Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 27th October 2013
27 October 2013 at 11:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner
In the north transept there is a memorial window in memory of the English writer and preacher John Bunyan. Three years before his death in 1688 he wrote (what was then) a very popular discourse based on today's Gospel reading entitled ‘The Pharisee and the Publican’. It is all about the nature of prayer. As a relatively old man, he gently, yet firmly, describes how he believes that when we pray - we can easily fall into unsuspecting traps. Concerning prayer he says:
“Multitudes conceive that the heart-searching God can be influenced by eloquent words and forms of prayer; whilst the few, who are taught by the Holy Spirit, feel and know that the ardent desire, the aspirations, the fervent wishes of the mind, can alone be accepted by the Eternal.”
How we might understand these words of John Bunyan today would make for an interesting discussion, but no one can deny that today’s Gospel reading about the Pharisee and the tax collector (or publican) is a parable that has, over the centuries, been depicted in a wide variety of religious art and literature - and has (through many, many generations) captured minds, hearts and imaginations: challenging the faithful; championing the primary command to pray humbly; and richly illustrating the general theme of status reversal in the third gospel. Above all, St Luke uses these words of Christ to emphasise the importance of humility in prayer. It is rather timely that these words come to us, through the lectionary, so soon after celebrating both the holy life of St Edward the Confessor and the dedication of this Abbey Church.
Today we are reminded again that humility as a Christian virtue, if its to mean anything to us, must be grounded in a solid understanding of the nature of God. And so we have here a Pharisee, obsessed by his own virtue, who is contrasted with a tax collector who humbly asks God for mercy. Let me for a moment set the scene: It is important for us to remember that the Pharisee belonged to the most liberal, pious, and dedicated of Judaism’s sects in the first century. Indeed this individual actually went beyond what was required of a Pharisee – he even fasted twice a week and tithed all that he bought.
If you get a moment – take time to look up the early part of Psalm 17 and you will see that his prayers even follow the Jewish liturgy - calling to mind the need to confess, to call upon God and to listen to his voice. Indeed we should not overlook the fact that he not only recognised God as the source of all that he had in life but he also goes out of his way to thank God - and does not ask for anything in return.
What fault can possibly be found with this man or his prayer? It could be very strongly argued that he represents the best in the religion of his time.
The tax collector on the other hand was among the most despised of all the people living in Palestine - because of his dishonesty, his disloyalty to the Jewish people, and his uncleanness (of which this story demonstrates that he was keenly aware). If you take a moment to cast your eye over Psalm 51 you will see that this tax collector’s prayer also follows Jewish liturgy. It is a heartfelt outburst of despair, a heartfelt cry for mercy. It is not difficult for us to see that his situation is pretty hopeless: If he repented, he was required to make restitution plus one fifth. If he ended his defilement, he lost his livelihood - and into the bargain earned the hostility of the Romans. And so just as the Pharisee represented the best in the religion of his day, so this tax collector represents the worst of his times. What could possibly be right about him?
Yet Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified”. If we pause for a moment - to take in the wider picture and thrust of St Luke’s Gospel - it is not difficult to see that this particular story fits very comfortably with Luke’s theme of status reversal. He is simply saying that the new age will turn completely up-side-down the structures and values of the present evil age. It is a message that he re-iterates again and again. For example: The parable of the good Samaritan (with the dynamic of the bad priest, the good Samaritan and the Levite) The account of Mary and Martha (with the good yet inactive Mary, contrasted with the bad but active Martha), the parable of the Prodigal Son (with the good but wayward son, contrasted with the bad elder brother), the contrast between the good Lazarus and the bad rich man. Into this context fits the dynamic of the good tax collector and bad Pharisee as yet another example of Jesus’s reversal of values. So what is all this about? What’s wrong with this obviously good Pharisee? And what is right with this rather perverse tax collector?
Well, there are two great messages to be drawn from this parable:
Firstly, much revolves around the plight of the Pharisee: the parable is told to those who not only trusted in themselves that they were righteous, but also took it a step further by despising others, looking down on others, for not being like them. Here Jesus is directing confronting all who are self assured in their own righteousness, and all who are proud and prepared to look down on others. It is this sort of idolatry - that John Bunyan condemns most forcibly in his pamphlet on this parable - revealing idolatry for what it is. In all of this we are reminded again that ultimately only God can judge each of us; real faith can never be shown through despising others; arrogance sits very uncomfortably with spiritual awareness; and if we set ourselves up on a religious pedestal, the chances are that it (and we) will be overturned.
Secondly, this parable reiterates the fact (and reminds us again today) that faith can be found in the most unlikely of people. The tax collector’s prayer was answered precisely because he didn’t trust in himself, but rather he trusted in God. But, more than that, he did not hope in what he had; he hoped in what he might receive. (These are the very ingredients for humility and spiritual growth built upon and identified again and again by the great spiritual writers of the Christian Church.) This parable is one for you to take away from here today and ponder over in your heart and mind. It challenges us about our understanding of God and the depth of our grasp of Jesus’s teaching.
For all this the Church is here to help us in our spiritual development and comprehension of God. From this parable we come to understand that all human strengths and achievements have their ultimate source in the grace of God, and that in the face of our own weaknesses and shortcomings lasting peace of mind comes from the strength that is given to us from God - not least from his forgiveness for all our shortcomings, and follies and failures. From the tax collector we learn that humility is an attitude through which we can help ourselves, but primarily it is an attitude that should be directed towards God.