All Saints Margaret Street | Lent 1 Evensong Sunday 10 March 2019

Sermon for Lent 1 Evensong Sunday 10 March 2019

Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar

Readings:  Jonah 3; Luke 18.9-14         

“Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” 

Let’s be frank: If you are a parish priest who has to satisfy the diocese’s demands for evidence of growth, or if you’re the parish treasurer who has to balance the books, – then what you need is more pharisees coming through the doors and less tax collectors.  Pharisees turn up at church; they come to Sunday Evensong and weekday masses; to Stations of the Cross in Lent, to prayer and Bible study groups. They volunteer – or at least they don’t complain when the Vicar volunteers them. They serve as Churchwardens or on the Church Council; they act as sides-people, serve at the altar; sing in the choir; serve coffee after services and cook the parish lunch. They teach Sunday School and run youth groups. They visit the sick and the elderly. They join the Parish Giving Scheme and Gift Aid their donations. They might even, like the one in the parable, tithe their income. They remember the parish in their wills. They keep the commandments and their vows– they don’t steal or betray their partners with someone else’s. 

Tax collectors and their like, on the other hand, only turn up when they’re in a mess; when they’ve hit rock bottom; when they’ve run out of excuses and evasions. And there’s no space in the annual returns to the diocese for how many tax-collectors – or other open and notorious sinners – have been to confession. 

In many ways the Pharisees were and are a good thing. The parable is not saying that all members of that group in Jesus’ time were wicked – or for that matter that this tax-collector – or any like him – were saints.  It is not saying that theft and adultery – grinding the faces of the poor for personal gain or pocketing the bribes of rich tax-dodgers – which was how tax-collectors made their living – are okay. 

Our Pharisee is obviously a law-abiding person. He is not grasping, unjust and adulterous like others.  He is not like the tax collector – engaged in a profession that put him beyond the pale of moral and social acceptability in Israel. He not only keeps what the law prescribes; he goes far beyond it.  Jews were required to fast on only one day of the year – the Day of Atonement – he fasted twice and week.  Jews were expected to pay tithes on certain goods, but he paid tithes of all his possessions.  

The Pharisees saw faithful observance to the law as essential for the survival and well-being of the nation in a hostile political, cultural and spiritual environment.  The survival of Judaism until this day against all the odds, is testimony to the rightness of that instinct – and it is one that the Church in an increasingly secular Europe might learn some lessons from. But that is not the issue the parable addresses.   

Luke introduces it by telling us that it was addressed, not to the disciples in general, but to those who “trusted in their own righteousness and regarded others with contempt.”  “Righteousness” is Biblical language for living in accordance with the requirements of the covenant.  “Being justified” is the verdict of acceptance one has or hopes to have in the eyes of God, on the basis of such righteous behaviour. 

Before he lists his own virtues, the Pharisee separates himself from the sinful mass of humankind – “thieves, rogues and adulterers” – of which he’s spotted a representative, the tax collector , conveniently situated at the back of church.  While the Pharisee’s “prayer” beings with God, it is more an exercise in self-congratulation addressed to himself: “He prayed thus with himself,” as the King James Version translates it. 

“Those who trusted in themselves and despised others:” means not just to those who would call themselves “Pharisees” in the time of Jesus.  Such people are to be found in every religion, in the present as much as in the past.  So the parable is addressed to the “pharisees” in every age and faith.  The Pharisee in the parable represents what happens when religion goes wrong; when it becomes the source of smug self-righteousness and contempt of others. 

It is not too great a leap from genuinely seeking to do God’s will to assuming that we are managing it all by ourselves and that gets us in the clear with God, indeed God should really be quite pleased with us; grateful that we’re on his side. And it certainly makes us superior to lesser mortals.

It is one of the laws of the spiritual life that however confident we seem to be in our good works and acts of piety, there is often deep-down a nagging doubt, a suspicion that we are not quite as good and devout, holy and loving, kind and gracious, as we think we are or as we might seem to be.  Are we really doing enough?

There are two ways to deal with that doubt: 

One is that we see in the Pharisee’s contempt for the tax-collector with whom he contrasts himself.  We assuage our spiritual anxiety by pointing to the more obvious shortcomings, the more flagrant sins, or even the shabby mediocrity, of others. That’s why we often find ourselves being so judgemental about others. The things we are critical of in them often turn out to be remarkably like our own failings.

The second way is that of the tax collector.  He knows he hasn’t got a leg to stand on. He has nothing to boast of, no good works to plead in mitigation. The tax collector is no saint and knows it; he realises that he cannot afford to dwell on his own performance. He knows he’s a sinner and admits it.  

His virtue does not lie in being a saint He avoids any comparison: no doubt aware that there are lots of people who are better than himself and some who are even worse.  He realizes that salvation does not come because we can discover people whose performance is meaner and shabbier than our own. The tax collector looks at himself and knows only one thing for certain – that he is a sinner.  And he acknowledges that in the presence of God. 

Somehow, perhaps way back in his childhood, he has heard of that mercy of God which the Book of Jonah tells of.  Jonah was the reluctant preacher.  After his failed attempt to evade God’s call to preach to the people of Nineveh, we find him in that city and the people responding to his preaching. Now most preachers are quite pleased when people take notice of what they say – but not Jonah.  He hadn’t wanted to preach in Nineveh because he did not want those foreigners to be saved. And, if we read on to the end of the book, we find that he goes into a real sulk and God has to teach him another lesson in mercy. 

The Tax Collector knows that God is a merciful God, so he makes a prayer which puts God’s mercy first and his own sinfulness second.  His words are few, but the attitude of his heart is one which is pleasing to God.  

And so, in another of those great reversals which are a feature of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says that it is the sinner, the social parish, the spiritual outcast, who owns up to what he is and throws himself on the mercy of God, who goes home justified, and not the pious Pharisee who relies on his own spiritual superiority rather than the divine compassion. 

In the Orthodox calendar the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector has a Sunday named after it. It is read on the second of a series of Sundays before Lent which are seen as the Church’s preparation to keep the season in the right spirit; not as a time when we put up with some minor inconveniences, but as a season of grace in which we can be transformed into what God would have us be. We hear it tonight for the same reason. 

Jesus is not so much asking us to interpret the parable but to allow ourselves to be interpreted by it. We are not just to understand it in a detached, intellectual manner, but to understand ourselves through it. It does that by questioning rather than confirming our attitudes and expectations.  Jesus’ hearers would normally expect that the prayer of the Pharisee would be accepted and that of the tax-collector rejected, but there is a double reversal.  What is not being questioned is whether Pharisees are good and tax collectors bad, but the fixed attitude which says they cannot change.  The point of the parable is not to make the Pharisees into villains and tax collectors – or money launderers, drug dealers or people traffickers – choose your own favourite class of villain – into heroes, but to unsettle our biases about the kind of people whose prayers are acceptable to God.  Prayer, as the Pharisee failed to see, is not our telling God how things are but in allowing God to communicate to us the divine vision of life and reality. 

Jesus is arguing for a profound honesty before God, an honesty which not only acknowledges that the mercy of God is all-embracing, but an honesty which is based on the fact that God has judged humankind to be worth saving in the first place. 

Whatever we do in the practice of our religion – the prayer, and fasting and almsgiving and so on – is in response to the generosity and tender mercy of God – not a get-out-of-jail free card.  And that is the good news in which we trust and which we are called to share with others.