Talking About Ourselves
A Homily for Holy Communion
on Ash Wednesday 13st of February, 2013, 7.30 p.m.
for the Parish Church of SS. Mary & Nicholas Littlemore, Oxford Gospel: Luke 18:9-14:
Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 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.’
+ May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.
“Poor little, interesting, me!”. That was how Alan Jones, the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, summed up the motto of the Western world in the 20th century: fascinated by ourselves, endlessly talkative, and with more than just a shard of self-pity. I rather think Jesus would have recognised us at once. He clearly observed it in his own time, as our Gospel reading tonight shows us: two very different people, each talking about themselves. We might wonder that they were saying their prayers in the Temple out loud, but the ancient historians tell us that even to read silently was remarkable, and to read without moving your lips was almost unheard-of. So, our ancient forebears may very well have heard one another’s prayers, and indeed, prayed, intending for their own to be heard. Here we have two opposite characters. The Pharisee, a pillar of the community, eminently respectable, law-abiding, Temple-going, the sort of person you might, or might not, have wanted to have as a neighbour. That is entirely a matter for you. The other is a tax-collector. These days it is entirely respectable to work for HMRC, even if it may not endear you to your friends - you are after all only doing a job, only obeying orders, there’s nothing personal in it. But a tax-collector in Jesus’s time was operating a franchise, providing a contracted-out service for the Roman authorities, and having turned over as much money as they wanted, he could turn over those around him for as much money as he could get away with. In ancient Palestine it was not a respectable trade, because to personal greed it added the treachery of fleecing your own people to pay the occupying power. This is a far cry from “Oh, good news, Heather’s passed the Civil Service exam”.
So these two very different people come to the Temple to talk to God about themselves. The Pharisee comes in a spirit of gratitude. He lists all the terrible things he might be, but isn’t, and thanks God for this. And he reminds God of all the good things he does, just in case God hasn’t noticed. “Interesting me”, indeed. The tax-collector knows he’s on a stickier wicket. His only prayer is “God be merciful to me, a sinner”. (You may notice in this the origin of The Jesus Prayer, beloved of our Orthodox brothers and sisters.) “Mercy” is not an easy word for modern ears to hear. We tend to think of mercy as the sort of thing shown to us by an enemy with a sword at our neck – something that it is an option, but not one the enemy need actually bother with, so we are very relieved and pitifully grateful if he does. But that’s not really what mercy means in our Biblical books, and increasingly we have been encouraged to think of it as something more like “loving-kindness”. That changes the picture rather radically. You don’t need to ask loving-kindness of someone who has a sword at your throat, because if there’s any kindness in them at all, they won’t be threatening to stab you. And nor does God threaten to stab us. Sometimes we lose sight of God’s loving-kindness, and these two characters, chatting away in the Temple, show us how. The tax-collector rightly identifies sin as the obstacle that obscures the view, and equally rightly, he confesses his guilt in the sure and certain hope that God forgives, and he will see God’s loving-kindness again. But the Pharisee too shows us an obstacle – which is thinking that there is no obstacle, because we have built a wall of our own righteousness around us. Self-righteousness. And if we are self-righteous, we have no need of God and his love. Jesus tells us that of the two obstacles, this one, the wall of self-righteousness, is far the harder to remove. How can we know God’s love, if we have no need of it? And that is why the tax-collector, who knew his need of God’s love, and put himself above no one else, went to his home justified. As we embark on the adventure of Lent, let us take to heart our need of God’s loving-kindness, and whether by self-denial, taking up a cross, by sacrificial giving, by prayer, let us show forth God’s love in our own love, and be God’s love in the world. And when we talk about ourselves to God, let’s at least try to tell the truth. Amen.
Richard Haggis Littlemore, Oxford February 2013