Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 24 October 2010
24 October 2010 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon of Westminster
How do you relate to God? That really is the question posed by the parable we have just heard, and it is a question worth reflecting on.
But first, in listening to the parable, we do have to remember the context in which it was told by St Luke some many years after Jesus originally said whatever he said, and there are two important things to say about that context.
First, the Temple in Jerusalem was at the very heart of the Jewish religion, the central place for piety, yet by the time that Luke wrote his gospel it was probably in ruins, sacked by the Romans in the year AD 70. That fact would have been known to Luke’s first readers, and it would have given the story a particular poignancy.
But then secondly, by the time Luke wrote the conflict between Christians and the official representatives of Judaism had become acute, and there is inevitably in this story as it has come to us an element of stereotyping. Among the number of groupings within the Judaism of the time, the Pharisees were in fact less committed to centring all worship on the Temple than some others in Israel at the time. And certainly not all the Pharisees behaved in the way the one in this story behaved; historical research seems to show that some of them were rather genuinely humble men, popular with ordinary Jewish people. So we should not take this story’s example as typical of all Pharisees.
And neither, of course, should we take the tax collector as typical of all tax collectors. Some of them may have been penitent, but also others were certainly terrible extortionists, certainly capable of taking bribes and more, and not likely to behave exactly with the humility that the tax collector in this story showed.
But then perhaps the story is not about the genuine goodness of some Pharisee or the equally terrible corruption of some tax collector, rather it is about two different ways of praying, two different ways of approaching God.
Indeed the story almost tells us that in how it describes this particular Pharisee’s approach to prayer. The Greek construction is translated in some versions as ‘he prayed thus with himself.’ Perhaps he was not really talking to God, but simply relying on what may well have been genuinely good behaviour in response to the requirements of Jewish law. He maintained a good opinion of himself to himself, and he hoped, therefore, with God as well. It is, after all, very easy for certain sorts of piety to turn into self-satisfaction, to concentrate on oneself and what you think you have done for God, rather that to reflect first on what God has done for you. You do not have to be a Pharisee, or Jewish, to exhibit the behaviour of the man in the story, Christians are not all immune from such self-satisfaction in comparing themselves to others.
The tax collector, by contrast, would not even lift his eyes up to heaven, let alone raise up his hands in the traditional Jewish posture of prayer. He does not speak of himself by reference to others, but appears rather to focus primarily on the mercy and forgiveness of God. And that was a central part of Jesus’ message; if at the heart of everything there is God we are accepted by Him because of his generous mercy, and with his forgiveness whatever we may have done. Salvation is not earned, but is a gift freely given, and all we have to do is to accept the offer and live in the light of that mercy. And it was the tax collector’s acceptance of that, says the story, which made him justified before God. His approach to God was not that of a man thinking he had the right to God’s approval, but rather that of a humble sinner acknowledging above all his need for God’s mercy.
Now I rather suspect that amongst this congregation there may be bits of the Pharisee and bits of the tax collector in all of us. Such is the strength of this particular story in the Christian tradition that perhaps everyone here who has any understanding of the Christian faith is likely to have suppressed many outward expressions of the Pharisee’s response, but Christians certainly can be smug, and think that they are not like others, and demonstrate some sort of superiority based on their own estimate of their moral standing. It is not unknown even among the clergy, or perhaps I ought to say especially among the clergy.
But then there may be others who realise just how mixed our motives are in much that we do, how rare it is for any action on our part to be wholly pure and good. And they will know that approaching God, who can see into the depths of our souls and who knows us better than we know ourselves, can only be done on the basis of relying on his mercy and forgiveness.
Only you will know where you personally stand on that divide; only you will know how you judge your personal respectability, only you will know how you see yourself in relation to others, and only you will know how you approach personally the matter of praying to God.
But the story does give us a clear steer on what might be the best way. And to those who know something of that way God offers himself in this service, in the form of bead and wine.