J. Barry Vaughn. October 24, 2010.
I want to tell you a story, or rather, I want to retell one of Jesus’ stories. Jesus lived in a world of villages, an agrarian, rural world, and this is reflected in most of his parables. He tells us of the sower whose seed fell among rocks and weeds, as well as nourishing soil; he tells us of the wealthy farmer who built more storehouses but was poor in the things of the spirit; and he tells us of the fishermen whose nets are bursting with fish of every kind. But the parable in today’s gospel reading concerns two persons who were both more urban and also somewhat less universal than the figures in most of Jesus’ parables. They are a Pharisee and a tax collector.
The two could not have been more different. One was a success and the other was a failure. But which was the success and which was the failure? That is the question that makes the story interesting. The Pharisee is a moral success--the Publican is a moral failure. However, although the Pharisee was a moral success, he was a religious failure, and the Publican, although a moral failure, was a religious success.
Now let’s not stereotype the Pharisees. They were a renewal movement within first century Judaism. Their goal was to make it easier to observe the commandments of the Torah. And they were no more or less likely than anyone else to be hypocritical. Frankly, hypocrisy is a temptation common to all religions. Several years ago, a Harvard professor greeted my friend Peter Gomes before Easter and said, “Well, Dr. Gomes, I expect that you’ll be celebrating Easter in Memorial Church with all those hypocrites.” Peter replied, “That’s right, Professor. Why don’t you join us? There’s always room for one more!”
So the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable stands for me, for you, for any of us who forget that it is we who need God and not God who needs us. In place of the word “Pharisee,” we might use the word “priest” or “bishop” or “theologian” . . . you fill in the blank. The Pharisee in Jesus' story reminds me of the great but less than modest Sir Winston Churchill of whom it was said: "There but for the grace of God ... goes God".
So much for the Pharisee, now who was the tax collector. He was in the employ of the Romans and collected taxes for them. In other words, he worked for the foreign rulers who occupied Palestine. He made his living by extorting money. He was a collaborator and a crook. But although the tax collector was a moral failure, he was a religious success. The tax collector in Jesus’ parable stands for the alcoholic who has finally admitted that he is an alcoholic. He stands for the unwed mother who is struggling to give her children a better life and more opportunities than she could ever hope for herself. He is the person who has come to the end of his rope and has let go -- acknowledging his failure and casting himself into the hands of a loving God.
But there is not as much difference between these two characters as may seem: the tax collector is a failed Pharisee. The tax collector is the one who has realized that he cannot climb up to God on a ladder of accomplishments. When we realize that God is not impressed by our degrees or bank accounts or impressive job titles, that we cannot draw near to God by piling success upon success, we are tempted to despair. But when in the dark nights of our soul we say, "God have mercy upon us", God draws near to us.
A useful technique of Bible study and meditation is to put ourselves in the Biblical event about which we are reading. Unfortunately I like to flatter myself. I imagine myself going to the manger with the wise men, although in reality I probably would have stayed home rather than risk the long and difficult journey. I imagine myself remaining awake with Jesus in Gethsemane, although I know that I would certainly have snoozed with the other disciples. And I like to think that I would have risen early with Mary Magdalene on Easter, although I hate etting up early, so why I think I would have behaved differently on the first Easter, I don't know.
If you were to put yourself into the reading from Luke's Gospel, which character would you be? The Pharisee or the tax collector? Where would we put ourselves? You don't have to tell me; you don't have to tell anybody.
We would like to think that we would be the penitent tax collector rather than the proud Pharisee. But would we? It's all too easy to come before God with a list of our accomplishments. It's hard, desperately hard, to come before God with a catalog of our moral failures.
I want to tell you a story about a failed Pharisee. I have a friend named Bartle. He's not a real person; he's a character in a novel, but I feel as though I know him. Bartle was a priest of the Church of England who experienced a divorce and now is carrying on an affair with a young, Jewish woman. Bartle's life is a mess. He has failed at everything he has ever attempted. Bartle's one remaining link to the church is his annual confession at Christmas.
