Sermon for High Mass – Last after Trinity Sunday 27 October 2019
LAST SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY, 2019 HIGH MASS – Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Ecclesiasticus 35.12-17; Psalm 84.1-7; 2 Timothy 4.6-8,16-18; Luke 18.9-14
“The time of my departure has come,” (says Paul’s 2nd Letter to Timothy). Well, mine has almost, but not quite! That’s next Sunday. This morning is business as usual, so let’s follow the two men who have gone up to the Temple to pray.
Today’s Collect speaks of a deep and sustained engagement with scripture: “Blessed Lord, who has caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning, grant that we may so hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou has given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.….”
Among the variety of writings in those sacred scriptures, the most memorable tend to be the stories; either of real characters or those like the parables which are told to teach us both about God and ourselves.
A good story, whether it is a novel, a short story, a biography, a play or a movie, a long-running soap opera, or a brief parable, is one which captures our imagination and draws us in. We find ourselves identifying with one or more of the characters. They are usually the sympathetic ones: the good guy in the western, the detective who solves the case, the lone hero who saves the day in some disastrous situation – often at the cost of their own life, the kind and caring soul who notices the lonely or hurt or bullied and excluded and takes their side. Inwardly, in our culture at least, we cheer when the villains get their come-uppance – and we don’t think of ourselves – or don’t want to – as being like them.
Jesus’ parables often turn out not to fit such clear-cut, black and white categories. They turn things upside-down. They disturb our consciences rather than affirm our prejudices. They go on doing so. Their lessons are to be learned and relearned time and again over a lifetime.
Listening to today’s parable, we instinctively dislike the Pharisee because he is self-righteous and self-satisfied. He is a model of those who treat others with contempt – and we are pleased when he turns out to be the one in the wrong.
We warm to the tax-collector, who stands far off – the patron saint of those who always go to the back of the church – although sometimes because they arrive late – too late to join in the confession of sins at the beginning of mass. Perhaps we prefer to sit at the back not so much as out of humility as to keep God and his holiness at a safe distance. We don’t want to get too near the fire: we get burned.
Pharisees and tax-collectors are stock characters in the gospels. The Pharisees, or representatives of them, are one of the religious groups within Judaism, which come into conflict with Jesus; who even end up allied with some of their own foes against him. Paul, tells us that he was a “pharisee of pharisees.” It was his religious zeal which led him to be a persecutor and he would not be the last of whom that can be said. The inquisitors are with us still.
Who were these people? They were members of a lay movement within Judaism. It’s always worth reminding lay people that the Pharisees were not clerics! They focussed on the diligent keeping of the Torah as the means of preserving the distinctiveness of God’s people in an age when Jewish independence had been lost once more – this time to pagan Rome – when the Temple hierarchy was widely held to be deeply corrupt; collaborating with Rome to maintain their own power and wealth. Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees were not a collection of theological reactionaries. There was much lively debate among them about what the Law meant in different circumstances.
Pharisaism would be the form of Judaism which survived the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of much of the Jewish people around the world. Its primary institutions, the Torah and synagogue enabled it to survive. It is the religion of our Jewish neighbours today.
But this morning, here in All Saints, Margaret Street, Jesus is not talking to us about our neighbours at the Great Portland Street Central Synagogue. He is speaking to us and about ourselves.
Which parish priest would not want a congregation of Pharisees, of people who take their faith seriously enough to fast and pray and undertake other spiritual disciplines; of people who think seriously about how the Gospel should direct their lives, who debate how they should live and act on what they decide? Our churches would be packed; not just on Sundays but every day.
