Homily for Ordinary Sunday 30C

In Uncategorized on October 25, 2010 at 9:13 pm

This morning’s gospel is a familiar one.
It’s a perfect example of why Jesus chose to use story,
parable, to make his points.
It’s memorable,
and we can see pretty clearly what is being said.
No amount of exegesis,
digging up meaning within the passage,
is going to give us something radically different
from the obvious point, a need for humility before God.
Yet, there is a little more to the parable of the Pharisee
and the tax collector than that.
Let’s begin with the two very different characters.

Pharisees were the people renowned
for their righteousness in First Century Palestine.
We entirely miss the impact of the parable
if we don’t realise that the Pharisee in it was,
by all the standards of his day,
seen as a genuinely righteous and respected person.
His spiritual discipline included a twice weekly fast.
Can any of us say the same?
He gave away 10% of his income. How many of us do that?
He kept the Law meticulously.

The world of the tax collector on the other hand
may be hard for us to get a handle on.
Try to combine the feelings variously brought on
by the labels “Nazi collaborator”, “debt collector”,
“fraudster” (or these days
“failed finance company director”) and you might get close
to the way the Jewish people of the first century
felt about those who collected tax for the Romans.
In the world that Jesus inhabits,
the tax collector is the recognisable face of sin,
dodgy people representing an oppressive system.

A fact we might easily overlook
is that both characters are “at prayer”.
Love them or hate them, both caricatures are praying.

But what are they and we doing when we pray?
Who are we talking to?
“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God”
said St. John Damascene.
But when we pray,
do we speak from the height of our pride and will,
or “out of the depths” of the human heart?

Can we truly pray, as the Pharisee seems to,
totally self-absorbed, looking only to others
in gratitude that we are not as they?
Can we pray when we’re so very and contentedly alone?

The Pharisee has managed to find himself alone
at the heart of his faith.  In the Jerusalem Temple,
the milling, busy, passionate heart of the Jewish world –
this man “stands by himself”, we’re told.
Praying by himself.  Praying, perhaps, to himself?
Where is there room here for the
“raising of one’s mind and heart to God”?
Where is the fruit of all his spiritual discipline?
Where is righteousness?

The Pharisee hasn’t digested the summary of his faith,
“love the Lord your God with all your heart …
and your neighbour as yourself”.
In his self-righteousness, he looks on his neighbour
and shares nothing of the vision of God.
He sees the Other, the hated, the despised,
a man beyond the pale. An outsider.
And Jesus consistently challenges that kind of exclusion,
that compartmentalisation, as incompatible with the Kingdom.

Human righteousness is the imitation of God:
“Be holy as I am holy”.
The Pharisee misses
that which is at the core of God’s holiness – mercy.
He condemns the very person God would redeem.

At the core of righteous, at the very core of God, is love.
If you miss that,
all the “righteousness” and religion in the world
will get you precisely nowhere.

What if we took that thought away with us
and examined our economy, our prisons,
the little judgemental moments we all have every day?
What would we see differently?

The tax collector has discovered something profound.
In the words of English mystic Evelyn Underhill,
“as we gaze upon our sinfulness, we see God.”

Why is it we begin each celebration of Holy Communion
by acknowledging our fallen nature,
our need for forgiveness?
It is not until we acknowledge
our need for something beyond ourselves,
until we admit our brokenness and our woundedness,
that we can embrace the love and mercy
and healing and hope
that is held out to us by God in Jesus.
Perhaps it’s not until we see ourselves clearly,
that we may see the outstretched arms of Christ.

Until we know our need, we cannot know our healing,
cannot bare our true selves before Love’s true self.

Let’s not lose sight of where this parable
leads the Pharisee, the tax collector and us,
from the Temple down to our homes –
out into the real world,
where prayer and humility are in short supply.
The real world where people are,
by our attitudes and their own actions,
excluded and marginalised.

We are called, again and again,
to look to God and neighbour:
righteousness cannot happen in a vacuum.
Let’s not give up on the discipline
that marks the Pharisee as a man apart.

There is need
for his thankfulness and abstinence and generosity.

But the tax collector beckons to us,
the more real, the more human figure here.

The more honest before God.

In all the complexities and compromises of daily life,
the challenge of the parable
is its uncompromising clarity.

The prophet Micah
points us towards the simplicity we need
in this complicated world,
whether we can fast and tithe
and live the disciplined life of the Pharisee or not:
“what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice,
to love kindness
and to walk humbly with your God?”


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