Last Sunday after Trinity 2013
“Two men went up to the Temple to pray”, says Jesus, but only one of them went home again actually having achieved anything by this.
In some ways this is one of Jesus’ simplest parables, with characters that are easy to recognise. The first is a stock figure from comedy. His words invite us to ham them up, as I am sure Jesus did. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…” He’s a pompous, self-righteous fool who sounds as if he thinks he is the bee’s knees and that everyone – including God – must surely be aware of it. No sitcom is complete without someone like this. He is Captain Mainwaring, Basil Fawlty or Hyacinth Bucket, destined for greatness, if only they weren’t surrounded by idiots, people determined to keep up appearances, but always coming a cropper in the end. We know when we hear this Pharisee’s words that there’s a banana skin just around the corner.
If the Pharisee is a stock character from comedy, the tax collector is equally familiar from tragedy. He is the broken man who’s hit rock bottom, the man with no reputation to lose, for whom redemption seems like an impossible dream. We’ve met him in a thousand soap operas, popular dramas, films and books. He is the maverick detective, one of those gloomy Scandinavians – with a broken heart and too much fondness for the booze. He’s the flawed hero who is always on the edge of breakdown and disgrace. He’s the person who has apparently wasted his life, but at the last minute manages to do just one noble, right thing. He is Sydney Carton, if you are familiar with Dickens “Tale of Two Cities”, whose love for the innocent Lucie Manette is the sole ray of sunshine in the inner darkness of his dissolute life. Since she is married and unattainable, the only service he can render her in the end is to take the place of her husband on the guillotine, ”It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." For all his failures, at that moment his life is made worthwhile.
We recognise these characters in Jesus’ story, just as his first hearers would have done. And the point Jesus is making is equally clear. Only one of them goes down from the Temple justified, and it is not the Pharisee, despite his fine opinion of himself.
It’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t say that God didn’t hear the Pharisee’s prayer, nor did he say that God didn’t love him as much either. He says that it was only the tax collector who was justified – literally that meant “straightened out, set to rights, made just” –not simply counted as just, but really changed. The changes might be small, but they are a start, and that’s why Jesus commends him. The Pharisee, on the other hand, goes home exactly as he was when he arrived; he might as well not have bothered.
Jesus is being deliberately provocative with this conclusion. Tax collectors were widely hated at the time. They collected taxes to fund the Roman occupation, and were suspected of creaming off a percentage for themselves along the way. But Jesus is quite clear; it is better to be like the tax collector than the Pharisee, and the difference he is calling attention to is really to do with the way these two men deal with sin.
Sin is a word which has rather fallen out of fashion these days. Even within the church it is something we tend to shy away from talking about. It’s important, of course, to get the balance right, and the Church often hasn’t, using the language of sin and guilt to control and oppress, but if we deny the reality of sin, insisting that “I’m ok, you’re ok” and “everything in the garden is rosy” we do ourselves no favours at all, because it is patently obviously not true. There are times when I’m not ok and you’re not ok and the garden is full of weeds.
There can’t be a single one of us who doesn’t at some point in life get a wake-up call, some moment when we get a clear view of ourselves and wonder what happened. How did it come to this? We might have done something which we thought we’d never stoop to, or perhaps something has happened to us which we haven’t dealt with well, and we have passed on that hurt to others. It might be that we have simply drifted away from the things we thought mattered to us; our priorities have all gone awry. Or maybe we’ve grown disillusioned with the world after one too many grim tv news bulletins, one too many tough days at work, one too many compromises that leave us feeling just a bit grubby, and we realise we’ve stopped caring, stopped trying.
That’s the truth about life. It is the truth about me and about you, and about the many people who talk to me in the course of my ministry. That nagging sense that things aren’t as they should be is part of the human condition, common to us all. It doesn’t matter how hard we try to do the right things, sooner or later we will get it wrong, foul it up, because we live in an imperfect world, full of imperfect people like us who are also getting it wrong and fouling it up. That’s what sin is, not chocolate or sex, something “naughty but nice” to be trivialised, nor something dramatic and dark, the preserve of psychopaths and monsters. It is the everyday wrongness that sucks the joy and colour out of us and renders life small, grey and lonely.
Acknowledging and naming it is the first, and vital, step to doing something about it. That’s what the tax collector does, and what the Pharisee, with all his self-righteous bluster, cannot bring himself to do. Instead he papers over the cracks in his life with the glossiest paper he can find and hope that no one will notice. The reason these two men respond so differently to the sin in their lives is because they believe very different things about God.
The tax collector has somehow dared to think that God might love his creation, just because it is his creation, and that he can – and wants to – fix it when it is broken, even the miserable twisted bit of it that is himself. He has dared to believe that this is true even if he has nothing to give in return. How has he come to believe this? We don’t know. Maybe it is just desperation, or maybe someone in his life once loved him for himself before – his mother or father perhaps - so he has a model to look to.
The Pharisee, in contrast, is convinced that the only way to get God to love him is by manipulating and bargaining with him through ritual, through good behaviour, through giving. There might be no word of a lie in the things he says – he might indeed live a virtuous life – but the fact that he has to say so as loudly and publicly as he does tells us that deep down he knows that isn’t the whole truth about him, and that he is not nearly as secure as he wants to look. “Do not offer God a bribe” said the book of Ecclesiasticus in our first reading, but the Pharisee obviously hadn’t read it, because that is just what he was doing. He thinks he has to, otherwise why on earth would God want to help him?
He’s not alone in this - it is a common human tendency. I was watching a documentary earlier this week on the Medieval attitudes to death. There was a fascinating section on the last will and testament of Henry VII. Like most people at the time he believed he would have to spend time after death suffering in purgatory, and he wanted to make sure that he was delivered from it as swiftly as possible. So he left an enormous sum of money, and ordered that 10,000 Masses should be said for him as soon as possible. It was the detail that was fascinating though. He set down that 1500 should be dedicated to the Trinity, 2500 to the five wounds of Jesus, 2500 to the five joys of Mary, 450 for the nine orders of angels, 150 for the patriarchs (obviously he didn’t think they had much clout in heaven), 600 for the 12 apostles – 50 each, so they weren’t much use either – and 2300 for All Saints –there were a lot of saints to cover. In life he had always needed to buy loyalty, influence and power, and he assumed it would be no different in the heavenly courts.
But when the doctrine of purgatory and masses like these were outlawed – ironically through the Reformation in which his own son, Henry VIII was a prime mover - for many people the situation felt even more hopeless. Now what would they do to keep God on their side? Believe the right things, live the right lives, pray the right prayers in the right sort of churches, plain and unadorned with images… A new set of bribes was put in place of the old ones. They still didn’t get it, and we very often don’t get it either. That’s why we are so scared of owning up to our wrongdoing.
The truth that the Bible proclaims, that this parable proclaims, is that God loves us anyway. That’s the Gospel message, the message the tax collector dared to believe, the message that Jesus’ death spelled out. Human beings did this to him, nailed him to a cross, and yet still God loved them and loves us too when we do things that nail him to the cross all over again. We can’t make God love us any more than he does by anything we do. We can’t make him love us any less either. He loves us anyway. That’s the Gospel.
Why does it matter? It matters because if we dare to believe this, it is then safe to acknowledge our sin. And if we can acknowledge it, then the things that need to change can start to change. And if that happens then we, like the tax collector, might also go home justified, straightened out, a little bit more set to rights, and that will be good news for everyone.