Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Another sermon

So, if my socio-political, current-affairs sermons are “courageous,” would that make this a “cowardly” sermon?  Not sure, but this sermon on Luke 18:9-14 does strike me as being one of my less controversial.

Also, Yarra Valley Presbytery decided on Thursday night that I will be ready for ordination in April 2008, when I’ve completed my first year here in the Macedon Ranges. I’m pretty happy about that.

It’s pretty much impossible for us to hear today’s parable in the same way that Jesus’ first audience heard it. We know too much, we have too much history. When we hear the word ‘Pharisee’ we immediately think, uptight religious types who rejected Jesus’ message of love and grace. When we hear the description ‘tax-collector’ we think, sinners and outcasts with whom Jesus ate and drank and to whom he showed the hospitality of God. For us, the twist in the tale, Jesus’ announcement: “I tell you, [the tax-collector] went down to his home justified rather than the [Pharisee],” is no twist at all. Two thousand years after the story was first told, that ending is expected.

And that means that we are in danger of hearing this story as people trusting in ourselves and regarding others with contempt. It’s easy for us to hear this story and say to ourselves; “God, I thank you that I am not like the Pharisee.” Ironically, this story about not judging others has been used throughout Christian history for exactly that – to judge others. At first it was the Pharisees, and by extension all Jews. We Christians were able to say, “God, we thank you that we are not like those Jews who think that they are righteous because they fulfil the law. We rely only on our faith in Christ.” Then, after the Reformation, we Protestants were able to say: “God, we thank you that we are not like those Catholics who think that doing good works will get them into heaven.”

I have my own personal version: “God, I thank you that I am not like those religious fundamentalists and biblical literalists who think that all they need for salvation is to take the Bible literally and avoid the weightier matters of justice.” That’s my personal interpretation of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, with me as the tax-collector and religious fundamentalists as the Pharisee, and of course that leaves me in the situation that Jesus is warning us about; trusting in my own righteousness and regarding others with contempt.

I don’t want to imply that any of you are in danger of doing this, but just take a moment and think about it. In thanking God for all God has given us, are we ever in danger of comparing ourselves favourably with those who haven’t accepted God’s gifts? In rejoicing that we’re Christian, do we ever make judgements about those who aren’t Christian? Do you ever, as I sometimes do, look at other Christians and thank God that you’re not like them? If so, this parable is for all of us.

There are some things we need to remember as we hear this parable. The tax-collector was a sinner, not just some good-hearted outsider who’d made bad choices. He was working for a foreign government, an occupying power. He was collecting taxes from his own people. He was a participant in a cruel and corrupt system. Politically, he was a traitor. Religiously, he was unclean. He himself recognises all this; in his prayer he names himself as a sinner. Everything about the way he prays shouts out that he knows that the Pharisee is right about him: he stands far off; he doesn’t look up to heaven; he beats his breast. He knows he’s a sinner, and yet he makes no promise to change the way he lives. When Jesus goes to eat at the house of Zacchaeus the tax-collector, Zacchaeus responds to God’s love and hospitality with the promise: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:8). The tax-collector in the parable makes no such promise. He leaves the Temple as much a traitor and sinner as when he entered it.

The Pharisee, on the other hand, might have been arrogant but he was living out the moral and ethical code of his faith. He was righteous; he was living in accordance with the requirements of the covenant. In fact, he’s doing even more than the law demands, fasting twice a week rather than once; tithing on all the goods he gets rather than just on food and animals. Pharisees prayed and went to the Temple and did all that religion required, so the Pharisee must be the one relying on God, rather than on himself. Tax-collectors, on the other hand, were traitors and abusers of their fellow Jews, so the tax-collector must be the one who despised others. That’s what Jesus’ first hearers would have been thinking when they heard the opening line of the parable: ‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.” One commentator has suggested that maybe we need to rethink that opening line as: “The pope and a pimp went into St Peter’s to pray,” which might work better for a Catholic congregation than for us, but still gives some sort of idea about how this parable was first heard.  

