Succentor - Revd Rachel Young
Jer 14.7-10,19-22 2; Tim 4.6-8, 16-18; Luke 18.9-14
Living in the rich, western world is a constant source of temptation
Not just the temptation to acquire wealth or consume more and more, but the temptation to be grateful for that.
I can remember when I was much younger, to my shame, realising how fortunate I was to be born in a rich western country like England, and how proud that made me feel – and I said thank you to God for it.
I realise now that it was nothing more than an expression of a sense of superiority and imperialism, which I had fallen into without examining how or why, and which these days we have to see for what it is.
We can also sometimes fall into a sense of superiority about being a Christian – when we think that we are right with God, because we are religious.
In Luke’s gospel this morning we hear about two stereo-typical people.
We hear of a Pharisee who was proud.
He was proud because he was a good Pharisee.
He was outwardly very religious.
He did everything that the Jewish Law expected of him, and more.
He fasted more often than was required, twice a week;
and he tithed everything he owned,
not just the first-fruits of his produce as the Law demanded.
How fortunate he was, he thought,
to know that he was already accepted by God because of this!
How fortunate he was not to be like others who were not like him…!
Others like the tax collectors – who worked for the Roman authorities and so were despised by the Jews. But one tax collector was also at the Temple to pray at the appointed time of day. And we hear about him, too.
He must have been attracted to come, we might say ‘called’ – something had brought him. But he stood far off, not coming near; he knew that he was not one of the fortunate ones who were already accepted by God.
He came to God and expressed his feeling of sinfulness and his humility.
Comparing himself to God, and perhaps to the Pharisee,
the words that this man speaks indicates that he felt himself to be the greatest sinner in the world.
He just says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Sin – that state in which we put ourselves first –
(S-I-N) ‘I’ in the middle.
The tax collector is declared “justified” before God (in v.14).
The rare Greek word used for this is related to the word for “righteous”, and as one commentator says, if we could we’d say that he was “righteoused” – that is, ‘accepted as righteous by God on the basis of his prayer’.
That’s all it took – no outwardly religious life, no giving over-and-above what was necessary – just the realisation and confession of sinfulness.
Luke’s tells us the context of this parable –
that it was told to “those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” –
which suggests that Luke was experiencing this in his own church community; that it wasn’t only about the Pharisees.
And the very last verse (v.14) is the climax of the story - a direct repeat of a verse that Luke has already written in chapter 14 (v.11) after the parable of the guests invited to a wedding who chose where to sit: “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The problems we have, when considering the impact of this parable in our own lives, are two-fold:
- Firstly, that we can become too obsessed with ourselves if we look at ourselves too carefully; and this leads to the second problem,
- That it’s hard to call yourself humble without becoming proud…
So perhaps we need to look at the general principles of Jesus’ teaching, as we witness to our faith to others.
There are three lessons behind this parable:
- That those who exalt themselves, especially those who think they are very religious, will be humbled by God – that is, brought down from their self-imposed pedestal;
- That only the humble are accepted as righteous by God;
- And that true prayer is not about looking at ourselves in relation to others – but in looking at ourselves in relation to God.
We know that there are some in the world who are very self-obsessed; unfortunately sometimes these are very prominent people in the life of our world. Jesus’ teaching suggests that, even though they might outwardly call on God, it is not they who are right with God.
We all need to keep an eye on ourselves - to spot when we’re exalting ourselves, either in our own eyes or in the eyes of others – when we’re falling into the trap of thinking we’re doing ok - for any reason, but particularly when we think we’re being a good Christian - to stop becoming complacent and start remembering that doing these things in themselves doesn’t make us right with God at all.
Nobody is made right with God because of what they do,
be they religious practices or any others,
and especially not when they become proud of that.
This parable reminds us that we need to let go of everything we think we should be doing to gain God’s acceptance;
and that we can find and embrace the reality of being accepted by God for who we are, as the tax collector in the parable experienced.
He was accepted as righteous by God because he recognised where he stood with God –
compared to God, he was a sinner in need of forgiveness.
We can find the freedom of this for ourselves. This humility.
We need to turn our eyes and attention to others.
Because that is a sure way to not become proud.
As we witness to our faith,
we can tell and show others of the freedom of being accepted by God as they are –
and that when compared to God or Jesus,
none of us are up to the mark.
It’s realising this and saying ‘sorry’ that makes us right with God.
This is what it means to humble ourselves.
This doesn’t just happen once – it happens every time we come before God in prayer or worship.
Today, as we come to meet God in the bread and the wine,
may we bring ourselves as we are –
admitting our illusions of grandeur,
our achievements or our ambitions;
And as we are accepted and forgiven by God,
may we bring with us our thoughts and concerns for others – that they too will know the freedom of a life lived with God;
Jesus was telling this parable, and by doing so was saying to people that the old way, of obeying rituals and religious rules, was now unnecessary. Because the whole point is that it is Jesus himself that makes the difference.
The apostle Paul talks at length about this in his letters, when he explains the role of the Jewish law in the lives of gentile believers – or rather, the lack of it. He says, in Romans 3.27-28:
“ Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”
The basis of ‘the Jesus prayer’, used esp in Eastern Orthodox Christianity…the presence of God is where his name is invoked, the presence and power of God happens in the invocation.
I think that this parable stimulates us to consider two things here: our attitudes and our actions.
Personal life – 1) general sense of superiority, 2) about our spiritual/prayer life
First, our own attitudes, which could be related to our lives as a whole or more specifically to our spiritual or prayer life.
In the 1980s Band-Aid song ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ was a line sung by Bono – “Well tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you” – which I suggest gave away so much of the underlying attitude of those singing in it.
Do we recognise any of that attitude?
If we do, then we can be sure that we need to repent of it,
and that we are not as close to God as we thought.
And secondly, our actions (how we treat people) belies our attitudes.
If we are a community that welcomes the poor, the homeless, the less-well educated, the less physically able, the bereaved, and others who are not like us;
if we meet them, know them, share bread and wine with them, call them our friends;
then we can be sure that we are doing what Jesus did and that God is close to a community which is so accepting and loving. God justifies those who know themselves to be poor, sinful and in need of forgiveness. And that’s all of us.
We are who we are by pure accident of birth and circumstance.
We may be born anywhere, to anyone.
But whoever we are,
we can come into God’s presence and stand before God.
By repenting of pride and showing humility,
we can admit our mistakes and failings,
and receive God’s forgiveness.
May we be encouraged to do that this morning, as we receive the bread and the wine – coming to God willingly, and receiving what God has to offer.
And may the result be that our bubbles of superiority may be burst, our lives become more humble and that all those invited into God’s kingdom may be welcomed and celebrated. (or something)