It is good to be back sharing with you at this Mass, as we reflect together on this challenging story that Jesus tells, that we have just heard proclaimed together. We have had welcome visitors preaching, and other members of our ministry staff team whilst I have been away, so I am glad to be reflecting with you at this Eucharist as we break open God’s Word for us together. I am particularly pleased to be teaching today as we gather around these parables, these stories of Jesus, because the one that I want us to reflect upon, the second of the two stories about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, is a story that I need to hear – myself – often, and reflect upon often, because it poses a great challenge about where we put our trust.
How glad I am, that the Church teaches that our discipleship is not worked out in just one moment of decision or excitement, but that it needs to be struggled over throughout our lives, within the community of the Church, as we struggle together to grow in faith. We need to come again and again to stories like this one that Jesus tells, so that we might be inspired to re-focus our trust upon the God who loving created us, and who lovingly sustains us. Because this story gets right to the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. It is a story about trust.
But firstly a reminder. My understanding of what we do here when we gather together as the Church, is to centre ourselves, as the community of the Church, in our worship of God, to draw near to him for forgiveness and in our prayers, and at his altar, in order that we might go out from this place to live as his disciples. To support us in this, I do encourage you to take home the liturgy booklet at the end of this Eucharist, and to read this Gospel together with the prayers that we have prayed today, each day this week. Because our reading of the Bible here in Church, and our learning together during the homily, is not the end of our growing in faith, but a resource for us to take time to reflect upon further in the days of the week that are ahead.
I know that some of you have the opportunity to discuss these things further in your home groups, or at Man Talk and the Esther Community, and that some of you log on to the website to either read this homily again, or to watch the video of it. However you do it, my expectation is that I will throw out a few ideas, to begin the reflecting that we will all do in our own particular ways in the coming days, not that these moments are the end of that reflection.
In the latest edition of the Cross and Keys newsletter I have offered us some prayers that I find helpful to pray at various times during the day, and I invite you to keep that copy of the newsletter and to use those prayers each week, together with the prayers and the readings in the liturgy booklet, to extend this experience of us being together as the Church at the weekend, into each day of our lives, living for Jesus.
So here are some thoughts about to get us started, not finished: Saint Luke says that the second of the stories that we heard today was told by Jesus to people who trusted in themselves and regarded others with contempt. And he presents us with this image of two men who go up to the Temple to pray.
We have talked about both of these kinds of people before and what they symbolised in the time of Jesus. Pharisees sought to bring renewal to the Jewish community that was wandering away from the teachings of their tradition. They were religious heroes of their day, people who would have been well respected in their community. Tax collectors colluded with the Roman oppressors and were widely despised and hated for working with the enemy.
In the story, as so often happens in the stories of Jesus, things are turned upside down. Notice, by the way, that both of these men have some things in common. They both believe in God, they both know that it is important to pray. But that is where the similarity comes to an end.
We have no reason to believe that Jesus does not intend us to assume that the Pharisee does not do all of the things that he says that he does in his prayer. It is true that he is not a thief, or a rogue or an adulterer and that he prays regularly, fasts and gives away a tenth of his income. In short, we can say that he does all that the religious tradition of his day expects him to do. In contrast the tax collector seems rather pathetic. He stands far off (a reminder that he has no friends except other tax collectors) and with his face pointed to the ground, he is aware of his sinfulness and his inability to be all that he should be.
But the story invites us, Jesus invites us, to move beyond the social standing of these two men, and instead to reflect on who these men have placed their trust. It is a story about who we trust. The one who has done all that is expected of him trusts in his own actions; the one who is aware of his sinfulness trusts only in God, and cries out to him in prayer for mercy.
All of this came alive again for me this week, in a conversation that I had with one of you. I am always grateful when members of this Parish want to reflect with me about questions of faith. In conversation this week with one of you, the question arose about how we can know that we will be in Heaven when we die, with Jesus and with those that we have loved and who by faith we have now handed over to God’s eternal care. I wish I had simply read this story out in that conversation, but I wasn’t clever enough at that moment to have thought to do it; because we were talking in that conversation about the things that you need to do to get to Heaven, and this story answers that question.
The important thing to say – of course – is that there was nothing wrong with the various things that the Pharisee did. He prayed regularly, and so should we, he took time in his fasting and in his giving to remember that all that he had received was a gift from God, and we should do the same. The problem was not with the things that he was doing, the problem was that he was placing his trust in the things that he was doing, rather than in God. It is easy, isn’t it, for us to place our trust in ourselves and in the things that we do. And yet the Christian tradition teaches that we can never do enough by ourselves to stand worthy before God. Or in the words of the Gospel, to be justified, before God.
So what I said in this conversation that I was having a few days ago, about getting to Heaven, I want to say to myself and to all of you today. We have only one hope in which we put our trust. And yes, we try our hardest as disciples of Jesus, and of course we should, but remembering that the things that we do will never be enough, our focus must always return to that hope, to that trust.
That hope is this: that on the final day, when all things will be revealed and made known, that when God looks at you and me, he will not see our faces, but he will see the face of his son, bruised and beaten, left for dead, and yet glorified in his resurrection. How will God see the face of Jesus when he looks at us? It will not be because of what we have done for good or for bad, it will be because we have been baptised into Christ’s body.
Yes we persevere in our discipleship, yes we seek to do good works, and to live as examples of our Saviour. But it is not these things in which we place our trust.
The hope for followers of Jesus, is that we have been joined with Jesus in his death and in his resurrection, in such a way, that when God looks at us, he will his Son, in whom he is well pleased. The Pharisee is self-assured because he has done all that he thinks is required of him. The tax collector cries out to God knowing that he is a sinner. And Jesus says, that it is the tax collector, and not the Pharisee, who goes home justified before God.
Do not place your hope and trust in yourself and the things that you do; place your hope and trust in the one who has inspired you to do them; because in the end, all that will matter is whether or not God sees Jesus in you.