Sunday 27th October 2019, Last Sunday of Trinity, at Mojacar
9 Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13 But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Jesus, particularly in many of his parables, had a tendency to turn human values upside down. Folk, who most would think of as being great, are often condemned, whilst those we’d tend to revile, or at least ignore, are often held up as real examples. So here, in this parable, his audience would have been, at the very least shocked, but more likely angry at his conclusions. For let’s note who his audience on this occasion were. Verse 9 says “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
So in this, we can immediately see potential for conflict, as Jesus openly supported the teaching of Isaiah, that no human being is righteous and proclaimed clearly that he had not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. So if we bear this in mind, we may realise that this audience, from the start would have empathised with the Pharisee and would almost certainly have been nodding in agreement as Jesus described him, doubtless “tutting” and shaking their heads as He then went on to describe the tax-collector. They would have expected Jesus to conclude by praising the Pharisee and condemning the other as having no right to expect God’s mercy. And their horror and anger as it dawned on them that they themselves were being condemned in his dismissal of the Pharisee was what, to a large extent led to their determination to have Jesus executed.
For us however, in our modern-day society, the whole point of this story is often lost as we don’t appreciate the level of respect in which Pharisees were normally held, nor the disdain with which most of his listeners would have felt for the tax-collector. For us perhaps the point of the parable might therefore be better understood if we think of the leading characters as a Lay-Reader, who everyone of course respects and accepts as being good and very religious, and a Drug Addict, who we can be sure is neither good nor religious.
So Jesus shows these two as coming into our Church to pray. The Lay-Reader, we can see, walking proudly down the aisle, greeting everyone he passes with a knowing smile, aware of the shortcomings of each as he allows them to recognise him, his status and the example he sets them. Arriving at the altar, he somewhat ostentatiously stops, head held high and raising his arms gives thanks for his own holiness, his goodness, so different from others in Church with all their various failings, and especially the Drug-addict, who in his mind has no place in Church. He rehearses before all the evidence of his righteousness, how generous he is in his giving and how fervent in his religious observations, and then, after a dramatic pause, moves ceremoniously into the vestry to robe.
The Drug-Addict, on the other hand, shuffles uneasily into Church and almost falls into the first seat he finds, hoping no-one will notice him. Deeply aware of his numerous failings, with tears in his eyes and head bowed he begs God’s mercy, knowing the judgement he deserves. You can feel the horror of those around him, who move away to avoid being associated with so unchristian a person and perhaps suggesting the Church Warden should escort him out, or call the police lest he cause any trouble.
Do we get the picture? The utter contrast between these two men. The one, a man who commands respect and the other, a complete waster. How would we expect Jesus to respond? And remembering that his audience were folk who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt”, then how would they have expected Jesus to respond? And how in fact did Jesus deal with this situation?
The first thing I note is that Jesus didn’t dispute any of the Pharisee’s claims. His silence in this regard may be taken as acceptance that the Pharisee was indeed a very good and religious man. He is one who goes beyond what was required of him in the Law, fasting twice a week, rather than just once as the Law required, and giving a tenth of all his income – everything, please note, not merely a tenth of what was left after paying taxes as required under the law. How much, we may think, we could do to have a few like this man in our Church! Utterly committed and generous to a fault. Jesus accepted all his claims for himself, but, He concluded, it was the other man, the tax-collector or drug-addict, who went home, not just forgiven, please note, but justified. I’m sure it would have taken a while before the full impact of His summation really hit home to this largely hostile audience. I guess there’d have been disbelief, checking with each other what they had heard, before the full magnitude really struck home.
So what were the particular issues, from which we need to learn? Well first of all, as we’ve already noted, the Pharisee, like most of those listening to Jesus as he told this parable, trusted in himself, believing he was righteous. What a grave error this is. And how easy for us to fall into that trap. We become complacent in our faith, living good lives, doing the best we can and expecting God to recognise our good deeds. It’s so much more satisfying to believe that I’m being rewarded for my own efforts than to accept that I deserve nothing but condemnation for all the wrong in my life so depend, as all others, on God’s mercy. However good and religious this man may have been, he had still failed to attain God’s standards and was openly displaying the sin of spiritual pride. He trusted in himself, rather than in God, and believing himself to be righteous, the Pharisee saw no need of a Saviour.
But worse, the Pharisee, in conjunction with those listening to Jesus, was contemptuous of others. What a great failing again is this? How easy to be judgemental and condemn others! How often we find even Christians falling into this trap, insisting that others who have not shared their particular spiritual experience are lesser Christians than they. We are called to love our neighbour and not to judge him, a judgement that is so reminiscent of Jesus story of the man with a lump of wood in his eye offering to remove the tiny speck from the eye of his brother.
Then thirdly, the Pharisee sought public acknowledgement and praise in his self-perceived holiness, standing to be seen by all. Again, I’m reminded of the words of Jesus in Mt 6: When you pray, don’t be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and let everyone know of the generosity of their giving that they may be praised of men. And again I have to ask if we’re entirely free of this failing? How important to us is the praise of others, rather than that of God? How much we all need learn from this mistake. And we, like him, don’t need to tell God of our works and giving, for He knows all that, and more importantly, He knows our hearts, our desires and our motivation.
And fourthly; a point we may easily miss as NRSV says “The Pharisee , standing by himself prayed”, where some other translations read “The Pharisee stood and prayed with himself”. The hint is there that this man had put himself in place of God. He was praying with himself, not God. And this brings us back to the first of his failings; he was taking the place of God himself, worshiping himself and standing as judge in the place of God. And because he had so high an opinion of himself, he asked for nothing from God and received just that; - nothing.
The tax-collector, or Drug addict, if that seems more relevant, on the other hand thought nothing of himself. He recognised his failure and his need of mercy. This he asked for and once again, he received just that. Well actually he received God’s mercy, but more, as Jesus explains that he went home “justified”. So what exactly does that mean? Sins forgiven? Yes, but actually much more. In Biblical terms the word means not just forgiven, but wiped clean. “Just as if I’d” never sinned at all. The absolute righteousness of Jesus being given to me. It’s an amazing concept, that in God’s mercy this man was not just forgiven, but was completely covered by the purity and righteousness of Jesus himself, that in God’s eyes he was completely clean.
How much we have to learn from him. Yes it’s great to be able to stand before God knowing our sins have been forgiven, that we are justified, but that is true only because of the incredible sacrifice of Jesus who suffered the agony on our behalf of facing God’s judgement on my wrong-doing. It is right and necessary that in spite of knowing his forgiveness, I must continuously grieve over my failure to live up to his standards, confessing such failures to him and, like the tax-collector entreat him for mercy, totally undeserved. How important is that part of this service. And how moving to then continue in that state of awareness, to remember him and what my justification cost him as we join in sharing together the body and blood of our Lord