Trinity 11 – Sympathy for the Tax Collector

His grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain.
1 Cor 15:11

Last week we entered a new stage in our readings and reflection on the life of growing in holiness in Trinity season.  We have changed from focusing on the purifying of our passions to the illumination of our souls with grace.

Last week the Gospel was about Jesus coming into the Temple to purify it and to teach daily in it.  This is a present promise to each of us – when Love comes to our hearts, His Temple, there is a purifying of the inner life of our souls – our passions, our affections, our emotions, our thoughts, our reasonings: all are brought into a kind of unity and ordering in time by Christ.  And not only is there an ordering, but also we begin to hear God speaking to us inwardly.  We have a new inward and intimate relation to God.

This cleansing of the thoughts of our hearts and unifying of them by Love is to bring us to a state of soul that is one of continual prayer.  As one preacher said (Fr Robert Crouse), by prayer, I don’t mean just “saying prayers,” though that is a beginning, a sort of method of prayer. By prayer, I mean the habitual, continual awareness of our life as being plainly in the presence of the Father, in every instant and in every circumstance, and a steadfast willing of the will of God. [Crouse, Sermon for Rogation Sunday]

So what we hope for in our maturing as a Christian is a kind of way of being inwardly, a way of continual prayer.

This morning’s readings continue that theme of right prayer in the heart.  In the Gospel [St Luke 18:9-14], Jesus gives examples of a right and wrong way of praying by telling a parable:

 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus:
‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
I tell you, 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.”

It is interesting that all the things that the Pharisee mentions doing are actually good things.  But what do our “good works”, our following the Law of Moses achieve, if we then take pride in them and use them as a means of exalting ourselves over others and justifying ourselves with God?

The worldly person thinks in terms of getting ahead and is ever comparing himself with the success of others to get a sense of self-worth, of dignity.  If we have this worldly way of thinking and then enter the spiritual life, we can drag that same worldly attitude with us, using religious practice to try to exalt ourselves over other followers. It is to use religion for vain-glory. It completely undermines the purpose of spiritual disciplines.

Now when we see this example, we may think it is really obvious that we shouldn’t say these things.  But Jesus is concerned with not just the outward expressions of self-righteousness, but the way we are thinking of things in our minds.  It is not so easy as we might think to rid ourselves of this way of thinking.  Vanity is always lurking in the background to steal away grace.

Jesus commends in this parable, the tax collector, who standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

But isn’t this example of humiliation and self-abasement, someone with low self-esteem, who will never grow because his is denying his gifts?  Wouldn’t this be an example of someone held back by an excessive attention to his sinfulness?  It could be, but I think that would be to misunderstand the parable and the man’s estate.

How is the breast-beating tax-collector be a healthy example for us?

First, the breast-beating tax-collector is someone making a living through collecting taxes for the Romans.  The Romans were oppressors of Israel – and there was a kind of impurity in the nature of the work.  They hired Jewish people to collect taxes on their behalf and they were to add some commission for the collection.  There was great temptation – how much should one add? where is the line?  But is there any work on earth today – be it for government or business or education or health care or charity or the Church – that does not have some error in it, some imperfections in the way it is done?  Some mixture of righteousness and unrighteousness?  We seek to be righteous in our work but we live in a world that is fallen and to make a living is possible only “under the mercy of God”.

Perhaps a kind of parallel with this is the modern world’s concern about the environment.  That is a very good thing but the more we look at our lives the more we realize it is difficult to live at all in the West and be environmentally friendly.  To have a house and to have a car is already to be well beyond what most people in the world contribute to global warming.  Someone showed me a chart that had the range of contributions to global warming from changing our lightbulbs all the way to having a child – they were suggesting we have one less child!  To be is to create a huge footprint!

This is not to simply accept unrighteous practices, we always seek ways we can improve our work, and ways we can be more environmentally friendly, but it is to realize ourselves as incapable of perfection and ever in need of mercy.  The tax collector recognized the truth of his situation when being completely honest before God.

Second, the Pharisee exalts himself before God by listing his religious practices and comparing himself to others, the tax collector does not list accomplishments nor compare himself to other people.  We can always find someone who seems to be doing not so well as us in the spiritual life – but if we keep the direction of our eyes focused on God, then we will always see room for improvement, and again, aware that we can only live “under the mercy of God.”  So we beat our breasts, but it is with the hope that we can grow – and when we look to God in humility and in truth we can expect His grace to grow.  The Pharisee’s prayer does not in fact ask for any help from God, only the tax collector asks for something, he asks for mercy – and Jesus says that he will receive it: he went down to his house justified… and he sayshe will be exalted.

Third, the breast-beating tax-collector, who we are told by Jesus goes home justified.  He is someone who is freed up to get on with his life, not paralyzed by an unrealistic expectation of perfection, but to start afresh.  And having received mercy, and “living under the Mercy”, is more likely to share that mercy with others.  St Paul boasts in his accomplishments [1 Cor 15:1-11], but in the recognition that it was all dependent on God’s grace and mercy, and whatever good has been done it was by God’s grace:

I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.  But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me was not in vain.  On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

This is the state of soul that God commends, a kind of humble acceptance of our brokenness and our continual dependence upon on God’s mercy, and a soul that despite its brokenness is moved by love and is free to be engaged in the new life.

We can be assured that mercy is at the heart of who God is.  Even from the moment of the Fall of Man was God’s promise of redemption [Genesis 3:15].  And that Redemption has come to us foremost by Christ’s offering of Himself on the Cross.  As we continue our worship, let us now plead, not our accomplishments, but our need of that once for all Sacrifice of Jesus for us today and Jesus promises we will go to our homes forgiven, justified, and free to live the risen life and to love.

Amen +