What parish treasurer would not want a congregation which gave a tenth of everything they had rather than only what was let over when everything else had been paid for? There would be no trouble in balancing the books or in funding new activities and good works.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, are numbered among the stock characters from central casting; always played by actors whose skills have to make up for their lack of heroic looks. We know as soon as we set eyes on them that they are crooks and villains. And so tax collectors were in real life. The day-to-day business of collecting taxes and customs revenue was not something carried out by professional civil servants, but by private contractors. They were allocated a sum of money to be raised and were expected to make their own percentage by adding it to the target sum. This gave ample opportunity for abuse and exploitation. The rich could afford the bribes which would ensure that much of their wealth remained untouched; hidden away in the equivalent of today’s offshore tax havens. No such option was available to the poor any more then than it is now. They would be squeezed mercilessly; with armed force on hand to make sure they turned out their pockets or purses on demand. When this was being done on behalf of Rome or for its client rulers – the ghastly and ruthless Herod dynasty – tax collectors were seen not only as crooks but as collaborators with the enemy; betrayers of their own nation.
The tax collector in Jesus’ parable knows that for all his dubiously-gained wealth, he has no moral or spiritual capital to rely on. There are no “best seats in the synagogues” or “salutations in the market places” for him (Mark 12.17); only muttered curses and murderous glances. So he stands at the back, beats his breast in penitence, and throws himself on the mercy of God.
There is a natural tendency for us to identify with him and his prayer of contrition, rather than with the smug, self-satisfied and unlikable Pharisee. His prayer is more a litany of self-congratulation than a genuine dialogue with God. There is not a word of contrition in it. And so we feel we can go home feeling justified by our sympathy with the spiritual underdog. But we should not be too hasty about that. Jesus is not telling us this story to make us feel comfortable – but to unsettle us.
There is a natural, almost inevitable tendency for people who take religion or morality seriously, people like you and me, to see our spiritual practices and our ethical behaviour as both our own achievements and as a mark of superiority over those who fail to live up to these standards or even flout them blatantly. It is the besetting temptation of the spiritually serious, of the puritan.
It is also our temptation and defence mechanism when, deep down in our hearts, we know we are not quite as good, let alone as holy, as we ought to be; or even as people might think we are.
While we may live outwardly respectable lives, keeping the rules: is there any room in our rather guarded and sterilized lives for the risk of actively doing good; of reaching out beyond the boundaries of conventional morality; of recognizing that respectability and holiness are not the same thing?
Do we remember that Jesus was condemned by the respectable and virtuous as a “glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners?” This condemnation seems to have come from the same people who thought John the Baptist’s asceticism meant he was mad. Most of us are happier, feel safer, with a conventional mediocrity. (Luke 7.33-35)
Do we respond to that sense of insecurity like the Pharisee in the parable, not just by cataloguing our virtues, but by listing the failings of others; by thanking God that we are not as others are; especially not notorious and open sinners to whom we can point. Lurid, tabloid sins are not usually the ones we commit any way. Ours are often of the more small-minded, hard-hearted and hidden variety.
We do this not only in the area of morals but of doctrines and ideas too. So we can pride ourselves in being on the right side of this or that theological or ethical dispute. We are “sound”, the true believers who have not compromised the faith – unlike those wishy-washy liberals always running after the world’s latest fads and fashions. Or we are the enlightened ones – open to new knowledge and insights – unlike those benighted traditionalists stuck in one fundamentalism or another.
As scripture reminds us, long before psychology confirmed this truth: “the human heart is very devious” (Jeremiah 17.9). So it gets even more complicated than that: when we practice selective indignation about one issue but not another: happy – as Jesus would say – to point to the speck of sexual identity say, in our brother’s eye while ignoring the log in our own; perhaps of profiting from financial exploitation, which no amount of tithing can sanctify.
Experience of church life and history suggests that those who most constantly and loudly denounce one evil or another, usually sexual, sometimes turn out to have been practicing the very same all along. Megaphone morality can be just a cover story or diversion.
That is why the parables and other scriptures have been given us for our learning – and why we need again and again to “hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them.” So that as we read them they read us, show us the truth about ourselves, so that we throw ourselves on the mercy of God.