Sermon: 27th October 2019

I am glad I am not the Pharisee

 I do love listening to his stories. We all sit together you know. There’s no favouritism or deference with Jesus. We all love listening to his stories, but sometimes these parts of the stories that make us stop and think. Like this one today. And he’s so good at improv. You know what I mean when I say improv, don’t you? Improvisation? And it’s like he acts it all out, like a comedian on a stage. He’ll have thought of some things, but the rest sort of comes to him at the moment he needs it.

Sometimes though we think we’ve got the meaning of what he’s talking about. Sometimes it’s really obvious, or you think it’s obvious and then days later, something happens and suddenly you wonder if what Jesus said meant something else entirely. 

So, enough of me wittering on. I guess you really want to know what he said and my thoughts on it? The story Jesus told today was of two men in the temple who had come to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other was a tax-collector. What? You don’t know about the Pharisees? You obviously don’t live in first century Palestine. Been asleep all this time have you? A Pharisee, well, they’re somewhat self-righteous. They follow strict observance of religious ceremonies and practices, and adhere to oral laws and traditions. Too sanctimonious for most people because we don’t think God minds to that degree. If they’re not careful they can be so hypocritical.

So as soon as Jesus mentioned there was a Pharisee in the story, the actual Pharisees in the crowd went a bit red in the face. We had to smother our chuckles. They, the Pharisees follow Jesus everywhere – they’re trying ever so hard to trip Jesus up. They want to do worse, actually, but they’re scared of the reactions of the crowds. 

Back to the story: the Pharisee was standing by himself – I don’t think he wished to come into contact with anyone else and prayed: “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.” Jesus’ improv was so real. The Pharisee was in essence making himself grandiose in comparison to the tax collector. You could see that he wasn’t there…‘to actually pray!’ It was to be seen to pray. His own self-importance meant he stood aloof, distant, elevating himself above the tax collector.

We all nudged each other. We aren’t Pharisees. That part of the story belongs to someone else doesn’t it? But then Jesus turns to the tax collector who is praying for mercy. 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!” None of us like tax collectors. But in the Greco-Roman world that we find ourselves in, they’re a necessary part of the Roman Empire. They’re present to keep the peace. Ensure that what belongs to Caesar goes to Caesar – so they reckon. But we know they keep things to themselves. He needs ALL the help he can get.

But then, hear this, right. Jesus says that it is this man who gets the justification, because he humbled himself. Even though he goes around demanding money off people, he is the one who will eventually be exalted. That got me that did. Stopped me in my tracks. I mean, I know Jesus tends to pick two unlikely characters and does a weird compare between the two, and this is no different. I don’t like either character, but I wonder whether through my chuckles and nudging is seeing the Pharisees go red in the face, whether I too have acted like a Pharisee. 

If I boasted and said I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith…does that make me similar to a Pharisee? I suppose it depends on whether I have just said these things for show…somehow making a performance of it…‘I am better than that person over there,’ is what that Pharisee meant. He didn’t want to become uncleansed, or dirty with other people’s germs. He was trying to keep himself pure and blameless. Pfft.

Who amongst us can ever achieve that? We can’t bribe God. He’s God. He’ll see right through us. Pride comes before a fall, doesn’t it? So then, it’s about our attitudes. It must be. You have to want God as much as he has given to you. Being generous with all that he has provided and giving that back to God means our focus is not on ourselves, as it was with the Pharisee. There’s no favouritism with the Lord, and he will not prejudice the poor. He listens but does not interrupt. He does not ignore the supplication of the orphan or the widow. He speaks at their level, being totally present to them when they need him. I guess the tax collector was crying out to God as well. His focus was on God. Not on the Pharisee.

I guess that’s the nugget isn’t it? Desiring God to love us the way he does. A chance for God to see us as we really are and accept and love us the way we are. We don’t need to compare ourselves to the next person, or be afraid that we’ll catch something, we just need to love one another as the Lord loves us. How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God. Happy are they who dwell in your house! they will always be praising you.

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