I recently posted some notes on the passage in Luke 18 to help those of you preaching on this passage. It so happens I’ve had to write a sermon on it myself now! So here is my script (written using the dictation process built into the Mac operating system). A few things to note:
1. I would call this an expository sermon, in the sense that the aim is to lead meaning out from the passage which can then be applied in the context of the hearers. Most of the points I have made are related to the exegetical observations in my other post; you can have fun matching them up!
2. But expository preaching does not mean line by line preaching. Jesus didn’t tell his story verse by verse, so I don’t see why I should preach on it that way either.
3. I do not usually preach from a full script, but have written this out for a project with the College of Preachers. I would normally preach for longer than this, but the time given to me was around 10 minutes.
4. One of the key things that I’ve been developing in my preaching recently is the rhetorical strategy of taking the congregation down a path in one direction, and then suddenly reversing direction. If you know the name of this strategy, please let me know! This is precisely what we see Jesus doing in this parable, so it seemed an appropriate way to preach on it. (The interesting thing in this case is that the path I go down is one that suggests Jesus was not doing this, and the new path is the discovery that in fact he was!)
5. Some years ago Joachim Jeremias argued that in general parables have one point and one point only. Not everyone was convinced by this, but in this parable I think it probably holds true. I was interested to observe in myself that my sermon really only has one point.
We all love a good story and we particularly love a good story with goodies and baddies. The more clearly these are differentiated better. The goodies are whiter than white and the baddies are blacker than black. All the recent action films I’ve seen I’ve seen are just like this. There’s always a stark contrast between the innocence and vulnerability of the good guys, (‘guys’ in the inclusive sense of course) and single-minded villainy of the bad guys. As Shakespeare put it ‘like bright metal on a sullen ground’ the hero will ‘show more goodly and attract more eyes/Than that which hath no foil to set it off.’ And all this is just what we need. Such stories are easy entertainment. After all, if the characters were a bit more complex, if good and bad were more subtly intermingled, we might have to engage brains, do a bit of thinking, and come to terms with the complexities of real life. And in stories that’s what we usually want to avoid.
So when we come to that master storyteller Jesus, it’s no surprise that we find this contrast, this stark contrast, between the good and the bad—and to be honest we are relieved. Enter stage left the Pharisee (boo hiss!)—Over pious, confident in himself, stuck up, and altogether rather religious, just the sort of irritating pompous person that we can’t stand. (And of course we know from other parts of the gospels that the Pharisees were the baddies with a Capital B.) Off he goes and stands by himself, well yes of course he would, he is too good for everyone else. And as he stands by himself, he prays to himself. Why would God want to listen to the self-satisfied words of this religious prig? Bla-de-bla-de-bla. I do everything I’m supposed to. Bla-de-bla-de-bla. I am just so perfect. Bla-de-bla-de-bla. I even do more than the law requires. And off he goes, satisfying no one but himself.
Now enter stage right the humble tax collector and sinner. We can identify with him. We know we’re not perfect. We are certainly not like that hypocritical self-righteous Pharisee–oh no. The tax collector is not very good. He doesn’t do all the religious things he supposed to. He is compromised, he is a failure, and he knows it. In fact he’s just like us. ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner.’ The perfect prayer. Not least because it is one we find easy to pray.
And of course it is he, and not the pompous Pharisee, he goes away right with God. God sees his failures, and God forgives his sin. Of course he does. That’s his job. So when we come before God, compromised, failed and let’s be frank rather pathetic, then we can go away with a clean sheet and we can breathe easy. No need to change, as long as we keep on saying sorry. Here endeth the first lesson.
But hang on a minute. Is that it? Does Jesus tell this dramatic story of black and white, of goodies and baddies, just to confirm our prejudice, just to let us carry on living our mediocre lives in peace and quiet? Surely there is some mistake?
Most of Jesus’ stories are shocking and disturbing, they mostly upset the known order of things, they challenge and disturb us with the surprising and breathtaking grace of God. So what’s gone wrong?
Well, for a start, the Pharisees are not the baddies, at least not in a simplistic way we think of them. They were the ones who are passionate about obeying God. They were the ones who thought God was holy and that that meant something for us, it meant we need to change our ways. They were the ones who had learned the central lesson of the Old Testament scriptures: that if we don’t follow God’s ways, if we don’t choose life, then judgement will come. They took this seriously, and they did something about it – and encouraged others to as well.
In fact, Jesus himself commended them, and instructed his disciples to follow their teaching! ‘So you must be careful to do everything they tell you’, he says in Matthew 23. ‘But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.’ In other words they don’t in fact go far enough! You need to out Pharisee the Pharisees! ‘For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ (Matt 5.20). Oh dear.
And in case we have missed the point, Jesus echoes their teaching. Should we be like other people or should we be different? You are the light of the world, you are the salt of the earth. But if you lose your saltiness, if you just become like other people, you will be thrown out! What about all that fasting stuff? Well, Jesus says not ‘If you fast…’ but ‘When you fast…’ He seems to expect that we will make it a regular habit, once he has gone. Hmmm, a bit like the Pharisee. And again he says not ‘If you give… but ‘When you give…’ Regular, sacrificial giving is expected to be the hallmark of Christian discipleship, even to the point of holding things in common (Acts 2). In fact, the Pharisee isn’t praying to himself, he is praying quietly, and modestly, rather than praying out in a loud voice.
And what about the tax collector, the hero of the story as we read it, the one who does not rely on his own works, but throws himself unreservedly on the grace of God? Well it’s a good job he does, because there’s not much else good to say about him. Tax collection wasn’t regulated then as it is now. The right to collect taxes was given to the highest bidder. And that meant giving it to the person who was most prepared to fleece friends, family, and neighbours for the sake of giving money to the occupying power. The tax collector stands at a distance for very good reason. He doesn’t have any friends left. But there is worse. He is not only engaging in a dishonest trade, he is also colluding with the spiritual power opposed to God’s people. Look at the central expectation of the coming of Messiah, according to Zechariah at the beginning of this gospel:
‘Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and set them free… He has raised up for us a mighty saviour… (to do what?) to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.’
Throughout his teaching, Jesus is constantly confronting us with a need to take sides. Are you for me, against me? And tax collector looks very much as though has chosen the wrong side.
So unfortunately, this story is not as simple as my latest action film. In many ways the Pharisee is the goody, and the tax collector is the baddy. And Jesus’ listeners would have known this perfectly well.
So what’s the lesson Jesus is teaching us? It’s this: that even good people can have the wrong attitude. That they can so focus on their goodness, that they forget about grace. It is not that the Pharisee is mistaken in his devotional practices, and that the tax-collector is right to do nothing other than throw himself on the mercy of God. Jesus makes clear time and again that to follow him is to live a demanding life. Turning to him involves real change and commitment.
But as Luke’s introduction highlights, the issue that Jesus is focussing on in this story is the attitude to such practices. Good practices are good…but they worth nothing without right attitude, and even if the good practices are absent, right attitude to God is the thing that really counts. And the heart of that right attitude is recognising that God’s grace comes to us, by whatever means, as pure gift.
Each morning I go around our house, opening the curtains. It is a more laborious job than previously, because we have moved into a house where lots of the curtains have draw cords and tiebacks, so it takes quite some time and effort. But when I put the effort in, I am rewarded with the sun streaming in and lighting up the room. Does the sun stream in because I have made the effort to pull back the curtains? In one sense, of course. But should I be proud that my effort has merited the sun streaming in? Of course not! It still comes as gift.
When we follow the disciplines of life that the Spirit of God forms in us (as we surely should), God’s presence still comes to us as unmerited gift.