This parable might be directed at the Pharisees, but it might also have been aimed at the disciples surrounding Jesus, those who were awaiting the great reversal when rich and poor, powerful and powerless, oppressor and oppressed, switch places. It’s the great reversal that Jesus talks about all the way through Luke, the coming kingdom of God that his followers look forward to. But this parable warns them that one of those great reversals will see the self-righteous and the sinners switch places, too, and self-righteousness is a perennial danger for disciples.

The Pharisee’s problem, and it’s always a temptation for us, is that rather than focussing on God in his prayers, he was focussing on himself. Even worse, he was also focussing on his sinful fellow human beings. The Pharisee had turned prayer into a contest between him and the other person praying in the Temple. His prayer had become boasting. He had fallen into the common human trap of defining himself by defining others. We see in the Pharisee’s prayer someone telling God how things are, rather than someone listening to God. We see the way in which his love of God had been separated from love of neighbour, and had turned into self-love.

The tax-collector, on the other hand, was justified because he approached God simply, willing to receive God’s love. He’s in right relationship with God because he’s aware that God is not bound by human claims or by religious traditions. God is God, beyond humankind, and any attempt to justify ourselves in the eyes of God will fail. We can make no claims on God. Instead, we approach God in humility, and in faith, knowing that the depth and freedom of God’s forgiving love are beyond human imagining. We cannot justify ourselves before God, and we don’t need to. God’s love of humanity was revealed in Jesus, and so even when we approach God in humility, we also approach God able to make the same demand the tax-collector makes: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” We cannot bargain with God, claim that we have earned the right to be in relationship with God. But we can approach God in the faith and certainty that God will give us that relationship, that God will justify us, because that is who God is and what God does. We’ve seen that in Jesus.

This parable is about judgment and self-righteousness, but it’s also about prayer. It suggests is that our prayer is inadequate if rather than concentrating on God, we concentrate on ourselves. It suggests that our prayer is equally inadequate if rather than concentrating on God we concentrate on how we compare with other people. The Pharisee’s way of doing that was to describe himself as better than other people. An equally problematic approach to prayer might be describing ourselves as worse than other people. Rather than approaching God in appropriate humility, aware that we can’t earn God’s love but that we’re offered it anyway; we might approach God in completely excessive humbleness, comparing ourselves to others who are better than we are, who in comparison with us deserve God’s love. That can be just as problematic for our prayer life, especially if we feel that our prayers are inadequate, useless, that in comparison to other people we know we just aren’t people of prayer. All of us can seek God, making the same demand that the tax-collector does: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. While we can’t earn God’s love, we are loved by God anyway. Excessive self-love and excessive self-loathing both get in the way of our relationship with God. We humble ourselves before God, but our humility is bound up with our faith.

I want to end this sermon with an email that I got this week. On Thursday night Yarra Valley Presbytery approved my readiness for ordination. The plan is that I’ll be ordained in April next year. I sent emails out to all the other students that I met when I was in Switzerland, and this is one of the messages that I got back. It’s from a young Romanian Orthodox man called Cosmin. At the end of his message he wrote: “Always remember, dear Avril, that God is not Roman-Catholic, Protestant, Neo-Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox etc, not even Muslim or Buddhist or anything else. God is simply God: Love and again and again LOVE. We human beings have succeeded in time to complicate God so much when in fact He/She is so simple: LOVE, NOTHING MORE NOTHING LESS.” That God of love, nothing more and nothing less, is the God who justified the sinning tax-collector, because God’s love is beyond everything. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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October 28, 2007 - Posted by | Ministry

7 Comments »

  1. Nice sermon, Avril. I was wondering what you would do with this, as I struggled to write my own. We came out with fairly similar sermons in many ways. (I’m willing to send it to anyone interested)

    Comment by Morag Logan | October 28, 2007 | Reply

  2. Avril:

    On the contrary, I think this is the kind of sermon we all need to be confrond with from time to time precisely because it is controversial – it challenges the complacency and hubris we are all in danger of developing, of placing ourselves, as you say in the sermon, in the place of the tax-collector and not the Pharisee. I also liked what you had to say about our humility being bound up with faith, that excessive self-loathing is as damaging as excessive self-love; that reminds me of the parable of the prodigal son, in which most people are inclind to see themselves, somewhat self-consciously, as the prodigal son, instead of seeing themselves as the judgemental and demanding older brother. A great sermon!

