A sermon preached by Graham Low on 23rd October 2022
Tonight’s reading from Luke’s gospel follows on directly from last week’s parable about the widow and the unjust judge. It continues Jesus’ teaching on prayer, and last week the emphasis was on the need for persistence. Tonight, as before, we are presented with a contrast: two men, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector, are praying in the temple. And, as before, there is an unevenness of status between them. The pharisee is one of the respected and religious elite, while the tax collector is a member of the tax collectors and sinners class of outcasts.
Luke tells us that Jesus is telling the parable to some people who trust that they are righteous and regard others with contempt. In the parable, those who trust in themselves are those who, when they engage in self-examination, conclude that overall they are acceptable to God. They have a basic confidence that God looks favourably on them. But to think that this is an expression of trust in oneself rather than in God is overstretching the meaning here. This is not what is suggested here of the Pharisee and it is unlikely that Luke understood it this way. The expression here is about despising other people. This is a strong expression for Luke, who earlier used it to describe Herod’s mockery of Jesus (Luke 2.11). So Luke is emphasising here that an attitude that expresses disdain is every but as bad as open physical mockery.
So, to whom is Luke speaking here? It is not only to the Pharisees. In fact it is probably not the Pharisees he has particularly in mind, for that would seem to be gratuitously offensive to the Pharisees. And it would encourage the other hearers to regard the Pharisees with the kind of contempt that the parable condemns. This would not fit with Jesus who often ate meals with Pharisees. It seems that this parable is used by Jesus to speak to the disciples: the passage about children which follows the parable illustrates the need to raise this issue. In fact the disciples are in danger of being exclusive in their way just as the Pharisees are in theirs.
The pharisee stands apart, by himself, in prayer. He is confident because he keeps the rules of his group, which go beyond the requirements of the law which does not require regular fasting. As the Pharisee says, he and his group fast to express a purity which exceeds that of most other people. Furthermore, he tithes beyond the requirements of the law. Jesus does not condemn these ways of life. We know that the followers of John fast and Luke notes that Jesus accepts this practice for members of the Christian community. It is the attitude of this particular Pharisee that is underlined here: this is not a statement that this pharisee and this tax collector are representative of all Pharisees or tax collectors. The Pharisee’s thanksgiving is genuine, and not revealed to be hypocritical. It is an extension of the kind of genuine piety that can also be found in the Psalms. But it has its dangers. Here this piety can be seen as a separation from humanity as a whole. By making thanksgiving for his own acknowledgement of God, he may be risking denying it to other people.
Meanwhile, the tax collector goes away ‘justified rather than the other’. He acknowledges his sin. He calls for mercy, which makes a bridge between himself and God, which the Pharisees’ attitude does not allow. The tax collector is justified: in other words he is acknowledged by God, and open to his reconciling power. We cannot be confident that his prayer amounts to penitence because there is no suggestion that he is turning away from his way of life. And it is this that makes this a stark parable. While the tax collector remains a sinner, he is more open to God than the Pharisee. The phrase ‘justified rather than the other’ might well be re-phrased as ‘more justified than the other’. This would still mark a significant contrast between the two people, without denying entirely the prayer of the Pharisee, or approving entirely of the life of the tax collector.
Viewing this parable in the broader context of the whole of Jesus’ ministry we can see that Jesus reserved some of his harshest criticism for those who paraded their supposed virtue and importance in public, of whom the Pharisee here is an example. Jesus seems to be saying here that the ultimate barrier between ourselves and God does not necessarily reside in the mistakes we make and the wrong attitudes we may have. The ultimate barrier lies in whether we are able to approach God, ourselves, and others with genuine humility. It is human nature to play up our strengths and to underplay our weaknesses. And we often compare ourselves with others, often to their detriment. It is this tendency that Jesus confronts us with tonight. He challenges us to face openly and honestly our own behaviour and attitudes, in prayer.
This is the last Sunday after Trinity. We end this season with a series of challenging and sober readings. In our collect we remember that all scripture is written for our learning, and ask that God will help us so to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that with patience and the comfort of the holy word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the hope of eternal life. To do this means knowing that the source of our own righteousness lies not within ourselves but comes from God, to whom all glory is given now and for ever. Amen.