2 Tim 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14
St Barbara’s; 18.10.2022
19th Sunday after Trinity
Rev Jeremy Bevan
It was a smart rugby shirt. My favourite. I was confident I looked good enough to grace any
nightclub dance floor. Trusting in my own well-dressed elegance, I strolled up to the door of
the club my soon-to-be brother-in-law had chosen for his stag do. “No rugby shirts”, said the
owner firmly. Only after I had swapped it for the collar shirt of a youth leaving the club was I
allowed in. We had a great night – though I never saw my beloved rugby shirt again.
Rules can be hard to read. They can catch us out, as the two very different characters in our
parable discovered. First a Pharisee, zealous not just in keeping the rules of the Jewish law,
but going beyond them, striving to be as good as he could be, secure in the knowledge of his
own righteousness. The Pharisees’ zeal for the rules of God’s covenant made them popular
with the people; and as Jesus began to tell this parable, listeners would have thought that, if
anyone had a right to expect to be in good standing with God, it was this man.
But there’s something missing. The parable’s opening words give us a clue: the Pharisee
“trusts in himself that he is righteous.” Remind you of anybody? The apostle Paul, describing
his life before he met the risen Lord Jesus, said: “As to the law, I was blameless.” ‘Project
righteousness’ had become for Paul and the Pharisee almost an end in itself. It’s as if God
and the sinners the Pharisee lists don’t matter any more, aren’t in the picture. He has a
sense of entitlement, like my smart rugby shirt gave me. He wants nothing other than what
he's got already – he’s no longer adventuring or journeying on with God. The danger is that
God might be able to do nothing for him because, as he sees it, he lacks nothing.
Not all Pharisees were like this, though: Jesus tells the parable only to “some who trusted
they were righteous.” A generation before Jesus, a rabbi called Hillel may have inspired
Jesus’s tale: don’t keep aloof from the congregation, he said; don’t trust in yourself till the
day you die; and don’t judge another man until you’ve walked in his shoes. There’s humility,
something the Pharisee lacks as he looks on the tax collector with disdain rather than
Like the Pharisee, the tax collector thinks he understands the rules. His understanding tells
him (as it would have told Jesus’s hearers) he’s not welcome in the temple. He doesn’t look
up because then he’d see many angry eyes on him: he was a traitor to the people, a
collaborator with the occupying Roman power. In Ukraine today, a man like him would be
helping to organise the referendums seeking to justify Russia annexing parts of the country.
His only redeeming feature is a sense of his unworthiness, and he knows it. He’s not in the
least “trusting in himself that he is righteous.” He knows how much he needs God as he
faces up to the truth about himself; he’s fragile: but to everyone’s surprise the rules of
God’s kingdom mean he goes home made right with God, a sinner having sought and found
mercy. Heaven-sent discontent leads to hope.
It's good and proper, then, to grow a sense of our dependency on God. Sometimes, that’s
easier than at others. This week, as I waited for medical test results, and worried that the
news would be bad, it was easy to lean on God, remember my fragility, and pray humbly.
But humble doesn’t mean being unsure or doubtful about who we are before God. If, having
been made right with God, we’re striving for the kingdom and God’s righteousness, we have
every right to be properly confident. That’s why Paul in our reading from 2 Timothy can
boldly assert God will give him the crown of righteousness. If the tax collector’s prayer really
was heartfelt, he both went home justified and could know for sure how he then stood with
God. If he managed to turn his life around, then on the day he died he’d be able to pray like
the psalmist does: “judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness, and according to the
integrity that is in me.” I’ve met plenty of people who could do with rather more of that sort
of sense of their self-worth, not a boasting but a bold humility in the sight of God who sees
all that we are. No matter how fragile we may feel, no matter how few the words we bring,
forgiveness enables us to walk, not crawl, into the loving presence of God, head held high,
righteous and with integrity.
I suspect we’re all a bit Pharisee, a bit tax collector: so we do well, then, to keep in mind
that we live our lives under God; and to ask for God’s grace in blending zeal with
compassion, humility with boldness. Jesus’s hearers would have been shocked at the
thought the Pharisee may not be a good model to follow; surprised the tax collector is
approved by God. Perhaps on another day when they went to the temple to pray, a humbler
Pharisee met a tax collector eager to live better, and they ended up learning from each
other: the first no longer judgmentally aloof, the second not wallowing in humility but
instead boldly embracing new habits of life alongside the Pharisee, the two of them growing
closer to God together?
Jesus would want us to learn from such a tax collector’s sense of a new start, of how every
moment attentive before God is a chance to have life determined by the future, rather than
fixed for ever by our past. And maybe to learn this from a humble Pharisee: it is best to
develop good habits of heart and life with others, not in isolation from them.
Given that, let me close by quoting from a recent daily lectionary reading echoing Jesus’s
teaching in this final parable of our Sunday series. Ephesians 4 urges us, with the grace
Christ gives us, to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all
humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love: for there is one
God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” [Eph. 4:1-7] That seems
a very good place to leave things.