    Comment by BB | October 28, 2007 | Reply

  3. Congratulations again on the “orange cards.” And again, this seems a silly way to do it.

    Sermon was interesting. Seems like you can have too much faith, or not enough. The goldilocks of theology! Given its all translated anyway, couldn’t you just substitute vocab as need be? Love to read a biblical story about a pimp…

    I get by with faith in human beings. God isn’t love. Humans create and sustain love. For me, ascribing Love to God (and to believe in creation) is to undermine humanity’s achievements and capacities (as well as to ezcuse our weaknesses). I believe in (most) people.

    The Atheist’s Creed
    http://www.lifeandtimesblog.com/2006/12/atheists-creed.html

    We believe in Marxfreudanddarwin
    We believe everything is OK
    as long as you don’t hurt anyone
    to the best of your definition of hurt,
    and to the best of your knowledge.

    We believe in sex before, during, and
    after marriage.
    We believe in the therapy of sin.
    We believe that adultery is fun.
    We believe that sodomy’s OK.
    We believe that taboos are taboo.

    We believe that everything’s getting better
    despite evidence to the contrary.
    The evidence must be investigated
    And you can prove anything with evidence.

    We believe there’s something in horoscopes
    UFO’s and bent spoons.
    Jesus was a good man just like Buddha,
    Mohammed, and ourselves.
    He was a good moral teacher though we think
    His good morals were bad.

    We believe that all religions are basically the same-
    at least the one that we read was.
    They all believe in love and goodness.
    They only differ on matters of creation,
    sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation.

    We believe that after death comes the Nothing
    Because when you ask the dead what happens
    they say nothing.

    If death is not the end, if the dead have lied, then its
    compulsory heaven for all
    excepting perhaps
    Hitler, Stalin, and Genghis Kahn

    We believe in total disarmament.
    We believe there are direct links between warfare and
    bloodshed.
    Americans should beat their guns into tractors .
    And the Russians would be sure to follow.

    We believe that man is essentially good.
    It’s only his behavior that lets him down.
    This is the fault of society.
    Society is the fault of conditions.
    Conditions are the fault of society.

    We believe that each man must find the truth that
    is right for him.
    Reality will adapt accordingly.
    The universe will readjust.
    History will alter.
    We believe that there is no absolute truth
    excepting the truth
    that there is no absolute truth.

    We believe in the rejection of creeds,
    And the flowering of individual thought.

    ——————————————
    Atheists rock!

    Comment by Alex | October 29, 2007 | Reply

  4. I want to celebrate the fact that Morag has posted her first comment on this blog, after lurking for months. Yay! And also that Alex persists in reading my sermons, despite disagreeing with almost everything I’ve ever said. Alex, you’re a wonderful friend!

    I do like the Atheist’s Creed. It makes me laugh. But: “If death is not the end, if the dead have lied, then its
    compulsory heaven for all excepting perhaps Hitler, Stalin, and Genghis Kahn.” What does it mean that I think it’s heaven for all including Hitler, Stalin and Genghis Kahn.

    Comment by Avril | October 29, 2007 | Reply

  5. Not so overtly controversial, but radical, i.e. getting to the root of the matter. I liked ‘Excessive self-love and excessive self-loathing both get in the way of our relationship with God.’ — we often take sides in this parable and miss that.

    I really wanted to post this time to say many many congratulations on being accepted for ordination in April (an appropriate month for you). The least they could do!

    Comment by Paul Walton | October 30, 2007 | Reply

  6. Just because I disagree with the God bit to start with doesn’t mean I don’t like what you do with it. Theology may just be a way of explaining ideology, but you do it very well. And Paul, I think telling Christians that they can love god too much IS pretty controversial (although fairly obvious when one looks at certain churches).

    Comment by Alex | October 31, 2007 | Reply

  7. Oh, and YOU can be Khan’s roomate.

    Comment by Alex | October 31, 2007 | Reply


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