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 was a promise of Jesus then and is a promise to each of us today:  when Love comes to our hearts, which are His Temple, there is a purifying of the inner life of our souls – our desires, our affections, our emotions, our thoughts, our reasonings: all are brought into a kind of unity and ordering in time by Jesus.  That is the reordering of our passions.  And not only is there a reordering of our passions, but also we begin to hear God speaking to us inwardly – that is the illumination.  We become more aware of the nudges and the voice of the Spirit of Christ within us. Maybe we are reminded of a passage of Scripture, maybe we are given a dream which we sense is spiritually significant, or maybe we are resensitized to our conscience within awakening us more quickly when we stray.  We have a new inward and intimate relation to God.

This new state that we are being brought to by Love is a state of continual prayer.  It is like St Paul said, “Pray at all times.”  As one preacher has 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: he is careful in his outward moral life to follow the Law, and he practices spiritual disciplines: fasting and tithing.  But what do our “good works”, our following the Law of Moses, the Law of Love, 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. Making spiritual progress a kind of competition with others.  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 hearts.  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 undermine our growth in grace.

So that’s the Pharisee, and Jesus warns us not to be like him.  But Jesus does not just condemn in this parable, he 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 the Tax Collector, isn’t he an example of someone with low self-esteem, who will never grow because he is denying he is of any value, is denying he has any 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 (in the background) 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.  The Romans 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 commission should the tax collector add for himself?  where is the line?  And the tax collectors had the power and fear of Roman authority to back them up.  Great temptation.  And it seems the Tax Collector recognized this and cried out to God for mercy.

But for us, 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 possibility of 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 are fallen and we live in a world that is fallen – to make a living or to follow a vocation is possible only “under the mercy of God”.

This is not to simply accept unrighteous practices, we always seek ways we can improve our work, but it is to recognize ourselves as incapable of perfection and ever in need of mercy.  The tax collector recognized the truth of his situation and is completely honest before God – he cries out for mercy.

Second, in contrast to the Pharisee who 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, be aware that we can only live “under the mercy of God.” Remember the Tax Collector has hope and faith, he has gone to the Temple seeking God’s help.  The Pharisee seems to have these too, but in his prayer, does not in fact ask for any help from God – his prayer is only self justification. Only the tax collector asks for something, he asks for mercy – and Jesus says that he will receive it.

Third, we are told that the breast-beating tax-collector goes home justified.  That means he will be right with God.  He is someone who is freed up to get on with his life, not paralyzed by an unrealistic expectation of perfection, but he can start afresh.  And having received mercy, and knowing that he is “living under the Mercy”, he is more likely to share that mercy with others.

In today’s Epistle, St Paul boasts in his accomplishments [1 Cor 15:1-11].  He has a right understanding of his accomplishments and his self worth, but he is also very clear in his mind of who he is – a sinner, dependent on God’s grace and mercy, and whatever good has been done it was by the grace of God:

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.  Do you sense his freedom: he knows God is his judge (he’s not worrying about how other judge him), that God has forgiven him (he knows God’s mercy and trusts in it), and he can see when he looks back, of how God’s grace has been manifested in his life in a big way!

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, of mercy – his promise to Adam and Eve of a Redeemer who will one day crush Satan’s head [Genesis 3:15].  And that Redemption, that mercy, has come to us foremost by Christ’s offering of Himself on the Cross.  On Sundays when we have Holy Communion we plead, not our accomplishments, but our need of that once for all Sacrifice of Jesus for us and Jesus promises we will go to our homes forgiven, justified, and free to live the risen life and to love.

And we are assured by Jesus that the attitude of the tax collector is one we can take with us into our daily lives.  In the Eastern Orthodox Church there is a long tradition of commending the use of the Jesus Prayer – one version is – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  We could see the repetition of this as a kind of taking up the cry of the tax collector. Maybe it is something we could try as part of moving towards a state ofpraying at all times, a state of being that rests inthe 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.

Amen +