Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Sermon August 31, 2014 Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

Luke 18:9 The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (tax collector)

Today’s Gospel invites us into the world of parables.  Parables have been called “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.”  Jesus was not the originator of parable form — however, we can say without a doubt that he was the master.  In using the parable as a teaching tool, Jesus used the things of everyday life — the experiences that those around him could relate to — the lives of people in everyday situations; the actions of Pharisees and tax collectors; home life of the woman who has lost a coin and work places of the shepherd who has lost a sheep; travellers in dangerous foreign lands; problems with troublesome neighbours.  They deal with the nitty gritty of the real lives of real people.  In all these day to day issues it is important to remember that there is a heavenly message behind these stories — “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” 
How, then do we explore the world of parables to understand the heavenly meaning that is contained in these earthly things?  One way that I have found to be effective is to put ourselves in the role of one of the characters. 

Who is the character that resonates most with us?  Who is the person we relate to most closely in the story?  Let’s explore a couple of the best known of Jesus’ parables.  First there is the story of the Good Samaritan.  I’m sure everyone knows this story.  We have five main characters; the traveller — let’s call him everyman; the priest the clergyman who passes by on the other side; the Pharisee the righteous layman who also passes by; finally there is the Samaritan of the title.  Which one do you relate to?  Of course I think most of us would like to think we would be the Samaritan — the hero of the story.  However, to do that we have to consider what it would be like to be a Samaritan in Jewish society in Jesus time.  Not a comfortable position. 
Let’s look at another of Jesus’ best known parables — The Prodigal Son.  Here we have only three main characters:  The long suffering indulgent loving father who gives his gad about younger son his inheritance when the son decides he want to go out and experience life to the fullest; the older dutiful son who always does the right thing and never hesitates to let people know he is the better son;

and finally the younger son who knows what he wants and asks for it and gets it — a case of be careful what you ask for if I ever heard one.   Which one of these resonates with you?  Perhaps not quite as obvious as the first example.  It may depend on your stage of life.  Fathers and mothers of grown sons and daughters might relate to the long-suffering father who desires nothing more for their children to grow up and see them as people and not just as authority figures to rebel against.  You might relate closely to the older brother — particularly if you have a younger sibling who never seems to have to face the consequences of his or her actions; or perhaps even the young wastrel who comes to his senses. 
This putting ourselves into the role of one of the characters can make the story come alive.  But what if you were asked to put yourself in the role of one of the characters you don’t have sympathy for?  What about the two who passed by the traveller — the everyman of the Good Samaritan parable?   How many of us have walked by someone who stops us on the street and asks for a handout?  How many of us would not stop and help a homeless person sleeping on the side of the road?  I know I have certainly been in the position of the priest and the Pharisee of the story.

How many of us dutiful sons and daughters would secretly like to be the carefree son who never seems to face consequences of his actions?   Here’s where these parables — these stories of Jesus begin to really hit home.  Here is where we get closer to the heavenly message contained in the earthly story. 
Now let’s turn to today’s parable — the story of the Pharisee and the Publican.  Here we have only two characters — the self-righteous Pharisee and the self-berating publican — or tax collector.  Here it is obvious that we do not want to be in the role of the Pharisee.  Who would want to be a self-righteous insufferable person who looks down on the person sitting next to us in the pew at church?  It is very easy to say I would not do that — not to my fellow church goer.  Well here’s a simple test — look at the people sitting around you in church this morning?  Is there anyone about who you have every thought to yourself, “thank God I am not like that person”?  Well perhaps not.  Try this one on for size, “thank God I have been more successful in my life than” — fill in the name.  I must be honest and admit that I have thought that way about some people I have known in church in my life.  Of course I don’t know any of you well enough to make that kind of comparison.  But give me time and I probably will.

Another perspective is from the reverse point of view.  Have you ever looked at someone sitting next to you or in the next pew and thought, “why couldn’t I be as successful as that person” or “why aren’t I as good looking”  or “why aren’t I as ……” — you can fill in the blanks here as well.  The publican doesn’t say to himself while he is at the temple, “why aren’t I a righteous person like the Pharisee?”  No, he deals with what he sees as his own failings — his own sins.
That is the key to this story.  That is how we get closer to the heavenly message.   We don’t compare ourselves to others — either positively or negatively.  We look at ourselves and humble ourselves before God.  We admit that we are sinners — we admit where we have missed the mark.  That is the meaning of sin — to miss the mark that God intends for us.  Where have I missed the mark in being and becoming the person that God intends me to be? 

In response to our inevitable failing — our inevitable intentional and unintentional sins all we can do is follow the example of the publican and pray “God be merciful to me a sinner”.   Indeed this is very much like the Jesus Prayer which I find so helpful in response to day-to-day life.  It is marvellous in its simplicity and its power.  ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; have mercy on me a sinner.’ 
Let us join together in that prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.  Amen

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