Sunday 23 October 2022 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for Sunday 23 October 2022

Psalm 84.1: How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord.

Can you recall a time you entered a place of worship and were struck by the awe and wonder of God’s presence?

I remember as a child being led by my grandmother into Norwich Cathedral for Evensong, sitting in the choir under the vaulted roof, my eyes searching the medieval bosses high above for the depiction of Noah’s Ark, just as the space filled with sung prayer. I recall the first time I stepped into blue stained-glass glory of Sainte Chapelle in Paris. Fr Peter offers a breath-taking description of his recent visit to Aachen and Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel in this week’s newsletter. Perhaps, for you, this glorious space of worship has that same effect, week by week, or maybe there’s somewhere else that leads you into the deep prayer of our Psalmist: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints, for the courts of the Lord”.

In our gospel parable we are taken into the courts of the Lord, the Temple of God, to witness two people at prayer. One, a Pharisee, the other, a Tax Collector. For both, the Temple was the place of devout prayer, where the presence of God was known and worshipped.

For the Pharisee, the worship of God, prayer and fasting, tithing and obedience to God’s commandments, were daily practices, and as we glimpse in his prayer, he was someone who endeavoured to observe these practices closely, priding himself on his service to God.

For the Tax Collector, as well as a place of prayer, the Temple would have brought him into contact with those of his own covenant community from whom he was tasked with extorting taxes for the occupying Roman empire. As the burdens of taxation became more intolerable during the Herodian period, so the tax gatherers became a more hateful and dreaded personality. Being so unpopular, the collector’s job was no easy one, indeed he ran great personal risk and was, as we hear in the Pharisees prayer, classed with “traitors, robbers, and thieves”, no wonder he stood at a distance.

Lest we jump to a quick ‘moral of the story’, we might look first at the way in which interpretations of this parable can lead to unhelpful stereotypes.

In commentaries, the Pharisee is quickly judged as being self-righteous and hypocritical, looking down on the poor, repentant Tax Collector. Almost instinctively we dislike the Pharisee because he comes across as self-righteous, and we warm to the Tax Collector who, yes, humbles himself before God, but might also be keeping a safe distance from God’s wrath. The problem is far too often in our reading of scripture, the ‘Pharisees’ are bundled together with the ‘Jewish religious leaders’ as a whole, and stereotyped as proud, legalistic, hypocritical, blood-thirsty. We know too well those uninformed conclusions and hasty stereotypes, have fuelled a history of antisemitism that is nothing to be proud of.

Pope Francis, at an international conference in 2019, ‘Jesus and the Pharisees’ examining the historical and popular interpretations of the meaning of Pharisee, noted how the “history of interpretation has fostered a negative image of the Pharisees, often without a concrete basis in the Gospel accounts”. The Pharisees were not priests, they were a movement of lay people, who focused on keeping the Torah and interpreting God’s word for God’s people in an age when Jewish independence had been lost. The Pharisees were a people of lively debate, engaging with itinerant preachers and teachers of the law, their teachings focused on the keeping of God’s commandments, on practices of worship, on the way in which God could be worshipped both in and away from the Temple. In many ways, the Pharisees helped Judaism to survive the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the Jewish people around the world. They are the forebears of Rabbinic Judaism, which can be seen in the life and worship of our Jewish neighbours today.

Our scriptures are not solely condemning of the Pharisees, in Mark 12.34 we find Jesus commending the Pharisees, declaring, ‘You are not far from the Kingdom of God’; and in their own writings (Jerusalem Talmud, Sota 5:5), the Pharisees list their own practices of self-examination, naming their flaws, some similar to those Jesus identified – pride, hypocrisy, legalism – and they describe the most praiseworthy Pharisee as one ‘who eagerly obeys God’s word, simply out of love for him’.

Ironically, in stereotyping the Pharisee, we fall into the bear-trap of this parable – so quick to judge the ‘other’ that we fail to heed the self-reflective work of this gospel on our own hearts. It is easy for Christians to read these passages smugly, as if only foolish Pharisees could make such mistakes. Instead, Jesus’ words are wise words to any of us who long to heed God’s call.

‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray’ … Jesus invites us into a story about prayer in God’s Temple. We are led to that place where the Psalmist praises God’s presence, where Jesus, in the house of prayer of his people, affirms this Temple as the very dwelling place of God.

We are given a story in which we are called to ponder the merciful judgement of God rather than our shallow judgement of others; where our soul is invited to hear the forgiveness and sanctuary of God’s altar rather than the failure of our own hearts; we are given a glimpse of a place in which our eyes can lift away from earthly concerns, judgement and competition, lift our eyes up from the floor and behold the glory of God in his temple:

  ‘How lovely is your dwelling place,
   O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints
   for the courts of the Lord.

And so, we might hear Jesus’ words as a call to any of us who long to dwell in the courts of the Lord. To those of us like the Pharisee – who strive to observe the commandments of God, who commit to praying and tithing – Jesus’ words call us to live up to that higher calling. Jesus’ words cut to the heart of all of us who know deep down in our hearts that we’re not quite as good, certainly not as holy, as we ought to be, even if other people think we might be. Jesus words remind us that in all that we do our eyes should be focused on the prize, ‘the crown of heaven’, not on what our neighbour is or isn’t doing (however easy a target that neighbour happens to be).

And to those of us, like the Tax Collector, who are afraid to look up, who feel unworthy of God’s attention, who carry shame or abuse because of our work, who are the butt of other’s jokes, who can quickly catalogue our failings and judge ourselves more harshly than we ought – to those, God also offers a place of sanctuary, for:

“…Even the sparrow finds a home,
   and the swallow a nest for herself,
   where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
   my King and my God.”

For even the most diligent in prayer, even the most unworthy repentant, even the sparrow and the swallow sold two-for-a-penny, find a place in God’s house.

So, whatever state we find ourselves in as we come to God’s house today, however diligent, forgetful or remorseful we find our life of prayer; however far we may have flown from God’s house, we can be assured of the promise of this altar.

This is the place where Christ’s atoning body and blood have reconciled us to God, and to one another.

This is the place where we find forgiveness and freedom.

This is the altar, the nest, where our hearts can find rest in the house of the Lord.

Thanks be to God for this gracious gift; thanks be to God for his mercy to the Pharisee and to tax collector – and to these figures in us all.

Rev’d Clare Dowding