The Pharisee and the tax collector

Sermon October 27 2019 St Chad’s and Lyttelton.

The parable we have heard about the Pharisee and the tax collector is a well-known one. Even the word Pharisee has come to be part of our language, describing anyone who is a hypocrite, following the tiny details of so-called righteousness and the law, while ignoring the greater truth behind the law, and ignoring God’s injunctions to love one another. This Pharisee is so busy telling God about how wonderful he is, that he fails to notice that he is judgmental and unkind.

He contrasts himself with the tax collector. This is a shorthand word for outcast of society. I know that several of you in the congregation have worked for the tax department, and it’s not regarded as such a dreadful occupation these days. I wasn’t put off marrying Kevin on account of his having been a tax collector! But let’s look at tax collectors in Jesus’ day. These were people appointed by the Roman occupiers to collect the tax that would pay for oppressing the very people who had paid it. They had no say in who governed them – they had no elected leaders. At least here in New Zealand the tax that Parliament authorises to be gathered is voted for by our elected representatives.

The tax collectors in Jesus’ day were working for the Romans, and, what’s more, because they were local people, they were seen as betraying their own. On top of this, which is already bad enough, many tax collectors would take more than they were entitled to, enriching themselves at the expense of their own already downtrodden people. On Tuesday our reading was about Zacchaeus who was like that.

We see the respectable religious leader contrasted with the hated tax collector. Jesus had a habit of turning everything upside down, and instead of looking at what the tax collector did for a living, for what he had done in the past, Jesus shows him as a humble man, who acknowledges his sin, bowing low before God. It is this humility that Jesus praises. He has no time for the self-righteous, those who think they’re wonderful and that other people are worthless.

What can this teach us? God sees the heart, and doesn’t care about outward appearances. It’s all very well to be following the outward signs of a Godly life, but is your heart really following God’s word? Are you loving your neighbour? Are you forgiving, seventy times seven, those who really annoy you? It’s not easy being a true follower of Christ. The inward thoughts of the heart are more important than outward observances.

This might sound rich coming from a person dressed up in an alb and a stole and a chasuble like I am, and if I were just wearing these clothes to place myself above you, or separate, then may God convict my heart of vanity. But this is a uniform that takes my individuality away to another place, and puts me here as a priest, wearing the same uniform as thousands of years of priests before me, to help us all understand some more about God.

When I was a girl, it was very important to wear Sunday best to church. But God ministers to everyone, everywhere, no matter what you are wearing, or what day of the week it is.

I popped in to church on Friday on the way home from my gardening job, filthy and wearing trackpants, no clerical gear, but as a Christian I could still minister to a man I met with words of kindness.

Dear friends, you can still minister too, no matter what you are wearing. No matter where you are, or what you are doing, you can still speak words of love and kindness into any situation. Even if you feel at a disadvantage, sitting in a hospital gown that doesn’t do up properly at the back – they’re awful aren’t they! -you are so much more than your outward appearance.

Let’s look at where the Pharisee went wrong. He was so quick to blow his own trumpet, and to disparage someone else. In our society, it can be a bit dog-eat-dog, can’t it? We can only get ahead by pulling someone else down and trampling them in the way up. Reality TV encourages this way of life. But Jesus shows us in this parable that his way is upside down from that – it is humility that will lead us to fellowship with God.

Timothy was a man like that. He had worked so hard for God that he felt poured out like a libation, a sacrifice offering. At first glance, it looks as if Timothy is talking a bit like the Pharisee, giving a list of his virtues. But instead of talking about religious duties and observance, Timothy talks about being used up.

Have you ever felt used up for the kingdom? It’s ok to be like this. After all, what are we for? We do need to avoid burnout, but if you go home from a day in the bookshop, or the foot clinic, or working in the garden, or many other things

around the parish, you will feel tired and in need of a rest. It’s a good feeling though isn’t it, knowing you have been working for God and reaching God’s people. Notice too that Timothy doesn’t put anyone else down, just talks about how he feels.

We can come to God in prayer like this – we can always tell God how we are feeling. If we are completely exhausted and burnt out from serving God’s kingdom here in the parish, coming to God in prayer is a good place to be. We can have a good moan, a good cry, even rant about how unfair it is that we have to do so much, but don’t forget that prayer is a two sided conversation. It’s really important in prayer to not only talk, but to listen. That way we may hear what God is trying to say to us. We may feel God’s comforting arms as we snuggle in and let our guard down, like a child coming to a parent for comfort.

Can you imagine the proud Pharisee snuggling on God’s lap for a cuddle? He would probably have to take off his silly tall hat to do that, and it would be so beneath his dignity! But God wants us to come, humble like a little child, snivelling and afraid, seeking that comfort that only God can give.

Take the example of the tax collector this week, come humbly to your God, and acknowledge that you are a sinner. Then receive the forgiveness God has offered once and for all on the cross, and know that you are loved.

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