License to Steal: Jesus, the Great Soul-Robber

by Leonard Sweet

So what do you think? Should we manufacture money that doesn’t really exist in order to buy up debts, stimulate banks to lend, and jump-start our economy? Or do we tighten our belts and hold our breath?

For most of us, trying to figure out the monetary wizardry of our economic gurus is about as easy as figuring out how magician David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty “disappear.” Maybe in the end it all comes down to smoke and mirrors — whether it’s magic or the market.

But there is one bankable economic disclosure. US currency is still stamped with the assertion “In God We Trust.” The question is, do we?

Well, do we?

“In God We Trust” doesn’t mean you don’t wear your seat belt, or stop paying your life insurance premium, or stop recycling, or ignore getting your flu shot. What “In God We Trust” does mean is that our faith points us towards something higher, a top drawer beyond the bottom line. “In God We Trust” challenges us with a broader and higher perspective beyond that of human calculations.

The greatest security this world offers is concretized in human capabilities.

The best security system you can purchase.
The most impenetrable “firewall” you can download in your computer.
“Gated communities” that keep careful tabs on who comes in and who goes out.
Government insured securities, pensions, and investments. Extended warranties.
Pre-nuptial agreements.
No-fault divorces.

Everything in our calculated lives is designed to keep us maximally secure and minimally exposed.

But are all these safeguards, all these assurances of a safety-first, risk-free life, nothing more than our 21st century version of the 1st century Pharisee’s prayer in this week’s gospel text? We might not boast about how often we fast, or how much we tithe. But in our hearts we carry the same pride about our ability to shape our world and protect our investments.

We don’t trust anyone except ourselves to be in charge of our lives. Our actions, our attitudes, our works and worries — those are what bring us to a place of safety, security, and spiritual peace. Self-sufficiency is our greatest god. Self-sufficiency is the reason we buy both life insurance and lottery tickets. Everyone wants to believe that if we don’t need anyone for anything, life will be better and blessed.

Everyone except Jesus. Jesus did not condone off-the-grid independence. Jesus knew there was a humanity-wide neediness that could never be covered over or wished away by the works of human hands. That “neediness,” that dependence, was defined by the most basic, essential condition of the human spirit “sinfulness.” Sinfulness is the huge gaping hole we all keep falling into as we try to stride into an imagined Shangri-la of solitary self-reliance. The cross is the only footbridge that can get us across that chasm into the true Promised Land.

Golgotha was a place of infamy. And this was when “infamy” was not equated with celebrity. Golgotha was the termination zone for the wickedest and the worst, as judged by Roman law and society. When Jesus was crucified at Golgotha he was one of three criminals. On either side of him were two thieves put to death for their crimes that day. But the Romans had it right. Jesus was as much as a thief as those robbers on his left and his right.

Jesus was The Third Thief on Golgotha. The first two thieves stole money and objects from households. Jesus was a different kind of thief. The third “thief,” the one Pilate dubbed “Jesus, King of the Jews,” pulled off the greatest heist in all of human history right in front of their eyes.

This Jesus had a long criminal record. He had already “robbed” the woman at the well, a woman with five husbands, of her shame and self-hatred. Jesus had already robbed the cursed and ostracized lepers of their disease and disenfranchisement. Jesus had already robbed the lame, the sick, the poor, of their disgraced places on the fringe, their dishonored seats at the table. He robbed two blind men of their muteness, and in giving them voice to praise he gave them vision to see. He robbed a crowd of 5000 of their complaints and self-pity, and filled their bodies and souls with good things.

But Jesus, the greatest robber in history, pulled off still greater capers. You might call it “The Great Soul Robbery.”

In today’s gospel text, Jesus’ contrast between the self-righteous, self-approving Pharisee and the contrite, confessing tax collector robbed all smug, self-satisfied pious of their self-sufficiency. In today’s gospel text, Jesus revealed that the road to justification, the way to God’s kingdom, was through humility, confession and a prayerful appeal for God’s mercy. Self-sufficiency, self-aggrandizement, self-reliance hung helpless on the cross with Jesus. Only God’s grace, only God’s forgiveness, only God’s mercy and power, could redeem our past and redream our future.

And that was the crucified Jesus’ most audacious theft. Through his sacrifice on the cross, in his descent into death and hell, Jesus showed just how weak “self-sufficiency” really was. And conversely he showed just how powerful dependency on God could be.

Jesus, crucified among thieves, performed his greatest robbery after his execution. Jesus robbed Satan of his power over sin and death. Jesus robbed death itself of its victory. Jesus ripped off the grave and stung the sting of death’s futility and finality. The third “thief” on Golgotha committed his greatest robbery after he was cut down and buried. He robbed death of its power when he rose again to new life.

The Pharisee who fasted more than the Torah required, who tithed more than legal directives, who prayed with precision and a pious air, still trusted in his own impressive powers to get things done and do things right. That Pharisee couldn’t see beyond his human abilities to the divine possibilities that God had waiting.

What do your prayers reveal about you? Most of us have two kinds of prayers. First, we have the carefully crafted prayers we’ve memorized and mouth back in formal services or established prayer moments. Those prayers utter lovely language and polite praise.

Second are our “Hail, Mary” prayers — the prayers we blurt out when a loved one is sick or injured, miserable or missing. We pray for God to fix what is wrong. We pray for Jesus to remove the cause of our prayer, the need that has made us suddenly needy.

Both types of prayer are muttered with the desire to have our needs met. The truth is we want God to remove our need and our neediness so that we won’t really need God anymore. Our prayers are uttered so we can return to our smug sense of self-sufficiency. But that’s another sermon.

The tax collector in today’s text recognized that there was no neediness “grid” we can get off of. We are all eternally on the hook, from the moment we are born. Self-sufficiency is self-delusion. Nothing more. Nothing less. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 8:28).

The most important decision you will make is this: will you give Jesus the license to steal? That’s another way of saying, in whom will you ultimately put your trust. Will you, like the Pharisee, trust only in yourself — your powers, your strength, your goodness? Or will you, like the tax collector, give Jesus the license to steal? Will you confess that you are, at your most basic level of self, “a sinner?” It did not matter what else the tax collector had accomplished, whose palms he had greased, what connections he had solidified. The tax collector’s prayer laid open the innermost truth about himself, and us, and laid bare the innermost need he had for God’s mercy and his utter dependence of God’s goodness.

The third thief on the cross wants to rob you this morning:

Rob you arrogant of your self-sufficiency.
Rob you selfish of your self-centeredness.
Rob you contented of your complacency.
Rob you humorless of your solemnity.
Rob you untouchables of your invulnerability.
Rob you of the sickness of your disease and doubts about your future.
Rob you atheists of your skepticism.
Rob you control freaks of your fears and obsessions.

But the biggest heist Jesus wants to commit this morning? He wants to rob Satan of his power over you, and to rob the grave of sin and death.

That’s what it means that the Prince of Peace came bringing a sword. He will disturb your peace before he distributes his peace, the peace that passes all understanding.

Will you give Jesus this morning license to steal?

** The idea for this sermon came from Browne Barr, who died in 2009 and taught at Pacific School of Religion for many years. I once heard him refer to Jesus as “the third thief on the cross.”

Collected Sermons, Leonard Sweet, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., 2010, 0-000-1415. Used by permission

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