A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Joan Claring-Bould, on the 16th of October 2022

Lk. 18:9-14 The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector

In today’s Gospel Jesus tells a story about two men who came to the temple to pray. Jews were required to pray three times a day and so it was not unusual for people to go to the temple for private prayer. You would expect to find the Pharisee in the temple acting religious in public, but as in all of the parable’s of Jesus there is a twist in the story. The second Jew is a tax collector.

First let us look at the Pharisee. His prayer reveals a couple of things about him.

First, he carries a measuring stick. He is keen to measure himself against everyone else. After offering a brief word of gratitude to God, he discloses his measurements. He is not like other men; in fact, he’s better than they are. When he measures himself against others, especially against this tax collector (18:11), he declares his superiority.

Then notice, he carries a résumé. Notice how he rehearses what he has done? He says, “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (v. 12). He’s boasting about what he’s done. He is, as Jesus said, trusting in himself that he is righteous. It is striking that this man is bragging about himself in the temple before God in prayer. He’s reciting his résumé to God like he’s going to impress Him. It seems that he is not really praying to God but rather talking to himself.

Our attention then turns to the tax collector. Tax collectors were hated in biblical times and were regarded as sinners. They were Jews who worked for the Romans, so this made them traitors. They were not paid an actual wage by the Romans, they were expected to take extra money and keep some for themselves. Not surprisingly, many tax collectors were dishonest and abused this system by taking far too much.

The tax collector is so painfully aware of his sins and unworthiness before God that he cannot even lift his eyes as he stands in the back of the temple, far from the altar. Pounding his breast in sorrowful contrition over his sins, he can manage only the desperate plea, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” In the Greek text, it actually reads “the sinner.” His focus is very much on his own sins, not the sins of others, and especially on his need for God’s mercy.

Jesus concludes the story by telling us that “this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 14).

“Pride is your greatest enemy, humility is your greatest friend.” So, said the late John R.W. Scott, a well-known British journalist. He went on to say:

“Pride and arrogance are conspicuous among the rich, the powerful, the successful, the famous, and celebrities of all sorts, and even some religious leaders.

Humility, on the other hand, is often seen as weakness, and few of us know much about it or pursue it.”

In Mere Christianity C.S.Lewis writes;
“According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil:”

 The Pharisee in the story, and remember he is a caricature, is the epitome of pride. Notice that his prayer has no elements of confession. He does not ask forgiveness for his sins, perhaps because he believes he has nothing to confess. Nor is there any word of praise or thanksgiving to God. His prayer is all about him.  Even the thanks he does offer is designed to exalt himself and place himself above others whom he treats with disdain.

Now having recognised this destructive behaviour in the Pharisee it would be easy to conclude that pride is the special problem of those who are rich, powerful, successful, famous, or self-righteous. Needless to say, that is not the case. Pride takes many shapes and forms and affects all of us to some degree. 

Yet there is, of course, a good type of pride. Paul, for example, was proud of the churches he had established. But this was not arrogant or self-exalting pride. He made clear that his accomplishments were the fruit of God’s grace to him and through him (Rom. 15:17–19).

At the same time, there is no doubt as to the pivotal place of humility in the life of a Christian.

Philippians 2:6-11

Christ Jesus was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,[a] being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

If we are really honest with ourselves, we recognise like the tax collector, that our lives are not perfect, and that we need the forgiveness and the grace of God. That takes humility. And like the tax collector, if we are anguished over our sin we can be can be assured of God’s boundless love and forgiveness in Christ. That is why we begin each Eucharist with the words Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy upon us) and a confession of sin. No amount of good works in themselves can rid us of our sin. Only God can set us free from the tyranny of sin however great or small. And doing that is exactly what delight’s God’s heart!

Looking primarily at ourselves, and comparing ourselves to others, can make both pride and humility vices, but looking away from the ourselves to Christ turns these attributes to virtues. So, when we look to the Lord, both pride and humility can become true virtues.

We can have pride in ourselves, pride in our families, pride in our communities, pride in our Cathedral (as I hope we do!) as long as we always acknowledge that all that we are, everything we have, all that we are able to achieve, is a gift and a blessing from God, and that we respond with thanksgiving.

In the end, measuring our value against anyone else is of little value. What really matters is how each of us is valued by God. And we know how much God values us because God claims each one of us as a unique and beloved child.

We don’t have to be perfect. God calls us and uses us with our imperfections. It can be our frustrating imperfections and weaknesses that are the very things that keep us humble, and which help us recognise the source of our grace and of all of our blessings. May each of us, and we as a community have the courage have the courage to follow the humble way of Jesus. Amen