God be merciful to me, a sinner

The parables of Jesus always pack a punch. Take the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector (Luke 18.9-14).

Two men slipped into church to pray. One was a respectable vicar, the other a second-hand car dealer with convictions for rape and theft to his name.  The fulsome prayer of the vicar got no further than the ceiling.  It was the prayer of the second-hand car dealer that God heard.

That’s the way we should hear the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. We should be shocked by it. Unfortunately, we’re not shocked, we’ve heard the story too many times before. We know that the Pharisees were the baddies, and that Jesus had a soft-spot for tax-collectors and their ilk. So we are not surprised when Jesus declared that it was the prayer of the tax-collector, and not the prayer of the Pharisee that God heard.

But let’s remember, there was nothing particularly loveable or attractive about tax-collectors. Tax-collectors were rogues, they were crooks, they were thieves. A crescent shaped moon was straighter than a tax-collector. The men who collected the imperial taxes for their Roman overlords, always took a handsome cut for themselves. They specialised in fleecing others. They were thoroughly dishonest. From every point of view, they were the baddies. On the other hand, the Pharisees were the goodies. They were religious professionals. They took their religion seriously. As far as Jesus’ hearers were concerned, nobody stood closer to God than a Pharisee. When the Apostle Paul looked back upon his life as a Pharisee, he wrote: “as to righteousness under the law, [I was] blameless” (Phil 3.6).

This was my introduction to my sermon, when I preached on the parable some years ago. At the time, like most minister, I would imagine, I applied the parable to the members of my congregation. I talked about the dangers of ‘spiritual one-upmanship’. I said:

We can come to church and say, ‘God, I thank you that I have not failed you this week. God, I thank you that I have lived a more consistent Christian life than that scallywag of a member three pews away’. But that is the sin of the Pharisee. Alternatively, we can come to church and say, ‘God, I thank you that I am not a hypocritical prig like so and so along the pew’, but in boasting of not being a Pharisee like one or other of our acquaintances in the church, then at that very moment we are committing the sin of the Pharisee. It is all too easy for us religious people to feel that we are better than others, and in so doing we commit the cardinal sin of pride. A proud heart is worse than a lustful or envious heart. We talk about sin with a silly grin as if it only had to do with sex. Sin is rebellion against God. It is run by pride and it ruins us. Beside pride all the frightening diseases of our day are dandruff.

But the truth is that this parable was not directed at ordinary God-fearing members of the synagogue, but rather Jesus had in mind the religious elite of his day. Jesus was talking about the Pharisees, a six-thousand strong ‘God squad’ who championed the Torah as God’s Word, “the precious instrument by which the world was created”. In our terms, they were pious ‘Bible-bashers’. Their name was almost certainly derived from a Hebrew word which meant ‘people who were separated from others’.

They were a ‘lay’ movement in the sense that they were not priests. However, in many ways a parallel can be drawn between them and Christian ministers today, who through the act of ‘ordination; are like Paul and Barnabas ‘set apart’ to serve God (see Acts 13.1-3). Indeed, in my own case I felt that like the Apostle Paul I had been “set apart” before I was worn (Gal 1.15: see Jer 1.4). What is more, at the heart of my call, was a desire to share God’s word with others. If there was one text which summed up my call to ministry, it was the words of Jeremiah: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name’, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jer 20.9).

In other words, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is first and foremost a parable directed at people like me. – ‘a respectable vicar’, as it were. True, I have never consciously looked down on any ‘second-hand car sales dealer’ who might have happened to have attended a service. However, along with minister colleagues, I have for the most part worked morning, noon and night in the service of God’s kingdom. And here I am, at the age of seventy-seven, running a mid-week fellowship group, actively involved every Sunday in ‘Breakfast with the Bible’, still writing books and articles, and in one way or another still seeking God’s call on my life.

Yet, even though we may impress others through our so-called ‘achievements’, we are but “ordinary servants” who have done our duty (Luke 17.10 GNB). There is no place for pride. Indeed, God is not impressed by our so-called ‘achievements’. As Søren Kirkegaard pointed out in a sermon based on the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, when we are alone with God we realize how far from God we are; when we see God, we realise our own wretchedness; and if we feel safe like the Pharisee, we really are in peril. For as Jesus made clear, we are “justified” by God’s free grace alone: “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18.14). In this regard Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, got it absolutely right:

When the day arrives on which I must appear before my Lord, then I will not come with my works, with my Dogmatics volumes on my back in the ‘pannier’. All the angels would laugh at that. Then I will also not say: I always meant well, I had the right belief. No, then I will only say one thing: Lord, receive me, a poor sinner, with mercy!

This, indeed, is a parable that those of us who are ministers need to hear again and again!

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