Readings for this week:
Joel 2: 23-32
Luke 18: 9-14
Stung by an article on Friday's "Women's Hour" (on Radio 4) that sermons never deal with the political realities - I've taken the current political situation as my starting point this week - we'll see how it goes!
Pharisee & tax-collector.
So finally this week we have heard where some of the cuts are going to fall as the coalition government tries to reduce the deficit.
Inevitably comparisons are made: who will be hardest hit? who will get away with minimal changes to their lifestyle? and the question to which we all want the answer – how will this affect me?
It is human nature to be concerned about ourselves and where we stand in relation to others. We would not have survived as a species if we had no concern at all for our own well being. But as people of God we need to be concerned for others, as well as ourselves, and we should beware any thinking that makes us believe that we are a cut above others.
I think this is part of Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the parable we heard today.
The Pharisee is full of self-importance, he has done all the right things, spiritually speaking – and he knows he’s streets ahead of the tax-collector when it comes to righteous living. He has done all the things expected of a person seeking a healthy spiritual life – he fasts twice a week, he has given a tenth of what he has to charity – and here he is in the temple at prayer. He’s doing everything right – except that he looks at his neighbour with contempt, and not with love. He has forgotten the promise of Joel that God will pour our his spirit on all flesh – young and old, slave & free, men & women. God’s love is for all, not just for the Pharisee.
Meanwhile the tax collector dare not even look up to heaven, but says only ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’. Jesus says that it is repentant tax-collector who goes away made right with God.
Well, yes - this is the way grace works we believe. It is not what we do that makes us loveable in God’s sight, but it is our readiness to accept God’s love and forgiveness.
But what then?
If the tax-collector simply goes away forgiven and thinks only of his own standing before God, where does that get him?
The more I read this parable, the more I think that Jesus does not mean us to stop at the judgement that ‘all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted’ – we are meant to question our own relationship with God and with others.
I said it is human nature to compare ourselves with others, but Jesus isn’t asking us to judge between the Pharisee and the tax-collector, he is not even asking us to choose which of them we will behave like: he is offering us 2 slightly cartoon-like stereotypes, so that we are forced to question our own response to God and to others.
Each of the characters offers us pointers about how to behave, and a warning against taking that behaviour too far.
Like the Pharisee, we should think about how we should behave so that we honour God – how we treat our bodies, how we respond to the needs of others, how we worship – these are all important questions. But beware getting so caught up in your own religious behaviour that you start to look down on other people, says Jesus.
Like the tax-collector, know that it is only God’s mercy that can save you, and go home made right with God. But beware getting so concerned only about yourself and about God that you forget the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself.
When you get home, made right with God, look around and ask how as a forgiven child of God you can share some of the love with those you meet.
So – back to the cuts.
However we are feeling about the impact on ourselves, all the analysis of what has been done seems to say that it is the poorest in our society who will be hit hardest by what has already happened and what is to come.
How do we respond to this – as Christians and as churches?
Already I hear some people suggest that David Cameron’s idea of a ‘Big Society’ means that churches and other charities will be required to help those who until know have relied on a state-run system of Social Security.
Jesus’ parable challenges us to see ourselves in relation to God and to others as people who receive the great grace of God’s love – who know ourselves forgiven and loved - and who then act towards our neighbours in a way which helps them, too, to know they are beloved children of God.
May God grant us grace to know what is good and to do it. In Jesus’ name. Amen