St. Jude and the Boundless Mercy of God
A sermon by Teri Daily
Saints, in the Anglican tradition, are ordinary Christians in whose lives we have seen something of the shape of Christ’s own life. In studying and celebrating the lives of the saints, we can begin to imagine the many unique ways that our lives, too, may bear the shape of Jesus.
Consider St. Jude. Jude was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus; some associate him with the disciple Thaddeus (listed among the disciples in Matthew and Mark, where Jude is missing), while others associate him with Jude the brother of Jesus. According to tradition, the apostle Jude preached the gospel in Judea, Samaria, and Libya; he is said to have been (along with Bartholomew) the first to bring the gospel to Armenia – making the two of them patron saints of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Legend also holds that Jude suffered martyrdom in Beirut in the year 65 AD.
After Jude’s death, many Christians made the pilgrimage to his grave and asked him to intercede for various causes, with remarkable results. And so Jude has come to be known as the patron saint of hopeless causes, of the impossible – the patron saint of such places as St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and the Chicago Police Department. It is not unheard of for Christians to reach out to St. Jude, as one would to a friend, for prayers during seemingly hopeless situations as varied as lost earrings, terminal illnesses, and extensive flooding. It’s also possible that many requests to St. Jude are responsible for the Cubs making it to the World Series.
St. Jude is probably awfully busy these days. There are so many situations in the world that seem hopeless, so many that seem to be without any possibility for true transformation. We, like the Pharisee, might even declare certain people to be hopeless. For the Pharisee in today’s gospel, those “certain people” are thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax collectors. For us, during election season, we might deem hopeless those political candidates of the opposing party.
But we know that the Pharisee isn’t the hero of this story. After all, this is the gospel of Luke, and from the very beginning of his gospel Luke is all about reversals. We hear Mary sing in the first chapter of Luke that “[the Lord] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” And in today’s reading Jesus tells us that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” So we know that to be on “the right side” in this parable, we should identify with the tax collector. And thus we commit ourselves to practice humility – to metaphorically beat our chests and, therefore, be worthy of the name Christian. But here’s the rub: the minute we become proud of our humility, we find ourselves once again identified with the Pharisee. It’s a confusing, fluid cycle that leaves us dizzy!
So maybe we would do well to not put ourselves in the place of either character and, instead, simply examine the parable as it stands. Jesus tells this parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” So the problem with the Pharisee is not that he strives to be righteous – the problem is not that the Pharisee tithes, attends church weekly, prays, or drives a hybrid car. The problem with the Pharisee is that he trusts in himself for his righteousness; he thinks that his righteousness is the fruit of his own works and labor, not the fruit of God’s work within him. That is a crucial distinction. Certainly we do have to choose to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit in us; God never forces Godself on us. But our choice to be “for God” is always a response to the invitation of God already within us. The Pharisee is blind to this truth; and thinking that he has earned his righteousness, he places himself above those he considers less righteous than he.
On the other hand, the tax collector recognizes that he is dependent on God’s mercy – he recognizes it not because he is determined to cultivate the virtue of humility, but because he has no other option, no other place to turn. He is desperate and knows he cannot save himself. He knows it like Israel knows it in our reading from the book of Jeremiah, crying out: “Can any idols of the nations bring rain? Or can the heavens give showers? Is it not you, O Lord our God? We set our hope on you.” The psalmist knows it, too, saying in our psalm for today, “Happy are the people whose strength is in you!” And we, too, know that we are dependent on God’s mercy and cannot save ourselves. We know it when we face divorce, struggle with alcoholism, experience failure at our jobs, or repeatedly make poor choices despite our best intentions. We are all – tax collectors and Pharisees – dependent on God’s grace, the only question is whether or not we realize it.
Still, I don’t believe that even this is the real point of the parable. This parable is not primarily about the Pharisee or the tax collector or us. The saving grace in this parable is that the tax collector and the Pharisee are exactly the same when it comes to the gracious economy of God’s love and mercy – both loved by God, both invited to trust in God’s mercy.
The 13th century Sufi mystic, Rumi, wrote: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” That field is God’s mercy – the place where God’s love is greater than our pride or our humility, greater that our righteousness or unrighteousness, greater than the division between Pharisee and tax collector.
When we practice compassion, radical inclusivity, and love for those with different understandings and different ways – we bear witness to that field. We bear witness to the way God heals the world – not by pure anger, not by placing us in categories, and not by annihilation – but by mercy and love. Especially during this election season, may we bear witness to that God. Because it is that God that saves even us.
And now, back to St. Jude. As I thought about the upcoming feast of St. Jude and the gospel reading for today, it occurred to me how ironic it is that St. Jude (the patron saint of hopeless causes) shares his feast day with Simon the Zealot (the apostle who may at one time have had a fanatical zeal for Jewish Law and Jewish purity). One a saint trusted with the most desperate of situations, the other a saint known for his religious fervor and zeal. One representing all tax collectors, one representing all Pharisees – both preaching the gospel, both martyred, both venerated by the Church, and, most importantly, both welcomed into the heavenly banquet.
Thanks be to God whose mercy knows no bounds.