2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou has set my portion with those who sit in the Beth ha-Midrash [the house of study] and Thou has not set my portion with those who sit in [street] corners for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk; I labor and they labor, but I labor and receive a reward and they labor and do not receive a reward; I run and they run, but I run to the life of the future world and they run to the pit of destruction. [b. Ber. 28b (Soncino 1: 172), quoted in Hear Then the Parables by Bernard Brandon Scott]
This prayer of thanksgiving from the Talmud – early 2nd century commentary on Scripture – was prayed by the rabbis on leaving (and perhaps entering) the house of study; it was not seen as arrogant boasting, but as giving thanks for the life of study and prayer the rabbis had been granted. The connection between this and the words of the apostle Paul at the end of his life caught my attention. Paul says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” The rabbi is thankful that while he runs and labours as all do, he is running “to the life of the future world” – not unlike the crown of righteousness of Paul – the laurels he will receive as reward for faithfulness. Paul was a Pharisee, like the Pharisee of Jesus’ parable – but the difference in the two attitudes is profound. The Pharisee of Jesus’ parable is not thankful for the merciful God who has set his feet on right paths and granted him a life of study and prayer – as in the rabbinic prayer; instead he is congratulating himself on his own worthiness. The focus of the Pharisee’s prayer is the self; the focus of the rabbi’s prayer is God; the focus of the sinner’s prayer, too, is God. What about Paul’s words? It might seem somewhat self-congratulatory at first – a bit like the prayer of Jesus’ Pharisee, in fact – “I” have fought the fight, “I” have finished the race, “I” have kept the fate. But later he says it is God who gave him the strength to do so, and we know that throughout the letters of Paul he affirms that without God, he can do nothing.
So all of this brought up a question in my mind: what – or whom – are we running for? The image of life as a race was as common in the GrecoRoman world as it is today. It’s used frequently by philosophers as a metaphor for life, and we all know the contemporary images of the “rat race” or the race to succeed – like the one on your bulletin insert today. I’m going to invite you to take a couple of minutes in quiet to see what those images bring into your minds. Do you connect with one particular image? Which one speaks most clearly to where you find yourself now in life? When you’ve had a quiet moment, then I’ll invite you to turn to your neighbours and talk about those images, if you feel comfortable doing so. …
I imagine some of us can feel like a picture I saw of a man in a suit running on a gerbil wheel, getting nowhere. Some of us may feel like the runners toiling up that hill or across the desert. Wouldn’t it be great if some of us feel like we’re crossing the finish line, victorious!? Some of us perhaps, feel like we’re sitting on the sidelines, watching others run by. I can’t help feeling that too many people in our world are like that row of people with shopping carts, lining up to race through the store to get the most stuff. I’m reminded of a dialogue I read online this week in an article entitled “Why nobody wants to go to church anymore” (Steve McSwain, HuffPost religion, Oct 21st). One reason given was competition: “People have more choices on weekends than simply going to church.” One reader immediately commented negatively on those choices, declaring that people were engaged in meaningless or selfish activities like that shopping cart race – consuming, spending, searching for a material answer to spiritual questions. That is quite true for many; but that’s not true for many others. Many have things they’re involved in on Sunday mornings that are just as meaningful to them as attending worship is to us: like, for example, the many fundraising runs that occur on Sundays. People are achieving a sense of spiritual, physical and emotional meaning by exercising their bodies in a moral cause. They’re literally “running for life” – and not just their lives, but the lives of others. That’s the kind of run – both metaphorical and real – I can get behind.
As you can see, I’m playing a lot with that image of running the race as a metaphor for making our way through life. I just want to invite you, again, this week, to reflect on whom and what you’re running for. Is this a run for life, or is it a run to despair and the soul’s injury and destruction?
Whenever we start getting a little self-righteous about the path we’re on and the road we’re running, remember the Pharisee and the tax-collector. The power of that little story is that as soon as we begin to identify ourselves with the person on the right side of that parable, we find ourselves on the wrong side. As soon as we congratulate ourselves on our humility, or our faithfulness, or whatever it is we’re proud of in our spiritual lives, we have become like the Pharisee once again. In the end, the road we run is in God’s hands. It’s God who gives us the strength to run the race, and sets our feet on a path to life. As a song I grew up with says, “Run the race, O run the race. Fix your eyes on Jesus. We’ll embrace a crown of grace, when we run for Jesus. The author of our faith has seen that nothing can defeat us. He’ll give us strength to run the race, when we run for Jesus.”