Just for once, I’m back preaching from the Lectionary this weekend. At present I don’t have a sermon series at my smaller church. Last Sunday I sat in on a Local Preacher taking the service there, because he is candidating for the ministry. He took last Sunday’s Lectionary of Luke 18:1-8, so I am following that up with this week’s passage that comes straight after that. It doesn’t make for a series, but hopefully it creates a little bit of continuity.
There is a nonsense abroad in Christian circles that says, ‘We all believe the same.’ Because of our unity in Christ, all the Christian denominations believe the same.
The local churches in my home town were mature enough to recognise this. They held public meetings to discuss the differences. One evening, the subject was baptism. An Anglican vicar , a Baptist elder and a Catholic priest each agreed to speak. The Anglican sat behind a table and gave his talk. So did the Baptist.
But when the Catholic priest had his turn, he took his chair from behind the table and set it down right in front of the first row of the audience.
“Good,” he said. “I like to see the whites of the eyes before I attack!”
I am not about to do that this morning, but our reading is a story about drawing near. How can we draw near to God? Should we draw near to God? Does God draw near to us, and if so, how? All these questions are present in the story we traditionally call ‘The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican’.
It’s a deceptive parable. It’s almost too easy. We’ve known it for years, and it’s clear to us who the ‘goodie’ is and who the ‘baddie’ is. Jesus draws his characters as clearly as a cartoon. It’s like workmen have dug a huge hole in the road and put so many warning signs around it, we can’t fail to choose the right path around it and avoid falling in.
Or can we?
Take the Pharisee himself. We are so programmed to hear the word ‘pharisee’ and hear warning sirens in the New Testament that we are in the presence of someone who opposed Jesus. And clearly the Pharisee in this story is not one of the good guys, either.
But look at what he does. He goes to public worship. He prays. He seeks to live a virtuous life. What’s not to like? Aren’t these things we aspire to do, and to do well? After hearing last week about the need to persist in prayer, you can’t accuse this man of failing in that regard.
And he certainly wants to draw near to God. Wouldn’t he have sung ‘Bold I approach the eternal throne’ with the same vigour as a convinced Methodist? Wouldn’t he have affirmed every bit as much as the Protestant Reformers his own access to God? He could stride into the presence of God in his Temple.
Except … we know from the introduction to the parable that here is a man ‘who trusted in [himself] that [he was] righteous and regarded others with contempt’ (verse 9). When he attends this public act of worship at the Temple, he chooses to ‘[stand] by himself’ (verse 11). This is more than just sitting quietly in a pew on your own. This is someone who didn’t want to associate with the other worshippers. He despised the Jewish emphasis on the importance of community.
What’s he doing? He’s protecting his purity before God. He knows and keeps the Jewish Law – hence the reference to fasting twice a week and tithing his income (verse 12). But if he comes into contact with one of the worshippers who doesn’t do this as faithfully as he does, then he becomes unclean. So he’d better take precautions.
You might think this is like the spiritual equivalent of when we take sensible medical precautions to prevent ourselves from catching diseases, like cleaning our hands with alcohol gel before going onto a hospital ward or not having close contact with someone having chemotherapy, so they don’t get an infection that prevents their treatment. Those kinds of measures are sensible. The Pharisee wants to prevent what he sees as spiritual infection because he has a superiority complex. He thinks he is spiritually pure, unlike those sharing space with him (and no more) in the Temple.
Does that sound like some of our attitudes? Of course, we hope not. But there may be certain kinds of people – or even specific individuals – whom we avoid for fear of ‘contamination’. I’m not referring to the kind of problem where someone is a bad influence on us, and we know we don’t have the moral strength to stop them dragging us down. The Pharisee is different. He thinks he’s superior. He doesn’t think he’s lacking in moral fibre.
And there are times when we come across like that. When the public pronouncements of the Church are only about the people, lifestyles and behaviours we condemn, then we sound like the Pharisee. When we portray ourselves as people who have got it all together, implying that others haven’t, then we join the Pharisee of this story.
What is the problem here? Luke puts it succinctly when he talks about people ‘who trusted in themselves that they were righteous’ (verse 9). Because that’s the problem. That’s a contradiction of the Gospel. That stands against everything Jesus came to achieve. The whole point of what we believe is that none of us can trust in our own righteousness to stand before God. Every one of us is a sinner. Every one of us needs grace and mercy from the love of God. Forgetting that is the most dangerous thing in the world.
