An angel is taking new arrivals on a tour of heaven. He opens a door with a sign on it that says Protestant in large letters. Inside, they see a vast hall where there are multitudes of Christians all laughing, talking, and eating. When they see the new arrivals everyone smiles and waves.
Next, the angel takes them down the hall to a door with a sign that says Catholic. Again the angel opens the door and there are multitudes of Christians laughing, talking and eating. When they see the new arrivals they all smile and wave.
Finally, the angel says, “Okay, now, when I show you the next room, you’ll have to just peep in and be very quiet. Be careful not to make the slightest sound.” As they approach the door they see a big sign that says Orthodox. As they were instructed, they peep inside and see multitudes of Orthodox Christians laughing, talking and eating. Then the angel quietly shuts the door. After the door is closed one of the newcomers asks,
“Why did we have to be quiet?”
“Because,” said the angel, “they think they’re the only ones here!”
The gospel today tells us about just who is welcome in God’s Kingdom, and sometimes the Christian might just be a little surprised about who God, not only wants, but claims as “God’s own”.
LUKE IS TELLING THE STORY OF JESUS’ FINAL PART of his journey towards Jerusalem and he is travelling with the disciples between Samaria and Galilee. It begins in chapter 17:11 and continues on through the events of today’s encounter with him telling a series of parables.
Jesus told this parable about some who were self-confidently sure that they were righteous and who despised others.
Being someone who represents the religious authorities, or a member of a church, is never enough for Jesus. We are known, not just for what we have achieved, or for the office which we hold. What is in our heart? What has our faith led us to?
The devout Jew observed three prayer times daily: 9 a.m., midday and 3 p.m. Prayer was held to be especially effective if it was offered in the Temple and so at these hours many went up to the Temple courts to pray.
JESUS TOLD OF TWO MEN WHO WENT.
One was a Pharisee. He did not really go to pray to God. He prayed with himself. True prayer is always offered to God and to God alone. The Pharisee was really giving himself a testimonial before God.
The Jewish law prescribed only one absolutely obligatory fast-that on the day of Atonement. But those who wished to gain special merit fasted also on Mondays and Thursdays. It is noteworthy that these were the market days when Jerusalem was full of country people. Those who fasted whitened their faces and appeared in disheveled clothes, to show their piety to the biggest possible audience. The authorities were to receive a tithe (tenth) of all a man’s produce, but this Pharisee tithed everything, even things that there was no obligation to tithe.
This attitude was not untypical of the worst among the Pharisees. Historically, there is a recorded prayer of a certain Rabbi which runs like this, “I thank, Thee, O Lord my God, that thou hast put me apart with those who sit in the Academy, and not with those who sit at the street-corners. For I rise early, and they rise early; I rise early to the words of the law, and they to vain things. I labour, and they labour; I labour and receive a reward, and they labour and receive no reward. I run, and they run; I run to the life of the world to come, and they to the pit of destruction.” It is on record that one particular Rabbi once said, “If there are only two righteous men in the world, I and my son are these two; if there is only one, I am he!” Sounds a bit like Robert Burns’ poem ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’!
The Pharisee did not really go to pray; he went to inform God how good he was.
BUT THE PHARISEE STILL PRAYS. He has not lost that gift. He may be a bit boastful, but he is not a bad person. He has lived within the faith and he has done the right things. He thanks God, but is this reflected in his life?; because BEING A DISCIPLE OF CHRIST IS A JOURNEY, NOT A DESTINATION. We are forgiven, but do we know how to forgive others? We are loved, but do we know how to love the people whom we find it difficult to love? We are called to live in wholeness and justice, but can we be the guiding hand and the heart which shows someone who is having a tough time, that this is possible for them too?
FOR JOHN CALVIN, IT IS ABOUT BEING AT ONE WITH CHRIST. On this Reformation Sunday, we might remember the place of Calvin and John Knox in our Reformed story of faith. The Reformation thought was about “faith alone”, but faith should always lead to an attitude to life, and to our fellow human beings. It should always lead to action and an attitude towards life that cares for all of God’s creations.
AND THEN THERE WAS A TAX-COLLECTOR. He stood afar off, and would not even lift his eyes to God. He actually prayed:
“O God, be merciful to me—the sinner,” as if he was not merely a sinner, but the sinner par excellence. “And,” said Jesus, “it was that heart-broken, self-despising prayer which won him acceptance before God.”
This parable unmistakably tells us certain things about prayer.
- NO ONE WHO IS PROUD CAN REALLY PRAY. The gate of heaven is so low that none can enter it save upon his knees. All that we can say is, to quote:
No other Lamb, no other Name, No other Hope in heaven or earth or sea, No other Hiding-place from guilt and shame, None beside Thee.
- NO ONE WHO DESPISES HIS FELLOW MAN CAN PRAY PROPERLY. In prayer we do not lift ourselves above our fellow mn. We remember that we are one of a great army of sinning, suffering, sorrowing humanity, all kneeling before the throne of God’s mercy.
TRUE PRAYER COMES FROM SETTING OUR LIVES BESIDE THE LIFE OF GOD. No doubt all that the Pharisee said was true. He did fast; he did meticulously give tithes; he was not as other men are; still less was he like that tax-collector. BUT THE QUESTION IS NOT, “AM I AS GOOD AS MY FELLOW MAN?” THE QUESTION IS, “AM I AS GOOD AS GOD?” Someone once made a journey by train to England. As she passed through the Yorkshire moors she saw a little whitewashed cottage and it seemed to shine with an almost radiant whiteness. Some days later she made the journey back to Scotland. The snow had fallen and was lying deep all around. She came again to the little white cottage, but this time its whiteness seemed drab and almost grey in comparison with the untouched whiteness of the driven snow.
IT ALL DEPENDS ON WHAT WE COMPARE OURSELVES WITH. And when we set our lives beside the life of Jesus and beside the holiness of God, all that is left to say is, “God be merciful to me—the sinner.”
For the Pharisee, although he fasted and tithed and although he was very moral in his actions, he was centred on himself and not on God, whereas the tax collector was aware of his failings and, in his humility, sought the wholeness and healing of God, which the Pharisee was not aware that he needed.
The Pharisee was the self-righteous person who failed to achieve God’s favour, whereas the tax collector was righteous in the eyes of God and did achieve favour, because he recognised his inner need for a relationship with the Eternal.
OF COURSE, THIS ALL APPLIES TO US. THIS IS ABOUT THE DEPTH, BREADTH AND HEIGHT OF GOD’S LOVE AND ABOUT OUR WILLINGNESS TO RECEIVE IT AND TO REFLECT IT IN OUR OWN LIVES.