The Dean of St George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem, kindly invited me to preach today. The readings were Jeremiah 14.7-10, 19-end; 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18; and Luke 18.9-14. This is what I said.
I’m sure no parent has ever compared their children, favourably or unfavourably. I’m sure no parent has ever said to their face, never behind their backs, ‘She’s good, he’s naughty’. ‘He does well at school, she’s not going to be very clever.’ And I’m sure no parent has ever said to their child ‘Why can’t you be more like ….?‘ Comparing people never really works!
When Jesus first told the story that we just heard, people in the audience must have been nudging one another. He couldn’t have chosen two more extreme people as examples, people who really raised the hackles of others. It’s hard to imagine what the modern equivalents would be – I thought Trump and Clinton, but that doesn’t work; I thought the captains of Manchester United and Manchester City but that doesn’t work either.
Jesus was really clever how he told his stories. People knew how the Pharisees behaved, they’d seen them on the street corners, seen them wanting the best seats at banquets, seen them thinking so well of themselves and, indeed, Jesus had pointed to all of this in some of the things he’d said.
People knew about the tax collectors, the collaborators of their day, working for the occupying power in this land at that time, collecting their taxes and slapping monster level commission on top of it for themselves, despised by the whole community and by the people they worked for.
And in the story that they and we hear they both come into the Temple to pray. What was going to be the punch line?
Well, we know it so well, that the least expected, the most despised was the one who actually showed true humility before God, the one who showed true repentance and not the religious professional, who was doing all the law required and more besides – a spiritual athlete by his own account.
It’s all part of the heart of the Gospel for St Luke, the message that he’s trying to get across to us, to those reading his account of the life, the ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus, for Luke, is the one who defies convention, supports the underdog, chooses the despised, turns expectations upside down, favours the poor and the lonely and marginalised and the excluded-powerless above the rich and the popular and the included and the powerful. It was a hard message then and it’s a hard message still because it’s uncomfortable and unwelcome in almost every society and every situation we can imagine.
If you want to tell a good story with a good punch line, of course, it has to be simple and it has to be binary – there was a priest and a rabbi, there was a man and a women, there was a dog and a cat, there was a Pharisee and a Tax Collector. But life is never as binary as we imagine. Good and evil, dark and light, black and white, male and female, rich and poor – it’s all more subtle than that.
I’m not accusing Jesus of not understanding the subtlety – he told his story in this way because he knew it’d have a powerful and lasting effect, and he was right – we’re telling it now, two thousand years later and we’re still nodding in acknowledgement of the truth of it. But life is never about the binary, life is always about what lies between the two, because that, I suspect, is where we exist.
Luke introduces the story with a sentence that we skim over in our desire to get to the parable.
‘Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.’
It’s no good saying to you – who are you in the story, the Pharisee or the Tax Collector? The truth is that you’re probably neither, you’re not all good, but then you’re not all bad, you live a good life, you say your prayers, you come to church, you give to charity, you’re not a bad person at all – and certainly you’re a lot of better than those people next door …
But there we go.
It’s always so easy to get into the ‘comparing ourselves with others business’ and especially where religion is concerned. We don’t mean to but we almost can’t seem to stop ourselves.
One of the amazing things about being in Jerusalem as opposed to London, where I live and serve as a priest, is being in a city where it seems that every person is living out their religious faith, so openly, so obviously and often, so aggressively. Are the Jews more religious and righteous than the Muslims, are the Christians more holy than the Jews? Is my faith more important than your faith? Do the demands of my faith exceed the demands of yours? Do my religious rights trump yours?
Comparing ourselves to our neighbour, comparing ourselves to the other person is exactly what we see in the parable and we don’t have to be wholly bad or wholly good to see ourselves falling into the trap of doing it.
‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people.’
The arrogant prayer of the Pharisee undoes every good thing that he has done.
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
The prayer of humility of the tax-collector reveals a level of self-understanding that his actions and way of life seemed to deny.
The prophet Jeremiah was just too honest for his own good. When he stood in this city and told the truth as he understood it, he paid the price – beatings, imprisonment, starvation. But he spoke what he knew and what God had told him to say and in our First Reading we see that great sense of self understanding that’s behind all else that he says
You, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name; do not forsake us!
In a similar way, Paul, who can come over as rather self-assured and arrogant, and the Second Reading was an example of that, knows where his strength comes from
‘the Lord stood by me and gave me strength’
We come to the Lord not as part of some binary world of extremes but as the people that we are, flawed, needy, often pathetic, knowing that the Lord is with us, but sometimes living as if it were not so. You’re better than some and worse than some – but that’s not what matters. What matters is your relationship with the God who made you and loves you and, in this city, died and rose for you.
The truth is, my sisters and brothers, that Jesus appeared in the dawn. It wasn’t dark, it wasn’t light, it was in the between time of the binary world that he spoke Mary’s name, that the shalom, that the salaam came. Jesus comes to us in that between world, that between world in which most of us live and loves us into even greater self-knowledge in which we can recognise both our strengths and our weaknesses and be honest about both.
Whoever you are, whatever you’re like, however you’ve arrived here today God is making no comparison between you and anyone else. God loves you for precisely who you are and to assure you of that he’ll feed you with himself. Bread and wine, body and blood for all, for he doesn’t call the righteous but sinners and thank God for that. Amen.