Eucharist, St John’s and St Stephen’s 27 October, end of Creation Season.
Joel 2:23-end & Luke 18:9-14
The last Sunday in October is traditionally Reformation Sunday. So perhaps it’s fitting that we think today about a parable of Jesus addressed to ‘some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous’.
This little parable, which might be regarded as a small piece of dynamite that is just plunged into the Lukan narrative and left to detonate, is perhaps unusual in that we get to have that little introduction that ‘explains’ it, before we read it: ‘He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt’.
So we have Luke’s redaction about self-righteousness slotted before the parable for today, along with his parable of the persistent widow, the little children who parents are bringing for Jesus’ touch, and later the salvation of Zacchaeus the hated tax collector.
So it feels as if Luke is banging home his message, of salvation being free, and being for all, especially ‘sinners’. Those whom we least expect to receive forgiveness from God are the very ones whom God has noticed and whom God wants to lift up. The message of salvation is an inclusive message.
So it’s a very short, but deceptively profound parable. In it we see two different approaches to prayer and to God, illustrated by the Pharisee and the tax collector. They are different on a number of levels, not least their physical posture, from which we are to deduce their heart posture.
We read that the Pharisee was ‘standing by himself’, but the Greek has, literally, ‘The Pharisee, having stood, to himself was praying…’ So he’s either standing alone, or, worse, praying to himself! Although he addresses God verbally, his heart is not in the right place. We never stand alone when we pray; instead we enter into the merciful presence of God and, on Sunday, of each other. Some of you will be familiar with the Order for Night Prayer, or Compline, which begins, “Most merciful God, we confess to you, before the whole company of heaven and one another…”
By contrast, the tax collector (or for our day, read “unethical banker”) stands at a distance and is not willing even to raise his eyes to heaven. That is a very different physical stance and heart stance – and the one mirrors the other.
When a preacher looks round a congregation, the body stance of various people is sometimes significant! I’m sure it would never happen here, but hands thrust casually in pockets while we confess our sins, or sitting with one’s arms firmly across one’s chest during the sermon, do communicate something of what might be, or might not be, going on inside…
So much for the body in prayer!
Now to the words of our two contrasted characters.
The Pharisee prays a prayer of thanksgiving, which might seem to us arrogant in the extreme because he basically thanks God he is not a sinner. He is not like other men, those ones who cheat, the unrighteous, like this tax collector.
It’s a classic case of being right, and so wrong all at once. It is good, if you think about it, NOT to be a cheat, either cheating people out of money, like those swindlers who phone up the elderly and get them to deposit large sums of money in what turns out to be a false bank account. This happened to the elderly mother of a friend of ours in Pangbourne, and the lady lost £5,000. Luckily the bank reimbursed her (an ethical banking action). But aren’t we glad this church isn’t full of swindlers?
Or people who cheat on their spouses? Aren’t we glad that, by the grace of God, we aren’t that type of person? Surely the Pharisee is technically right that it is a good thing NOT to be a cheat, not to be unrighteous?
He is right, technically, but that’s not how prayer and heart stance work!
His inner stance is wrong. Therefore his prayer is wrong.
Did you know you can be ‘right’ verbally (or in your actions) but wrong in your heart? I suppose we might call it speaking the truth without love. Or you could be engaged in virtue signaling without knowing your own brokenness. When you speak the truth without love, it is still truth, factually, but it isn’t ‘the way, truth and the life’.
And you can have right action without right motive – philosophers have discussed this for centuries. The Pharisee tithes and he fasts. Tithing and fasting are two very good spiritual disciplines. The first pays for your church building project, and the second curbs your appetites.
But disciplines that are ends in themselves do not necessarily allow for the life of God to flow through us and out to the world. Disciplines are tools, not ends in themselves. So you can be a giver, or a cheerful giver. You can be a miserable fast-er, or you can be seeking to be free inside and choosing a fast to draw nearer to the One for whom you really hunger and thirst.
By contrast, the tax collector (unethical banker) is contrite. He cannot even look up to heaven but prays that most basic prayer, which would become the most ancient of prayers of the Christian church – Lord have mercy on me a sinner – The Kyrie Eleison.
So here are the goodie and the baddie turned on their head by Jesus for his listeners. The ‘good’ person (Pharisee) is the one who went away NOT right with God, and the ‘bad’ person (tax collector) was the one who went away right with God. Because it was all about heart stance.
And then the trap is set. Because you know there is always a trap in a parable, don’t you?! And we can fall headlong into it.
We might not be thanking God that we are not like so-and-so, but how many times have we secretly thought something along those lines?
One of the most common subtle versions of the Pharisee’s attitude, of which I have been guilty, is when we have contempt for someone whose Christianity isn’t inclusive enough. Being inclusive is where some of the best and hardest battles in society are currently raging, as we try and come to terms with difference and give a voice to minority groups who have often been at best ignored, at worst persecuted.
So, recently there’s been a social media storm over derogatory comments made about Beth Moore, a prominent female Christian speaker in the States. If I read of a Christian leader who wants to exclude another from ministry on the grounds of gender or sexuality, I do feel superior to them. I feel that my Christianity is a better Christianity than theirs. It’s a better Christianity because it’s more inclusive, and Jesus was inclusive, right?
And factually I might well be right, but I need to watch my heart stance. There’s none so intolerant as those who have newly discovered a more tolerant attitude in themselves and then look about and wonder why others haven’t become as enlightened as they have. It is but a small step to contempt, I can assure you. And what is difficult to take, is that God still loved the Pharisee, and doesn’t hold him in contempt but continues to call him.
Another trap for church people that I have fallen into is the mildly superior way we assess all our Christian long service, and some of us have served the church for many years, and it can be wearying. God hears our weariness. Where are the next tranche of people to take over from us, we might be asking ourselves. And sometimes there is no obvious next tranche. It is a challenge for us to keep our hearts tender and not to feel hard done by. It is all God’s work anyway and we serve a gracious God who calls us to be mindful only of our own need for grace. Whether others are serving as hard as us or not, is not ours to worry about. The spiritual life contains many hidden temptations to compare ourselves with other Christians, even before we get to full blown contempt.
So where is the Good News on Reformation Sunday, in this little explosive parable? The promise is that righteousness is not by our own outward attempts at goodness. We can go home justified today because we can throw ourselves on God’s mercy and lay burdens down, trusting in God’s provision.
Because: “Thus far has the Lord helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12).
The Good News is that grace always precedes our hard work and continues after we lay it down.
“I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten,
26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you” (Joel 2:25-6).
Thanks be to God.
(lyrics on picture: Switchfoot)