As I understand it, the financial crisis brought about by the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage business is the result of lending institutions giving loans to borrowers who were not really qualified for them: that is, “sub-prime” borrowers.  People with bad credit histories are more likely to fail to make their mortgage payments.

And, if I have this right, mortgages these days are sold in bundles, like baseball cards used to be, to collectors, or, rather, to investment banks.  And interest rates climbed.   And, as far as I can tell, when shareholders of investment banks began to realize that they held investments that comprised a lot of mortgages that may not get paid, this made them nervous.  And the walls, as they say, come tumbling down.  

And it all started because lenders made risky loans to people who were not really going to be able to afford them: sub-prime lending to sub-prime borrowers.

Because our lives so often seem to be governed by economics, we tend to think of God in economic terms, to imagine that his is the invisible hand that guides all the various markets of our lives.  Without realizing it, we can fall into the habit of thinking of God as some great, big, mysterious economic force out in the universe, like Warren Buffet or China (both almost as mysterious and unknown to us as God).  

But in God’s case, he handles more than just money.  He deals in what the Scriptures used to call “weal and woe,” he deals with forest fires and hurricanes, with sickness and health, with husbands, wives and lovers, God manages the economy of life and death.  He is the great central banker in the sky.  Or so it is easy for us to conceive of him.

That is how the children of Israel are thinking about God, when we hear the prophet Jeremiah portray them pleading to him for rain to bring end to a drought, as we did in the first reading this morning. “Are there any among the false gods of the nations that can bring rain?  Or can the heavens give showers?  Art thou not he, O Lord our God?  We set our hope on thee, for thou doest all these things.”  Their pleading amounts to their loan application.  They are deeply concerned that they are sub-prime borrowers.  And they are right.  They have defaulted on the gifts of God’s grace before, and they will do it again.

And when we get to the Gospel passage this morning, we also encounter an unusual kind of economy.  A Pharisee, who has been meticulous in his observance of the Jewish law, is offering his prayer to God.  He knows that his credit is good.  He approaches God confident in his own grade-A, prime righteousness.  He is grateful not only for his own sake, but by contrast (as he looks around) to the unsavory tax-collector he sees nearby.  For the tax-collector, as anyone could see, is sub-prime: his credit is bad, he does not keep the law fastidiously, his righteousness is beneath questionable.  We need not wonder how the invisible hand of an economic God would distribute justification.  The Pharisee is on solid ground here.

But, as is often the case, Jesus sees things differently.  The tax-collector, Jesus tells us, will not even lift up his eyes to heaven – Jesus tells us it’s not for shame, but out of humility.  The tax-collector beats his breast and prays, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

God, be merciful to me a sinner.  Sub-prime.  Bad credit.  Not worth the risk.  That’s our tax-collector.  He sees himself in much the same way the Pharisee sees him: sub-prime.

And a God who cared anything at all about economics wouldn’t take the risk.  A God whose invisible hand awarded weal and woe on the basis of merit – from some kind of spiritual credit rating – would know just what to do with a sinner like this.  A systematic God, who knew at least as much as your average Wharton graduate, would pay out predictable dividends to these two men who stand praying in the temple.  

But the living God, who made the whole universe, does not manage his creation with skills honed in business school.  God embraces the sinner.  The Son of God seeks out those in need, the weak and the faltering.  He exalts the humble and meek.  He fills the hungry.  The first will be last.  And the dead shall be raised to new life.  The economics of God operate more like sub-prime lending: God shows a preference for those who have less, whose credit is poor; he embraces the doubtful, the wretched, the lost, the sick, the struggling, the outcast, the notorious sinner.

The Pharisee knew well the economy of the law.  He was right – on his own terms – to be pleased with himself.  But Jesus teaches us over and over again that God is not like us.  And on God’s terms there are good investments to be found among the sub-prime: in those of us who at best can beat our breast and plead for mercy.

To many people – especially to those who are well pleased with themselves – this divine economy sounds like at least as bad an idea as sub-prime mortgage lending.  To this way of thinking, God is a domineering master who delights in the groveling of his servants.  And I suppose to the self-satisfied it is very hard to hear good news in this Gospel.

But to those who look into their own lives and see shortcomings, disappointment, failures, missed opportunities, unhappy relationships, and a world that is in a shambles at the hands of the self-satisfied; to those who have looked inside their own selves and seen the promise of God’s likeness graven on our souls, but come to the painful conclusion that we have failed to shape our lives by that godly image; to us it is good news indeed that God sees hope where we would give up, that God never labels anyone sub-prime, and that for the humble, there is a promise of exaltation.

Sadly, there is great confusion in the church today about all this.  Too many church leaders are perfectly prepared to look around at others – especially at women and at gay and lesbian people – and say to God, “ I thank thee that I am not like those others.”  On their own terms – terms tied to what I would call a narrow, misguided, and legalistic reading of Scripture – they are satisfied with their righteousness.

But the Scriptures are not printed in columns because they are meant to represent the ledger-book of an economically rationalist God.  And Saint Luke specifically tells us that Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others.”

Here in this place, we have been bundled together by God’s grace.  He has much invested in us, who have been made in his own image.  And God doesn’t call us to be self-satisfied.  God isn’t bothered by all that we see in ourselves or one another that looks sub-prime.  God doesn’t manage his creation like an investment bank.  

God hears us when we pray; he knows that we are sinners, who rely upon his mercy.  He knows that our application is weak, our credit is bad, that the risk in giving anything at all to us is steep.  And he loves us anyway.  And he exalts the humble and meek!

And what can we say in the face of this wondrous economy of God’s but to pray: God, be merciful to us sinners, be merciful to us sinners.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
28 October 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on October 29, 2007 .