The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      27th October 2019
Two Men Went to the Temple
Jeremy Fletcher

Luke 18. 9 - 14

For a year or so we’ve been holding a “Bible Book Club”. People take a book of the Bible and read it all the way through on theirown, then come together and talk about what they’ve noticed. Yesterday the goup looked at John’s Gospel, and noted how the stories of Jesus are chosen and organised in a completely different way to Matthew, Mark and Luke. But even those ‘Synoptic’ Gospels have their unique features. As we’ve read through Luke this year you may have spotted that it features meal after meal, dinner party after dinner party. Luke is also very keen to teach us to pray. Last week and this week, there have been two stories which appear nowhere else: the parable of the persistent widow and the parable of the two men in the Temple.

Jesus’s hearers would know the scene. Two men go to the Temple to pray. You had to go ‘up’ because the Temple was on a hill. You could go at any time, but it’s likely that this was at the time of afternoon sacrifice of the lamb: the ritual of atonement for sins. People would join their prayers with the offering of incense by the priest on duty. Remember Zechariah in Luke 1: as he does his turn the people are praying outside. Jesus’s story describes a public act of prayer linked to the way atonement is made for wrongdoing, and righteousness, right relationship with God, is restored.

Not so much a classic parable, Jesus describes an actual event, and asks us to work out which of the two people we should emulate. It shouldn’t have been a tough choice. The Pharisee doesn’t say anything odd to Jesus’s hearers. Remember that this is about atonement. Conscientious observers of the law did everything they could to mitigate sin, and to make atonement for it. The Pharisee is grateful for the system which allows him to believe he is in good standing.  He’s especially grateful when he looks at the person next to him. It would be simplistic to say this was a mechanical thing, but it was absolutely normal to be able to say “I’m a Pharisee. I’ve obeyed the law. God has not caused me to become poor or a sinner. Therefore I am in a correct relationship to God.”

In that way of thinking and praying it’s God who has given the law which has made the Pharisee good, not bad. So, carefully looking at himself, and then measuring himself up against the tax collector, he can’t be anything other than justified. There would have been few murmurings in the crowd when Jesus recited the Pharisee’s prayer. In those terms the tax collector is clearly nowhere near a right relationship with God. He serves a hated occupying power, colludes with a system where corruption brings personal rewards, lines his own pocket, and by consorting with the Romans goes against the law and against his people. Measured against the Pharisee he could not hope in a million years that, in God’s eyes, he might be accepted. It all makes perfect sense.

Which is why Jesus tells the parable. Because the things which make perfect sense to us are not that sensible when looked it through God’s eyes. The Pharisee isn’t even praying, really. He’s making a public show of piety, and showing how blessed he is. His trust is in the way he has fulfilled the law. Jesus says that this is not good enough. If we put our trust in what we are and in what we do or haven’t done we are in for trouble. Because, compared to God’s standards, God’s righteousness, no one really measures up. The Pharisee has forgotten what true righteousness, true goodness, looks like, and is settling for an imitation. The Pharisee has forgotten to need God. It’s almost as if God needs people like him. 

Look carefully at the tax collector’s prayer. He’s not just feeling sorry for himself and hoping that things might get a little better, so that he can sleep at night. Remember, this is about atonement. He doesn’t simply want to ease a guilty conscience, he wants to be put back into a right relationship with God. The word often used for mercy in the New Testament is ‘eleison’ – we sing it often in the liturgy, and it’s about divine compassion and pity. Later in Chapter 18 the blind beggar cries out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” Be compassionate. Do something about my sight. That’s eleison, and it’s not the word the tax collector uses. Instead he says ‘hilaskomai’. It’s about reconciliation, propitiation, restorning abroken relationship, making good. “God”, he says,  “put me back in a right relationship with you. Let me be returned to the community of those who are justified. Enable me to belong. I cannot do anything to merit that. Be sacrificed then for me. Let the atoning sacrifice include me.”

No amount of right behaviour can achieve that. Only the complete self giving of the love of God can do that. It is God’s action, not ours, and the tax collector knows it. This parable is about attitude, not achievement. I don’t think Jesus is saying that we should continue to act in a bad way after we have asked for forgiveness. Remember that a tax collector, Zaccheus, is commended in the next chapter for changing his ways and making reparation. Neither do I think Jesus is saying that a disciplined life of giving, praying and fasting is a bad thing. We’ve just had the example of the persistent widow. He’s saying that, when we come in front of God face to face, we can’t trust in anything we are or have done. Our Christian life starts with acknowledging our need, asking God to fill us and forgive us, and being pleased then to be Jesus’s friend. If a person knows that, whatever they do, it won’t be good enough, and that nothing they can do in themselves will change God’s mind, then that makes all the room God needs to do something amazing. 

We need to be careful of two things. Beware of thinking “Thank God I’m not like the Pharisee”. Because that makes us out pharisee the pharisee. And do beware of out tax collecting the tax collector and thinking that you could never belong, that you are not atoneable for. You are not so awful that Christ’s sacrifice gets nowhere near you. Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient, if you will accept it. You do belong. You are included. This is for you. 

How do we come to this table, how do we join in with the community of the people of God? Simply by accepting the love our God and our need. The attitude is all about recognising that we do not presume to come to this table trusting in our own righteousness, but in the manifold and great mercies of God. The words may be familiar: they are from the Prayer of Humble Access. The pharisee and tax collector were praying at the time of the sacrifice of the lamb, whose blood cleansed the sins of the nation. Cleansed and fed by the body and blood of Christ, we are included in the banquet of the kingdom. It is a meal to which all are welcomed who know their need. Come.  Acceptance is all.

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