Luke 18. 9-14
Well, it’s very good to be with you this morning – and I’d like to thank Fr. Philip and Fr. Peter for inviting me.
For those of you who don’t know, I was here at St. Matthew’s between October 2004 until August 2005, working as a pastoral assistant – and like so many pa’s, before or since, spending a year here was a way of taking those few vital steps along that road to full time ministry.
So here I am, 6 years later suited and booted – a Priest in the Church of England.
And of course, I got married here in 2007 to my darling wife, Helen, who also was very much part and parcel of the St. Matthew’s community.
So it’s great to be here and my heart is full of gratitude for the many wonderful things this place has given me.
However, I hate to break the news, St. Matthew’s, particularly for a pastoral assistant, isn’t wonderful all the time.
In fact a refrain that still rings in my ears to this day and puts me into a cold sweat even now is the phrase:
“That’ll be a job for a pastoral assistant.”
The word ‘job’ is an interesting word in this context for it usually denotes an unpleasant chore or task that nobody else wants to do.
Somebody in the school, for example, reports that a child has been sick all over the classroom floor - can somebody come and clear it up?
That’ll be a job for a pastoral assistant!
A certain dog, “Benji”, God rest his canine soul, used to leave little parcels overnight on the house carpets –oh my goodness, who is going to clear that up?
That’ll be a job for a pastoral assistant!
It’s 1am on a Saturday morning and one of the houseguests has forgotten the code to the door. Who’s going to roll out of bed and let them in?
That’ll be a job for pastoral assistant!
You get the picture.
But, I suppose, one way of spiritualising these rather unpleasant tasks is to say they are small exercises in humility.
Being humble and developing that servant heart is at the centre of the pastoral assistant’s ministry, indeed at the centre of all ministry.
So, I guess I have Fr. Philip and St. Matthews to thank for giving me so many (so, so many) opportunities to learn this vital discipline for priestly ministry!
Therefore it is my pleasure to preach on the following text this morning. These are from the lips of Jesus (Luke Chapter 18.14)
“I tell you this man went down to his home justified rather than the other, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Shall I go home now?
But joking aside – Jesus tells us a parable and asks us to consider who stands as righteous before The Lord.
Two men go to the temple to offer their prayers.
One is a Pharisee, the other a tax collector.
Now, if we have been Christians for some time we have been taught, possibly conditioned into responding in a certain way.
Who is the bad guy in this parable?
Automatically we point the finger at the Pharisee, it’s so obvious isn’t it?
We loathe his self- righteousness and his arrogance.
He’s so pompous and puffed up, we right him off in an instant.
He has become the pantomime villain, the crowd love to boo and hiss at.
The tax collector, on the other hand, is the hero, the humble repentant sinner. Contrite and beaten down by his own feelings of unworthiness, we feel sympathy for him.
He’s the underdog. And we do like an underdog.
Cue a huge cheer and round of applause.
Although this is essentially the right way to view this parable we need to be aware of two things:
The first is that our response to this parable is in the opposite way it was intended. – For all intents and purposes it was the Pharisee that was the good guy not the tax collector – and it is this assumption that Jesus wants to expose in the mind of his hearers.
The text tells us that Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
The other thing is that we need to be careful that we don’t condemn the Pharisee out of hand for we would be as guilty as he is as we share in his refrain of “Oh, I am glad I am not like him”
I suspect that each of us sway between the two types in this parable –
Between our quest for virtue and approval as seen in The Pharisee and then the truth telling that needs to happen when we inevitably fail as seen in the Tax Collector.
The fact of the matter is we need compassion and understanding for both of these characters, for own sake.
In the eyes of many the Pharisee is a “righteous” man. It is just that he is so driven by zeal that he has lost touch with his fellow man and ultimately lost touched with God.
He stands by himself praying in a self-congratulatory way, urging God it seems, to pat him on the back.
“I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of my income,” he proudly declares.
And to give him his dues, that is more than the law required.
Jews are required to fast for one day a year – on the ‘day of atonement’ – but this guy does it twice a week.
He gives a tenth of all of his income when he is only required to give a tenth from part of his income.
So this man’s not only righteous, his super-righteous and so he stands by himself in a league all of his own.
Is it any wonder that he operates at a distance from the tax collector, and from anyone else for that matter?
So he proud boast is: “God I thank you that I am not like other people…”
(other people – being sinners)
And that point you could cheerfully throttle this man.
His in- your-face self-superiority gets our hackles up.
But if we look past the arrogance we have to give the Pharisee some credit.
He is quite rare - a dedicated committed man who has worked hard to get to where he is, and quite frankly, we could with more people like him.
Pharisees make good stewards and deacons.
They often do the hard work and contribute more than their fair share.
But most important of all, Pharisees were devoted to God and righteousness.
Their faults arose from over-striving for holiness.
However, their zeal was often misguided - but at least they had zeal in their desire to please God.
They could never be accused of being lazy or apathetic.
If we are honest, each and everyone one of us look for approval, usually from authority figures: Parents, teachers, our boss at work, perhaps even our local vicar.
And handled correctly there is nothing wrong with that – it is all part and parcel of being human.
But when it becomes competitive, when all our striving is about been seen to do the good thing, when we promote ourselves and demote others we begin to lose contact with some very vital.
It is as if we lose our humanity and sacrifice our very souls on the altar of this striving to be perfect, trying to be better than anyone else. And its through this process that we are in danger of becoming an inauthentic version of ourselves.
The tax collector might well be considered as “scum” the kind of guy who would sell his own daughter into slavery – who quite rightly is held in contempt to those around.
But what he offers to God in his prayers is that vital piece of the jigsaw, that authenticity that leads him to be justified rather than the Pharisee.
In the tax collector we see a man stripped of all self -deception who is able to speak the truth about himself and recognises the need for mercy from his God.
So in light of this, what does God require of us?
Well, to put it simply, the courage to be ourselves and to be honest.
To reveal who were are, warts and all, knowing that we fall into the arms of an all-loving and all merciful God.
Like the Pharisee it is good to strive to be better, to roll your sleeves up and aim for excellence in all that one does – but in the process we must not lose contact with the essential truth of our existence – that we are frail, imperfect people constantly in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.
“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all exalt themselves will be humbled, and all humble themselves will be exalted.”