Sermons from St Faith's   

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Jackie Parry, Sunday, 23rd October, 2016

Three boys are in the schoolyard bragging about their fathers.  The first boy says, "My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a poem, they give him £50."  The second boy says, "That's nothing.  My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a song, and they give him £100."  The third boy says, "My dad’s even better than your dad.  My dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, reads them out on a Sunday morning, calls it a sermon, and it takes four people to collect all the money from the people!"

Even when we were children, we have always had the capacity to boast about things.  I remember every Christmas standing with my friends at the local shop window, and we all bragged about what gifts we expected to receive.  One person boasting about a particular toy wanted, and the others all saying that they were getting the same….only bigger and better!  Of course, when it came to Christmas Day, for various reasons, we often didn’t receive the much expected gift, and we had to eat a slice of humble pie later on when we having to admit we didn’t get what we had expected to receive.

It is a well known fact that all human beings are inherently imperfect, but we often don’t see the imperfection within us. 

In our Gospel reading today, we heard Jesus telling the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  This is a well known parable, and is essentially a story of boastfulness and humility.  However, the need for humility is not confined to simply how we treat other people, or how we behave in front of others, but also extends to our relationship with God in our prayer lives as well.

But humility is a very tricky thing.  A few years ago the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recommendation for a book for Lent was one called ‘The Barefoot Disciple’ by Stephen Cherry.  In this book Stephen Cherry explores what it means to live a life of humility.  In it he talks about something called the ‘humility trap’, saying that the ‘humility trap’ is a paradox: as soon as we think of ourselves as being humble, as having achieved humility, we’re actually no longer being humble at all.  It’s a little like someone saying, “I’m a very humble person; in fact, I think I might be the most humble person in the whole world”.

The point of Stephen Cherry’s book is that humility is always just beyond the grasp of those who try to attain it, and can only truly be achieved by those who give no thought to themselves; who have no interest in their own status.
Jesus tells today’s parable as a way of illustrating this paradox.  There is a Pharisee who lives by God’s laws.  He doesn’t just do everything required of him by the Law, but he goes above and beyond the bare requirements and does more: he doesn’t just give a percentage of certain foods to the Temple, but a tenth of all his income.  He prays and he fasts, and he makes sure that he doesn’t associate with those ‘sinful folk like that tax-collector’.
He knows why he is righteous.  He gives thanks to God, not for what he has, but that he’s not like those other sinful people.

He asks nothing of God.

In complete contrast, there is the tax-collector.  He is considered to be a sinner, and he knows it!  He cannot boast before God because he has nothing to boast about.  He probably doesn’t do any of the things that the Pharisee does, and so in his own eyes he is worthless, therefore he prays with his head bowed and he beats his chest in torment.  He knows that he is a sinner, and he asks God for mercy.

The Pharisee asks nothing of God, because he believes he has nothing to ask for.  But the tax-collector asks for mercy, because that is all he needs.

Jesus completely turns upside-down our whole perception of who is, and is not, righteous.  The Pharisee is righteous, but in his desire to boast about his righteousness, and in failing to see the worth in those that he considers lower than himself, he actually turns away from God’s grace and forfeits any righteousness he had.  He already considers himself to be saved because of the righteous things he has done, and so paradoxically misses out on salvation, because he doesn’t think to ask for it.

The tax-collector, on the other hand, by recognising his own failings and throwing himself on the mercy of God, opens himself up to the abundance of God’s grace.  He humbles himself before God, and so receives the greatest gift of all: God’s salvation through the forgiveness of his sins.

All the way through the Luke’s Gospel we are continuously told not to look at the failings of others and ignore our own failings.  We must do the exact opposite.  By recognising our own faults, this helps enable us to be more merciful towards the faults of others.  This is what we are praying for when we say, ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’.

In our own minds we can quickly identify similar people.  Any of us could be eligible to fit the bill and are probably outwardly seen as religious people.  We regularly attend church services, we take part in church activities and attend PCC meetings; we look nice, respectable people.  Surely we must be OK with God? 

But we need to ask ourselves honestly - what happens when we get home or go to work?  What do we say to the people around us?  Do we secretly think that by saying we are Christian, we are also saying “I’m closer to God than you are.”  Do we judge others because they are not the same as us?

Jesus wants his followers to be authentic.  Through His teachings He gives us the right ingredients to help make us all authentic, good Christians.  To follow him by not only saying, but also doing what God bids us to do. By not being too quick to judge other people for what they look like or what they say, and recognising that we are all less than perfect.  
Jesus is reminding us that it is in our humility when we recognise the wrong we say or do, and by acknowledging this recognition when praying to God.  It is only then, by the grace of God, that we can receive his forgiveness and mercy. 
I’d just like to finish with a short story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers: 

A hermit lived a life of prayer and contemplation up on the hillside away from the monastery.  When one of the brothers in the monastery was accused of a sin, two of the brothers came up to see the hermit.  They asked him to come down with them so that he could stand in judgement over the sinful monk.  The hermit told the monks to return to the monastery and he would follow in a little while. 

Soon after, the two monks saw the hermit walking down the hillside with a huge basket on his back.  As he passed them, they noticed that sand was pouring out of a small hole at the base of the basket. 

“What teaching is this?” they asked the hermit. 

He replied, “My sins run out behind me and I do not see them, yet I am come to judge this man!”

The monks decided to forgive their brother.

As Paul tells us in his Letter to the Romans, chapter 3:

“For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”  (Romans 3:20-24)

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