A sermon by Hilary Pearson which would have been preached at the Eucharist on 18 March 2020.
THE GOSPEL Luke 19.9-14
Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 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!” 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.’
THE PHARISEE AND THE TAX COLLECTOR
Here we are in Lent, looking forward to the events of Easter. Have you ever wondered why the religious and political establishment of 1stcentury Palestine conspired to bring about the extra-judicial murder of Jesus? What was it that he did and taught which so threatened them?
If you ask the average person about Jesus, you might very well get the response that he was a good person who taught us to love and help one another and who was kind to children and animals. But who would want to kill someone like that? This parable gives a big clue.
This is a simple story with only two characters. Let’s start with the Pharisee.
Pharisees might be called ‘super Jews’: Judaism had become a very rules-based religion, even though the prophets had warned that God was not pleased with those who carried out all the ‘required acts’ but who oppressed their workers and the poor. Pharisees obsessively kept every rule they could find in the Torah – and more, those developed to meet new situations not dealt with in their Scriptures. If all you know about Pharisees is what you read in the New Testament you get a pretty negative view. When I started studying theology, the first assignment was to take a concordance and look up every reference to Pharisees in the New Testament and then write about them. I did so but, being a lawyer, I added that this view might have been biased because of the treatment of the writers of the New Testament by the Jewish establishment. That earned me the comment “Excellent, you have used the hermeneutic of suspicion”. After looking up what ‘hermeneutic’ meant (method of interpreting the Bible or other authoritative writings), I told a Christian lawyer friend that what we did in our job was using the ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’.
What did the people who heard Jesus tell this parable think of Pharisees? Pharisees were to be respected. Most people couldn’t aspire to be so religiously perfect and probably felt a bit guilty when they saw a Pharisee praying in public.
Now we turn to the tax-collector. None of us like HMRC, but there were many more reasons for Jesus’ hearers to hate and despise tax collectors. For a start, they were Jewish collaborators with a brutal occupying power. Collaborators are always despised by the rest of the occupied peoples. We can think of photographs we have seen of how French women who had been involved romantically with Nazis were treated after the liberation of France.
But this was much worse. From the Roman viewpoint, the occupied territories of the Empire were there to produce wealth for Rome, both goods and money. There was no civil service department to collect the taxes, as we have. Tax collection was private enterprise, a contract given to the highest bidder. That person, called a publicani, contracted to hand over an agreed amount of tax from his area – any excess he managed to collect he kept. It was a very profitable business. Taxation had been standardised under Emperor Augustus through the mechanism of regularly taking a census for each territory in the Empire then requiring a total amount of tax for the territory based on a standard payment for each member of the population (this is one bit of Roman history we all know – ‘ there went out decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed..’). Advantageous for the Roman treasury, but it meant that individuals knew what they should be paying in tax, and so knew that they were being made to pay more by the tax collectors. The story of Zacchaeus shows that.
Based on these understandings of Jesus’ audience about the reputation and position in society of these two characters, the scandalous nature of the conclusion of this story becomes very clear – God had chosen to hear the prayer of the despised tax-collector, rather than that of the pillar of the community Pharisee. Reading the Gospels, you can be in no doubt as to why the Jewish religious establishment saw Jesus as a dangerous trouble-maker, who challenged the established order and boldly stated that they were not, as they believed, God’s special people.
So, what can we learn from this story. Not that God doesn’t like religious people and much prefers crooks! The last verse gives us the answer – God loves humility. The Pharisee wasn’t really praying, he was showing off to anyone within earshot how wonderful he was. It was the despised tax-collector who was honestly praying to God.
Humility is tricky – as soon as you start thinking that you have become humble you realise you have just blown it!
Humility is certainly not claiming to be humble while behaving badly towards others, like Uriah Heep in Dickens’ ‘David Copperfield’ who said: “I am well aware that I am the umblest person going…My mother is likewise an umble person. We live in an umble abode…” but went on to defraud his employer.
For us, the definition of humility is Jesus Christ: as Paul says in the second chapter of Philippians:
“He was in the form of God; yet he laid no claim to equality with God, but made himself nothing, assuming the form of a slave. Bearing human likeness, sharing the human lot, he humbled himself and was obedient, even to the point of death, death on a cross.”
Jesus emptied himself of self-will to do the will of his Father. This humility was also shown in Jesus’ practical actions, of which the most significant and symbolic was washing his disciples feet at the Last Supper.
I also find practical help in the definition of humility in the Principles of the Anglican Franciscan Third Order: ‘Humility confesses that we have nothing that we have not received and admits the fact of our insufficiency and our dependence upon God.’ So, we have nothing to boast of to God, because anything good that we are or do comes from him. We confess our shortcomings and thank him for any good aspects of our lives.
There is another outcome to this story. The prayer of the tax-collector “God have mercy on me a sinner” became the basis of an ancient Christian method of praying, which is still much used in the Eastern churches and has started coming back into use in the West. I am referring to the Jesus Prayer. There are several possible variations, but the most common forms are “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” (which is the form I use) or “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. This is repeated, preferably in conjunction with co-ordinated slow breathing.
I encourage you to try this way of praying if it is not already known to you. You can say it a few times while you are waiting for the kettle to boil. You can say it few more times if you are trying to stay calm – essential in these very uncertain times. If you say it often, you will perhaps find that it becomes second nature so that it keeps repeating while you are doing something else. In these difficult times we need to follow Paul’s advice: ‘Always be joyful; pray continually; give thanks whatever happens; for this is what God wills for you in Christ Jesus.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). The early Christians who first used this prayer found that this was a way to ‘pray continually’.