A Sermon from Sherborne

A Closer Walk

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist preached in Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 27th October 2019 by the Reverend Lesley McCreadie, Team Vicar

I wonder how many of you can remember the piece by the Two Ronnies and John Cleese where the three of them stand in a row looking up to one and down to the other.  The parable we heard this morning of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector [Luke 18. 9-14] always reminds me of this sketch.  The Pharisee certainly looks down on the Tax Collector as being really dirt under his sandal and the Tax Collector looks up to God and one is left thinking that the Pharisee, if not looking down on God, places himself not far short.

In the popular mind this parable is about humility in prayer and who among us on reading this passage has not responded with ‘thank goodness I am not like the Pharisee’, but in saying that are we not also sharing a little, with the Pharisee in the sentiment that we are alright, shame about the others?

As well as being about prayer this parable speaks to us about so much else and on this Bible Sunday it is good to just examine the text a little closer.  In our Collect this morning we prayed, that Holy scriptures were written for our learning  and so we need to reflect not only on  the words as they were written but also on what can we learn from them two thousand years later.

Two men went up into the Temple to pray.  We are used to using the word ‘pray’ to describe an action of personal devotion and we use the word ‘worship’ to describe what we are doing here this morning, which of course includes praying.  In the language of Hebrew and Arabic to pray includes worship and personal prayer and it was likely therefore that our two men were in the Temple at a time of worship.  So what was the service these two men were attending?  In the Temple there were two regular times for worship – dawn and three o’clock in the afternoon.  Both services were atonement offerings but also included the sound of trumpets and the reading of a psalm and so on.  Jews unable to be in the temple for the incense offering would say their private prayers at this time and so feel that they were participating even though they could not be present.

So what do we make of the Pharisee?   The first thing to note is that he stands on his own, or perhaps more correctly he stands apart from other people.  He is clearly a good Anglican!  Why does he stand apart?  Partly so that he is not touched by someone lowlier than himself who might make him unclean, and perhaps by raising his voice his prayer (which would have been said aloud) could be heard not only by God but by those around him who he wanted to impress.  Hebrew prayer normally fell into three categories; confession, thanks and prayers for others.  You will see that our Pharisee does not pray like this at all. He begins by proudly announcing that he is pleased that he is not like other men and then tells God his views on the unrighteous and then boasts of his piety.

The Tax Collector on the other hand also chooses to stand apart, but for very different reasons: he is distraught at his unworthiness and beats his chest.  In tradition only women beat their chests in distress: this detail added by Luke helps to tell us just how distressed this man really is.  His prayer is a simple ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’, or God make an atonement for me a sinner – which might be more accurate as he watched the atonement sacrifice in the Temple.

The Pharisee in the parable is sincere in what he says and I have no doubt that his claims are true.  He is scrupulously honest, a faithful family man, a meticulous observer of the Law.  He fasted twice a week when the Law demanded once a year; he paid tithes on all his possessions far beyond what the Law required.  He was sincerely convinced that he stood right with God; he could be truly thankful that he was not like other people.  So what was wrong?  Answer: his prayer is not a prayer at all. It had become a boasting list.  We must be reminded of St Paul here, himself a Pharisee and one who had believed observance was the way to salvation, Paul after his encounter with Jesus Christ came to realise that salvation could not be earned, the lesson the Pharisee in the parable had to learn.

Two went ‘up to the Temple to pray’. One man came down.  The Tax Collector had stood before God and opened his heart to him and God had heard his prayer.  His sense of unworthiness in the presence of God is a lesson to us all.

Of course the Christian church today is not without its Pharisees.  I am sure many when reading our parable are in their hearts saying ‘thank goodness I am not like him’. And yet I would venture that we do find such sentiment in our church today.  Those who believe that attending church regularly and being seen to be doing the right thing sets them apart and guarantees salvation, well – they may feel that they are better than those who do not do the same.  And yet what we learn from today has to be that what God requires of us is to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

Last week in our gospel were heard about persevering in prayer. Today we hear that we should offer our prayers humbly and honestly.  The bottom line of course is that we should pray. Prayer is a Christian need.  Just as children turn to their parents for comfort, love and support, so should we turn to God in prayer.  Prayer maintains our relationship with God.  Who among us would contemplate not speaking to those we love: our partners, our children, our siblings or our friends?  Not spending time with God regularly distances our relationship, makes it less intimate and by definition less effective.  Like any relationship our relationship with God needs working on, and through prayer we keep those channels of communication open.  And so whether you sit in silence, or sing, or chatter in the car to God, or even rant and be angry, this is all part of what it means to pray and alongside this we should put listening.  We need to give space to listen to God as well.  Which of us enjoys a conversation where you cannot get a word in?  So space to listen is really important too.  Luke offers us through his gospel many wise words on prayer; it is one of the characteristics of his gospel.  So may our prayer today be that we can be faithful and humble in our daily prayer so that we might have a closer walk with God.  Amen

Revd Leslie McCreadie 27/10/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne