Luke 18.9-14: The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
In our reading from Luke’s Gospel this morning – the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector – Jesus was speaking about spiritual pride. And on the topic of spiritual pride, I can claim without any conceit – indeed, in a spirit of repentance – to be something of an expert. Spiritual pride is an evil that I have experienced from both sides: as both perpetrator and victim.
Indeed, I never expected to end up as an Anglican. Certainly not the kind who stands up in front of the congregation, and least of all the kind who would wear ceremonial robes like these. In fact, for the first 21 years of my life I showed no interest in church or Christianity whatsoever. As far as I was concerned, in my youthful pride and arrogance, religion was at best irrelevant and at worst rather ridiculous.
Then, at the age of 20, I totally changed direction. I got in with the campus God squad, and over the next few years I moved through a succession of hardline evangelical churches. These varied in worship style and denomination, but what they all had in common was… you could call it a kind of cultishness. We believed that we were the saved: us and people like us. And we saw the mainstream Church of England in particular as the epitome of religion gone bad. “There might be a few saved individuals in there somewhere,” I heard someone say on one occasion, his voice dripping with condescension. But as far as we were concerned, nobody who had real faith in Jesus would go on tolerating the ritual, the chanting, the robes, and above all the doctrinal openness (we saw it as vagueness) that is part of parcel of a typical parish church.
That vain judgmentalism extended to the matter of who was welcome in our churches: Catholics, women, anyone facing marital difficulties, those who for any reason at all failed to get married and have children, could find themselves ruthlessly excluded from the mainstream of church life, and would certainly be prevented from exercising their God-given talents. And I’m sad, repentant in fact, to say that I accepted this framework for a great many years.
What does Jesus have to say in our Gospel reading about such spiritual pride? He tells a story about two men going into the Temple to pray. I’d like you to picture the scene. But let’s transplant it into the present day: an important religious building like Chichester cathedral.
As you watch two men walk up to the altar rail to pray. They’re clearly not together. The first man is a church dignitary: an archdeacon perhaps, or a rural dean. Possibly even a visiting bishop. Others cast their eyes down in respect as he sweeps past them. Then you look across at the other man, and you give a little start as you recognise him from the newspapers. He’s clearly a wealthy businessman, but he’s recently been arrested and bailed on organized crime charges, including drug smuggling and a prostitution ring. These are pretty much how the people of Jesus’ time would have regarded the two characters in the parable – particularly the tax collector. These men, sometimes referred to as publicans, were Jewish traitors, oppressing and defrauding their own people as an agent of the hated Roman occupation: enriching themselves as they forced others from among their own people into destitution. They were seen as spiritually and morally bankrupt.
The first man, the very religious one, lifts his eyes boldly up to the roof and begins to pray in a loud voice: “O sovereign Lord, supreme ruler of the universe, I thank you for giving me so much intelligence and learning and generosity. Oh yes, and the humility – let’s not forget the humility. I realise it’s thanks to you that I’m not like the other rabble swarming round here, most of all the lowlife here next to me.” Then the second man speaks, so quietly that it’s a strain to make out his words. But you hear him mumble something like, “O God, I’ve made such a mess of my life. Please help me.”
For far too long, my Christian friends and I were like the first man: Proud, complacent, convinced of our spiritual superiority. But then Kate and I together began investigating what Christianity is about for ourselves, rather than simply swallowing what our leaders told us. We started speaking up for people: speaking up for the poor and oppressed, for divorcees and women preachers and Gay Christians; to proclaim that God’s love and his purposes embrace everyone. And from that point, slowly but surely, we came to be seen as part of the problem. We were looked down on as spiritual weaklings, even labeled heretics by some of our former friends. People seen as susceptible to such talk were warned not to mix with us in case they were contaminated by our supposedly unbiblical views.
We’ve now found a new spiritual home. We feel accepted, and we’re rejoicing in everything this parish has to offer: the breadth, the varied worship traditions, and not least all the liturgy and the robes and the chanting that I was once programmed to write off as mere idolatry – all these things are settling in as a central part of our devotional life. Above all, there’s no filtering of people at the door. We’ve not seen anyone excluded on account of their economic situation, or their gender, or their marital status or their sexual orientation, or their precise brand of theology.
That is good, and I hope you are encouraged to hear that relative newcomers to the community feel that way about it. But of course we’re not perfect, neither as a community nor as individuals. After all, we’re fallible human beings, each shaped by an individual and personal blend of pride and insecurity. There’s that proud instinct in each of us that makes us need to feel that we’re winning, that we’re the ones who’ve got our priorities right, that the world would be a better place if others shared our values and our way of doing things. And then there’s the insecurity, the tribal instinct, that makes us feel most at ease when we’re surrounded by people who are as much like us as possible. And even in a community as inclusive as this one, those primal instincts sometimes bring out the worst in us.
I’m not going to offer specific examples, beyond the ones I’ve already given, because every one of us is different. I just going to ask each person here to ask themselves the question in a moment’s silence: What sort of person would you find it hardest to welcome into the congregation? To put it another way, what sort of person would you be tempted to feel spiritually or morally superior to? And finally, how do you think Jesus would feel about that?
Jesus told his parable, Luke tells us, to those who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else. And Jesus’s conclusion? It was the tax collector, the scoundrel only too well aware of his own moral grubbiness, who went home justified before God. For in our Lord’s own words, all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Let’s bow our heads for a moment in prayer…