Yet sometimes we do. Look at how people outside the Church perceive us, and you will realise that we do come across as people who think we are morally superior. That’s one reason why some people feel they can’t join us. We’re too good to be true, and we’re too quick to condemn.
Now you know and I know that we don’t intend to communicate that message. But it’s what people hear from us. Many people don’t want to come near to us, or come near to God, because we’ve given the impression that faith is all about being good enough for God – we are, and they aren’t.
Perhaps a test of our hearts on this one is how we react when someone falls from grace. Do we look down our noses at them? Do we gloat? Or do we ask God to be merciful to them, and say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’?
The Pharisee in this parable, then, might be a little more uncomfortably close to us than we might like to believe sometimes.
What, then, of the Publican (or the tax collector, as our translation calls him)? Here is the very person whom the Pharisee would have treated as unclean. He didn’t keep the Jewish Law. He associated with the wicked occupying Roman forces. If anyone deserved the label ‘sinner’ it was him. Described as a thief and a rogue by the Pharisee, he too doesn’t stand with the rest of the community at the altar. He stands ‘far off’ (verse 13), because he doesn’t believe he deserves to be there. Deep down he knows exactly who he is. The Pharisee is right. He most certainly is ‘a sinner’ (verse 13).
He makes me think of various people. I think of an English teacher my sister and I had at secondary school. It was a Church of England school, and rather high up the candle. One day, this teacher was talking with my sister about why he went to a high Anglican church, full of ceremony and incense. He told my sister that he envied her ‘low church’ faith, with its easy sense of intimacy with God, but in his case he just needed to go to worship to express the fact that he was a sinner.
Or I think of several church members I have met in Methodism who reject all sense that they may draw near to God. Indeed, some use the language of ‘reverence’ to remain at a distance from him. They hardly dare draw near.
But those people don’t display the anguish of the publican. He beats his chest (verse 13), a common sign even to this day in the Middle East of either intense anger or deep anguish. It is particularly a sign of extreme pain when a man, rather than a woman, does it. And by beating his chest, he is pointing to the darkness in his heart. This is a man full of remorse.
So what does he cry out? ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’ (verse 13). That’s what our translation says, and many English versions render it similarly.
But there is a more literal translation, and it makes more sense in the context of the story. The man says, ‘God, make an atonement for me, a sinner’. And since the man is attending either the morning or the evening sacrifice at the Temple, this fits perfectly. The priests are sacrificing an animal as a sin offering for the people. The publican, who feels he cannot stand with those considered righteous, cries out, not just generally for mercy, but that the sacrifice being made at the altar might be for him. ‘God, make an atonement for me, a sinner.’
At that moment, the priests are making atonement for the people. But it won’t be very long before God himself makes atonement for this sinner and all other sinners. Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God, will go to the Cross and bear the sins of the world. In Christ, God will make atonement for the publican. The publican’s prayer will be answered.
No wonder he is the one who goes home ‘justified’ before God, according to Jesus (verse 14). He is made to be in the right with God, because God himself will atone for his sins in Jesus Christ. God will remove the sentence of guilt from him. God will take away the power of guilt from over his life. Through Christ, he will be in the right with God.
You may recall that some years ago, Cliff Richard recorded a song called ‘From a Distance’. Originally written by a songwriter called Julie Gold, the chorus says, ‘God is watching us from a distance’. Yet that is not the case here. God is drawing close to sinners. He atones for our sins at the Cross. He offers us new life at the Empty Tomb.
So if like the publican we cry out for atonement, because we are so aware we are sinners, the good news is that we no longer need stand at a distance like he did. God is not at a distance from us. He is close. He took on human flesh for us. He died for us. He rose for us.
We might be nervous about the way in which the Pharisee attempted to draw near to God, and decide we want none of that arrogant presumption. Quite right, too.
But just because we have seen bad examples of drawing near to God, does not mean we should stay at a distance from him. Even though our sins do put us far from him, God is merciful and does not intend to let that state of affairs remain. We cry out for atonement, and God himself provides it.
And therefore I pray, as we are in the early stages of our relationship as minister and congregation, we will not fall into the trap of staying far off from God. What we need to do is reject the self-righteousness of the Pharisee and embrace the humility of the publican. As we humbly cast ourselves upon the mercy of God, we find he provides all we need in the Atonement of Christ through his death. As Matt Redman has said, ‘The Cross has said it all.’
Friends, let our journey together these next few years be based on that foundation.