Sunday, 24 October 2010

Challenging the myth of the scarcity of God’s love

A modern icon of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Sunday 24 October 2010, the Fifth Sunday before Advent

11 a.m., The Cathedral Eucharist

Joel 2: 23-32;
Psalm 65;
II Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18;
Luke 18: 9-14.


May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

There are so many parables and stories in Saint Luke’s Gospel that it often becomes difficult for a preacher who is called on a Saturday night to stand in on a Sunday morning to find original thoughts and ideas, to share new perspectives.

This is particularly true when it comes to parables such as the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 30-37), the Good Shepherd (Luke 15: 3-7), the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32), Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31), and, of course, this morning’s Gospel reading: the story of the Pharisee and the Publican, or the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18: 9-14).

And so there was at least one easy option this morning.

I could have looked for cheap attention by drawing on the fears we all share in this country for the deep spending cuts and higher taxes we expect in the Budget in December.

I could have joked about how we are all going to see tax collectors in a few weeks’ time, and talked about the sneering attitude many now have about those who are supposed to provide leadership in our society but who are dismissed collectively and colloquially as “Pharisees.”

I could have decided to stoop to jokes about how people in Ireland can tell the difference between publicans and tax collectors … how publicans, who were once liberal about cashing cheques, are being squeezed out of business; while tax collectors are squeezing everyone out of business today because of those who were once too liberal with writing cheques for themselves with our money.

In the past, this Gospel story has been rehashed time and again in ways that have become hackneyed, always using it as a lesson about either hypocrisy or the need for sincerity in prayer.

But Sunday preachers too often fail to make connections on Sundays with what goes before and what comes after a Gospel reading.

Our reading this morning is sent within the context of Christ about to make his journey up to Jerusalem for the climax of Saint Luke’s Gospel, which is the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. In the chapters immediately before this reading, we have come by Jesus having a meal with a Pharisee (Luke 14), in places where the tax collectors and the sinners gather to hear what he has to say (Luke 15), and now he is about to take the Twelve with him on his final journey up to Jerusalem (Luke 18: 31).

But before he calls the disciples aside and tells them where they are going, Jesus tells this story of the Pharisee and the Publican, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

There are a number of normally unnoticed details about this story. The Pharisee and the Tax Collector go up to the Temple to pray. That movement up to Jerusalem indicates that these two men are not normal residents of Jerusalem. In a way, they are going there before Jesus. But they are provincial figures. The Pharisee may be a local religious leader, a rabbi in a provincial synagogue. The tax collector may be the richest man in his town, given the predilection of tax collectors at the time to make a nifty commission by squeezing as much as they can out of reluctant tax payers.

So they are the two leading figures among the sort of people who hear Jesus telling this story … one the local religious leader, the other the local get-rich-quick man.

Neither would have been expected to pray in the Temple on a regular basis. They might have gone to the Temple occasionally, but only occasionally, on High Holy Days, like Passover and Pentecost. But this is not a High Holy Day because they are there on their own.

Neither would have felt welcome in the Temple.

The Temple priests at the time were, by-and-large, Sadducees who had little time for Pharisees. And, anyway, the regular place of prayer for a Pharisee was at home on a Sabbath eve, or in the Synagogue.

As for the tax collector, no-one would have expected him to go to the Temple, on High Holy Days or on any other days.

So why does Jesus take these two unlikely lads as people who might be found, however unexpectedly, praying in the Temple?

Jesus has already dined with Pharisees. So, stretch your imagination, and imagine that the Tax Collector Jesus dines with in next Sunday’s reading, Zacchaeus of Jericho, is the Tax Collector who has prayed in the Temple on the same day as the Pharisee. What a turning of the tables that would be!

The Tax Collector praying in the Temple lays himself bare before God; the Pharisee presents himself to God as upright and righteous.

The Tax Collector reminds me of the small boy who is always afraid that his father is only going to see his faults and is worried that every time he sees his father he is going to upbraided or reprimanded.

On the other hand, the Pharisee reminds me of the small boy who is always striving for stars on his copy books, prizes for his essays, medals for sports, not for his own satisfaction but for approval from his father. Yet that same boy is the boy who knows in his heart that when he comes home from school he will be ignored by his father, that he will not get the attention he craves and desires.

How many people do we know who find it difficult to talk about God’s love being like a father’s love for his children, either because their experiences of their fathers was a difficult part of their childhood, or because as children they felt unacknowledged or unloved?

Both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector might have learned that God’s love is not earned by us because of what we do or denied to us because of what we don’t do. God’s love is not dependent on our actions; it’s not a tap we can learn to turn on or turn off.

There is a popular myth that the love of God is in scarce supply. And we perpetuate that myth by demanding that people behave like us, whether that is behaviour according to our individual interpretation of Christian beliefs or our individual interpretation of Christian standards of behaviour.

The truth is there is no scarcity. God’s love flows in over-abundance. And we celebrate and rejoice in the over-flowing abundance of God’s love particularly when we celebrate the Eucharist.

Yet so often our prayer is about trying to turn on the tap of God’s love, or trying to turn off a tap that we worry may wash away God’s love, rather than simply bathing in the presence of God, the light of God, the love of God.

Despite how it’s normally heard, this story is not about prayer, but about how we love and how we love others.

On the surface of it, the Pharisee is a deeply religious man. But he prays for no-one, not for God, not himself, not for others.

On the other hand, the Tax Collector prays for himself. His cry is the cry of the blind man at the gate of Jericho, the cry of the Penitent Thief on the Cross, the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the Sinner.”

And if I crave God’s mercy and love for myself, rather than presenting myself to God as smug and satisfied, then I may, I just may, begin to understand the needs of others too, the availability and abundance of God’s love and mercy for them too.

If I am aware of my own need for God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s light, then I might just understand, be sympathetic to, try to empathise with the needs of others for God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s light.

The tax collector in next Sunday’s Gospel reading feels the strength and the warmth and the abundance of that love. It is so empowering that he is willing to take up the cross, figuratively represented by the tree Zacchaeus climbs. He experiences the mercy of God so abundantly that he pours out mercy in multiplied abundance, mercy that is four times as generous as it ought to be. He is bathed in Christ’s light so much so that he is more than eager to dine with him.

Both Pharisees and Tax Collectors are welcome in this cathedral and at this Eucharist ... for, if the truth were known, we are all like the tax collector and we are all like the Pharisee, in our own different ways.

• God loves us as a true Father, not because of anything we do to please him, or any demands for his attention.

• God loves as a true Son, eager to have that love returned.

• God loves us as Holy Spirit, delighting in the ways we find to share that Divine love with others, with humanity.

When we dine with Christ this morning in the Eucharist, let us not come before him thinking we have earned his mercy or love or approval ... they’re there for the taking.

Let’s not think that we have to prove ourselves as worthy ... God’s worthiness is good enough for me.

Let’s be so eager to dine with him at his table, that we want to share this in multiplied abundance, that we want to invite others, that we want to invite the whole of humanity to the Heavenly Banquet.

And so, may all we think say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday 24 October 2010.