of this church, there are two cemeteries. Unless you actually get out of your car and walk into the actual cemetery do you see a large boulder. In one cemetery the boulder is inscribed COUNTY CEMETERY #1. This one is located at the end of Elm Street. Where the road forks, one to the Country Club and the other to Trollwood, right there, on the left fork toward Trollwood, is the cemetery. You’ve probably driven by it countless times and never had a clue. County Cemetery #2 is located on the other side of Trollwood, just within sight of the main stage. Back along the bend in the Red River, there is a stretch of grass and another boulder. This one says COUNTY CEMETERY #2. A third County Cemetery was located on north Broadway. In 1985, those graves were moved to Springvale Cemetery because they were falling into the Red River. For the most part, those graves are marked. But in the first two cemeteries, there are no markers at all. No individual gravestones mark the graves of the people buried in the first two cemeteries. In fact, if you walked into the cemeteries, you would have force your mind to even accept the fact that it is a cemetery. But there are hundreds of people buried in those graveyards.
These are the forgotten. These were Fargo’s hidden shame. Beginning in about 1899 and going through the 1940s, this was where the prostitutes, the gamblers, the robbers were buried. This is also where all the unwanted babies were buried. And when we walk in those pauper cemeteries, we must remind ourselves that here lie the true inheritors of the kingdom of God. Here, had Jesus lived in Fargo, had he lived 1900 years later and had died the disgraceful death he died, this is where he would’ve ended up. He would have ended up in an unmarked grave in a back field, on the very physical fringes of our city. In fact, we can say that he is there. He is wherever the inheritors of his kingdom are.
Those cemeteries for me are potent reminders of who inherits. They are potent reminders to me of who receives true glory in the end. It is not just the ones lying in Riverside Cemetery under gigantic granite and marble gravestones. It is not just the ones lying is graves covered with well-tended grass, decorated with flowers and mementos. It is these—the forgotten ones, the ones whom only God knows. They are the ones that, had life turned out just a bit differently, would be us.
I often find myself visiting those graves and thinking of the inheritance those people have gained. And their message to us is very much what Jesus’ message is to us: This world is not our inheritance. This world is not our world. What this world honors is not real honor. Rather, true honor comes to us in God’s Kingdom. We will all pass away from this life and we will leave very little—if anything—behind us when we’re gone. But God, who knows us fully and completely and who loves us fully and completely, will never let us—any of us—disappear without a trace.
So, today, these words of Jesus should not be words of despair for the rest of us. Rather, we should rejoice, as always, at the words of Jesus. The kingdom of God is open even to those who are most despised by society. In fact, they are going ahead of us into the kingdom of heaven. They will be there to greet us on the great day. And together we will sit down and share the beauty and the reward of that place.