Ascension Lavender Hill
28th October 2007
Year C, Week 30
Two Men at Prayer
Jesus often used parables in His teaching to help people understand what He was saying.
Sometimes these parables were in the form of a story – like the younger son who left home and got into financial difficulties abroad, or the king who gave a banquet to which people refused to come. Other parables of His take something from everyday life, like seed growing in the ground or fish being caught in a net to make their point.
Today’s Gospel is of the second type. Two men praying to God: one a tax-collector, and the other a well-to-do and highly respected member of the religious organization called the Pharisees. And the punch-line comes right at the end when Jesus says of the tas-collector ‘This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.'
Both men started off with the same intention, namely ‘getting right with God’. ‘But’ says Jesus, ‘as a matter of fact the tax-collector, who started off at the greater disadvantage, was far more successful in doing so than the Pharisee – who had everything going for him’.
Now you and I, no doubt, in the depths of our heart want exactly what these two people were looking for – ‘to get ourselves right with God’. If there’s anyone here this morning who doesn’t want that, then it’s difficult to know why they come to church at all. Everything we’re doing this morning is directed towards that end, namely ‘getting right with God’. Of course there are other thing which come as a by-product of churchgoing: we enjoy uplift, fellowship and the sense of purpose which our faith gives to our lives. But to lose sight of the main object is rather like thinking that the object of playing football isn’t scoring goals at all, but enjoying the fresh air or getting some healthy exercise. Yes, they are important by-products, but they are not the point of the game itself.
One way of learning to play better football is to watch a slow-motion action replay of a particular incident. Something that happens so fast on the field that it’s difficult to take in, is much more easily understood when played back slowly in the film studio or on the television. So let us watch these two men saying their prayers in slow motion and see why one succeeds better than the other.
The Pharisee approaches God with an attitude of familiarity. Many years of regular attendance at the Temple and the local synagogue, combined with the fact that life has treated him pretty well, and he’s reached all the goals he set out to achieve. He’s comfortably off and the father of sons who are carrying on the family business as he would wish – all these things conspire together to make him feel that he’s on good terms with God. So, very properly, he begins his prayers by recognizing correctly that somewhere along the line God must be responsible for his happy state. So there’s nothing wrong with his opening words ‘God, I thank you…’
But because this makes him assume that he’s right with God already, it’s downhill all the way for him from then onwards. First of all he begins to compare other people unfavourably with himself. ‘I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind.
Don’t imagine that he’s being in any way hypocritical in what he’s saying to God. In all probability he is none of these things: he’s modest in his expectations, fair in his business practice and a shining example of matrimonial fidelity in an unfaithful society. He’s generous – giving a tenth of all his assets away on a regular basis not just a tenth of his income; and he’s religious, fasting twice a week instead of only once as the Jewish Law prescribed.
But in God’s eyes generosity, fairness and chastity, though all of them important, are not the only virtues that He asks of us. He calls us to be humble, obedient, long-suffering, forgiving, joyful, considerate and patient to name but seven other virtues. Which of us can honestly say that we’ve been all these things during the past 24 hours?
However, the big give-away in the Pharisee’s prayer are the words ‘and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here’ Immediately we start comparing others unfavourably with ourselves, and imagining that God sees both them and us in the same light that we do then we are straying out of the land of Reality into Cloud Cuckoo Land.
To understand this better, let’s now turn to the second prayer, that of the Tax Collector.
It’s difficult for us to imagine the contempt and hatred that the Jews of Jesus’s time had for the Tax Collectors. Not just because they took away their hard earned wages in the same way that our Inland Revenue does, but because they were the paid servants of a foreign invader: Jews who had put themselves in the service of the Roman Emperor, and who were paid by their results. The more tax they collected, legally or otherwise, the more they earned. So they came under the double criticism of being greedy predators and filthy traitors.
But this one was rather different. Perhaps Jesus when telling this parable was thinking of Matthew whom he called to from the receipt of custom be and Apostle and who at once abandoned everything to answer that call. There must have been a moment, or several moments, in Matthew’s life prior to being called by Jesus when he found himself saying ‘Why don’t I leave all this behind and live a decent, God-fearing life instead?’ Perhaps he even used that selfsame prayer which Jesus quoted ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’. Then along came Jesus and his prayer was answered, and Jesus turned him from being Matthew the tax-collector into being St Matthew the Apostle.
For there is a world of difference between the prayer that consists in nothing more than ‘I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind’ and the one which opens with the words ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’.
Do you see the difference? The Pharisee is talking about himself – and about others only incidentally and in an unfavourable way. The tax collector throws himself into the arms of God, asking to be forgiven. Which one goes home ‘at rights with God?’ Jesus leaves us in no doubt that it is the tax-collector who is successful.
God, who knows us better than we know ourselves, understands what’s wrong with us. The Pharisee, who imagines that there is nothing wrong with himself and everything wrong with the Tax-collector has got it quite wrong. For one thing, he doesn’t see how much closer to salvation the tax-collector is, despite all his faults. It only needs repentance and faith to set him right. The Pharisee needs a whole course in self-knowledge before the same can be said of him.
Le me end with a up-to-date version of this parable: Two people go to the doctor’s surgery. The first says ‘Doc, I’ve been an alcoholic for the past 20 years. Is there anything you can do about it?’ The second patient, who has found a lump in her breast says ‘I’ve come to tell you that I am really feeling quite well and I’m too embarrassed anyway to say anything more; you’ve just got to guess if there’s something wrong will me’. Which of these two is the more likely to benefit from the doctor’s expertise. Surely it is the former. As for the latter, the likelihood is that her doctor will politely show her the door and tell her to come back when she’s prepared to tell him the truth!
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