The story begins as Bartle sits in the back of a dingy old church near London's King's Cross Station. The portion of the psalter assigned for that day includes the phrase, "'I will walk in my house with a perfect heart. I will take no wicked thing in hand; I hate the sins of unfaithfulness: there shall no such cleave unto me....", but Bartle could think of nothing but the ways he had been unfaithful to everything important to him: unfaithful to the priesthood and, above all, unfaithful to God. He hated going to confession but felt that his life would fall apart if he abandoned this last bit of spiritual discipline. What was the point of confessing his sins, Bartle wondered? God's law was "an impossible counsel of perfection". Then, as he was tempted toward the absolute sin of despair, another text occurred to him: "'My strength is made perfect in weakness.' These words, for Bartle, were the first stage of a journey leading up to the only Love who was fully good and true".
'Lord God,' said Bartle in his inmost soul, 'My priesthood is a gift which, like all your other gifts, I have wasted and squandered and spoilt. But, even now, let my very imperfection be itself priestly. I know nothing of you. My attempts to follow you have all failed, again and again and again.... [But] even now, as I promise to do better, I know that I have nothing to look forward to but failure and more failure. But it is to you that I come, dear Physician of life. I no longer dare to ask to be perfect, even as you are perfect. I dare only to kneel in your presence in all my muddle and impurity and doubt and offer these things to you. Muddle, impurity and doubt is all that I have to offer you, O holy child of Bethlehem. O friend of sinners, O helpless child, this is my offering to you.'
When he came out of the church into the dark, dewy evening... Bartle felt the world transfigured.
(from Love Unknown by A.N. Wilson, pp. 151-155.)
Note one more thing about today’s prable – its location. It takes place in a house of prayer, a temple. Like the Pharisee and the tax collector, we find ourselves in a place of prayer. The question for us is, Have we come up to the Temple to brag about our accomplishments or to acknowledge our failures?
This morning we will solemnly and corporately confess our sins: "We have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone." And then I will affirm that God forgives you and forgives me.
Now Episcopalians maintain (rightly) that it is not necessary to confess our sins to a priest We usually say that the proper time and place for the confession of sins is the quiet of our own homes or in the moments before worship. But I must admit to you that my own spiritual discipline is defective. I do not do a serious moral and spiritual inventory of myself often enough. And as for the moments before worship, when I am not leading worship, I am more likely to spend that time in idle conversation than I am in self-reflection or careful consideration of my neighbors' needs. So, I believe that we need public prayers of confession on a regular basis. And we especially need them when we come up to the temple to pray so that we can remind ourselves that we are on the side of the Publican, not the Pharisee.
Here in this temple today, we are all failed Pharisees. Like the Pharisee, we offer God our success. The bad news is our success or our accomplishments are not enough. The good news is that God accepts us as we are; God wants our failures, too.
There are great talents and gifts in this congregation. Among us and our families and friends there is wealth and accomplishment beyond the dreams of most persons on the earth. But I know that I personally struggle with a sense of failure. No matter how much I accomplish, it never seems to be enough. And I don't believe that I am the only one who feels that way.
Offer thanks to God for jobs and homes, for spouses and children, for degrees and honors. But then look beyond the accomplishments at the failures, for they are there, too, and offer them to God.
Today's Gospel reading invites us to offer God our moral failures. Offer God the alienation that has come between you and your spouse. Offer God the destructive behavior that has you in its grip. Offer God the hopelessness, verging on despair that makes you wonder whether or not to get out of bed in the morning. Ultimately, each of us, like Bartle, must come to God on our knees and pray the prayer that Bartle prayed: "...dear Physician of life. I no longer dare to ask to be perfect, even as you are perfect. I dare only to kneel in your presence in all my muddle and impurity and doubt and offer these things to you. Muddle, impurity and doubt is all that I have to offer you, O holy child of Bethlehem. O friend of sinners, O helpless child, this is my offering to you."
There is muddle and impurity and doubt in my life and in the life of each person here. For to say that we are muddled and impure and doubting is simply to say that we are human. And when we recognize that that is the way things are and in this life always will be, we are tempted to despair but instead we should offer it to God, for God is in the business of taking "muddle and impurity and doubt" and replacing them with forgiveness and healing. After all, God took a Cross, the cruellest instrument of judicial murder ever devised, and turned it into the instrument of our redemption and the sign of eternal hope.