Heavenly father, all those thoughts and words that come from you, would you bless them and make them fruitful and all those thoughts and words that come from our own vanity will you forgive. Amen.
The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector that we’ve just heard is one of those which is very familiar to most of us. Perhaps to anyone brought up with school assemblies. On the face of it’s one of Jesus’ more straightforward parables isn’t it. The basic point of the story is very clear, drawing a contrast between the self-justification of Pharisee and the humility of the tax collector. As usual though parables have a depth to them that take some time to discern.
I had to laugh at myself when I set some time aside to read this Gospel again in preparation for this morning. My first thought was that the tone of the Pharisee’s prayer is one that’s all too familiar. We see for example those who call themselves Christians who, when they choose to speak about their faith, insist on the damnation of others. Those who when faced with others in need, see only and the need for actions to keep them at bay. I had the first half of my sermon well sketched out before I was brought up short. Where was I heading with this? I was about to find myself echoing the pharisee – Thank you Lord that I am not like other men!
I’m aware that priests have to be particularly wary of emulating the Pharisee, imaging that ordination is not only authorisation to share in ministry but somehow a mark of real Christian discipleship. No, this collar we wear is not some special mark of our Christian identity. It is baptism, and baptism alone, that marks us as belong to Christ.
For all of us though, this parable lays a trap, or rather makes us aware of a trap of our own making. We reflect on the failings of the Pharisee or the example of the tax collector and we very easily rate ourselves better only to find ourselves echoing his words.
This is an example of what we mean when we say that scripture can read us. Scripture is not primarily an object of our interpretation. Rather we are the objects, the Scriptures interpret us. In the letter to the Hebrews we read – for the word of God is living and active, sharper than a two edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit…and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
This parable makes clear how strongly we are often inclined to assess ourselves against others and how much satisfaction we take when we find some basis for judging ourselves favourably. The implications are significant. We may reflect with satisfaction on a job well done or a duty fulfilled, and we easily imagine that the things we do, or refrain from doing, might justify us, might make us a bit better than those who behave otherwise. Until we put aside this idea, the parable suggests, we will not go home justified. We will be prisoners to our own self-righteousness.
The parables are not didactic, they don’t dictate what we should get out of them. They are both more powerful and more mysterious as a result open to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Preaching is a risky business then, this attempt to expound the Gospel, hence that opening prayer that you may recall Richard, former Bishop of London, would use when preaching. What I take from this parable at this time is that it shines a light on our tendency to judge ourselves against others, to satisfy ourselves with favourable comparisons and it reveals how this leads us to self-justification.
We are prompted to reflect on how to respond and this is where discernment is required. I would suggest that we avoid this trap of self-justification by refraining from assessment and judgement of others and instead focusing as far as we are able on God who is our only true justification. In St Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says – “do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye”.
Rather than seeking to distinguish ourselves from others, justify and exalting ourselves, instead we acknowledge that we all fall short of God’s purposes for our lives, none of us earn the blessings we receive. We need not adopt a self-effacing attitude though and we need not be discouraged because we are held in God’s infinite mercy and love. As St Paul says – “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”. Neither does this mean that we revel in our sinfulness of course. We are not saved by good works, but we are saved for good works.
As we look ahead then we have no need for self-justification and no need for acclaim, indeed the efforts to secure these things can only be counterproductive. Jesus said – “for all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”. It is with the assurance of God’s mercy and love towards us that we may have the courage to pray with the tax collector – God, have mercy on me a sinner; God, have mercy on me a sinner; God have mercy on me a sinner.