Saturday, October 27, 2007

Something to Ponder?

Sunday 28th October 2007
Luke 18: 9-14

When Cardinal Basil Hume, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England, was told that he had terminal cancer, his first thought was, ‘If only I could start all over again, I would be a much better monk, a much better abbot, a much better bishop.’ But then he reflected and he said, ‘Then I thought, how much better if I can come before God when I die, not to say, “Thank you that I was such a good monk, good abbot, good bishop,” but rather, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” For if I come empty-handed, then I will be ready to receive God’s gift. God be merciful to me a sinner.’ *

How many of us share those same first thoughts as Basil Hume… I know I do at times, “if only I’d been a better mum, a more daring Christian, a better vicar and so on.” And yet we as Christians, like Basil Hume, need to come round to a different way of thinking - so that my aim isn’t to stand before God and say, “thank you that I was a good mum, a daring Christian, a good vicar” but “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Think about how you express your Christian life, what you do in the church, perhaps how you pray for God’s people, your acts of service and beware of the danger of coming before God with these things as badges of righteousness. God delights when we serve him well, BUT it’s not these things that make us right and just and safe with him, it is his mercy when we recognise our need of him.

It’s not that God doesn’t want me to be the best mum, the best, Christian and the best Vicar I can be, and you to express your life and faith in the best way you can, but it’s that most importantly we come to recognise that our righteousness comes from a humility before God and receiving his welcome, his forgiveness, and his righteousness. And then our response is to be and do the best we can before him.

Jesus is pretty clear about this in the parable he told, and Luke very generously gives us a one sentence introduction to the parable, stating the reasons Jesus told this story – firstly to challenge those who trusted in themselves for righteousness and secondly to challenge those who regarded others with contempt.

And so we’re introduced to the Pharisee and the Tax collector.
The poor old Pharisee gets such a pounding doesn’t he!

It could even be disturbingly amusing to think that we might read this parable with a sense of, ‘well at least I’m not like that Pharisee,’ when thinking that makes us just like him! And this was a respectable man, a religious man, a man who followed the disciplines of faith – he prayed, he tithed, he fasted – BUT he looked to his own actions to be right with God and not to God’s mercy; as well as looking contemptuously at the other man.

And then there’s the tax-collector. Tax collectors were far from popular folk in Jesus’ day. They were either considered dishonest – becoming rich from their excessive tax takings (think of Zaccheus, the tax collector, who having encountered Jesus, promised to pay back much of what he had stolen) - or they were thought of by the Jewish people as colluding with the Roman occupiers – not very popular all round!

So the man of God stood praying, and noticing the tax collector, he expressed to God his sense of gratitude that he wasn’t like the other man.

Who is it that we might sometimes catch ourselves looking down upon? Who is it that we might hold up against our own standing with God and declare less worthy than ourselves? Do we sometimes hold the things we do before God and expect those things to open the door to heaven and to God when it is Jesus, dying on the cross with our sins laid upon himself, who has opened that door?

‘Be merciful to me a sinner’ was the man’s prayer and that needs to become or remain our prayer – and not only that, our attitude of heart too. And THEN, knowing the freedom of God’s forgiveness, the joy of receiving his mercy – we can go out into the world and serve in grateful response, we can work in his church in grateful response, but we must never lose sight of God’s free gift of grace.

Luke is very generous in his communication of Jesus’ teaching here – for those of us who like simple statements there’s his brief summary: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

And for those of us that like the storytelling or visual form of teaching there’s the story itself, illustrating the same thing but giving a specific example that would have immediately communicated to those first hearers and readers what Jesus was getting at.

Who might we today exchange for the Pharisee and the tax collector so that this story challenges us as it would have back then? The stereotypes would probably shock, as I imagine they did when Jesus first made his point. Because the people’s expectation would have been that the Pharisee was the ‘good’ man and the tax collector the ‘bad’ man. And that’s just the point – it’s God’s mercy that leads to righteousness and not what we do. So I’m not going to insert an alternative Pharisee and tax collector for us – but just a reminder to guard ourselves from being like the Pharisee and heeding the warning, ‘do not trust in yourself for righteousness or regard others with contempt.’

But, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner.’

Amen.


*taken from 'Spicing up your Speaking' - Simon Coupland

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