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The self-justifying trap

Where are you in this little scene? Do you stand with one of them? Do you observe them from a distance? Do you have any sympathy with them? Are you choosing sides between them? Can you see yourself in either the Pharisee or the tax collector? Is there some of you in both of them?

Most of us who come to worship in the name of Christ are aware of our sinfulness and we have already in this worship service made at least a general confession, and we will have heard with thanksgiving the words of forgiveness. We know that we have much in common with the tax collector. Yet there is a problem for us in that. The parable was not addressed to people who were conscious of their unworthiness before God, to those who knew they were sinners. The point of it can only be felt if we who hear it know that we have something in common with the Pharisee.

There is a terrible trap in this, especially for those of us who have taken to heart the warnings about failure to accept outsiders. We know that Jesus made friends with 'tax collectors and sinners'. He included in his circle people who were apart from respectable society, and we believe that we too should be inclusive of those on the margins. Some might even say that this is what the Gospel is all about, so naturally we stand with the tax collector in the parable; but there is a trap. If you identify easily with the tax collector, beware, you may be in mortal danger. If you can catch yourself as you begin to think, "Thank God, I am not like that self righteous hypocritical Pharisee" - if you can head off that temptation - you might possibly be saved from the same consequences as the Pharisee! But, do be careful: it is a subtle trap that is both personal and political. The personal is fairly obvious, the political less so, in part because it is preceded by the personal deception of seeing ourselves in the position of the tax collector in his plea for mercy.

The political trap is also subtle and powerful for people with a strong sense of social justice who identify easily with the poor and those who are despised. Christians sometimes share with them in a sense of alienation from the mainstream values of a corrupt society. This kind of understanding of the message of Jesus is close to the truth, but it can be politicised with a new kind of exclusiveness. In that new exclusive and authoritarian ideology, a shared sense of alienation leads into belief in a conflict theory of social justice in which it is important to take the right side and condemn all fat cats and privileged exploiters. Beware! The fat cat in this story is the tax collector, not the Pharisee. The Pharisee was a genuinely good man in many respects. The tax collector was really bad, but he had the one virtue of acknowledging before God that he was a sinner. He had exploited good people like the Pharisee. Of course, he was an outsider also in a nationalistic sense. He was a sinner not only in his breaking the law of God in the Old Covenant regarding personal behaviour in such things as theft, but he was a traitor who worked for the Romans, the occupying imperial power, and as such he was a political outsider.

Jewish people of that time tended to regard all outsiders necessarily as sinners who were unacceptable to God, who they understood to be the God of Abraham and especially of the Jews, and Jesus challenged this attitude on many occasions: for example, when in regard to the healing of the ten lepers, which we read about recently, he pointed out that the only one to give thanks was a Samaritan (Luke 17:16), or when he commended a Roman soldier for having faith (Matthew 8:10; Luke 7:9) or when he responded to the pleas of the Syrophoenecian woman and healed her daughter (Mark 7:26-29). You might say Jesus took their part over against those who would have excluded them. He included them as people who had power to become children of God, and we are called to do likewise. The political trap is that in doing so we can make a virtue out of taking their side, out of our identification with them, especially when we do so in condemnation of others.

The tax collector in the story did not condemn the Pharisee. He seems not even to have been aware of him. Indeed this is one of the points of contrast between them. Only one of them compared himself with the other. They both went up to the temple to pray and directed their thoughts 'upward' to God, but one was distracted and turned aside in comparison with others. Instead of his own relationship to God, he now thinks of the other man and his sinfulness. See too how, when he is making comparisons, the Pharisee presumes to invite God to pass judgement on the other man. The one who was thus distracted in his prayer was, most significantly, the one whose prayer makes himself the subject: "I thank you that I ..." He was led through the "I" away from God to the other man. In contrast, the tax collector focussed on God: "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' (Luke 18:13).

Both of them represent aspects of devotion to God that were well known amongst the Jews. The first, before he was distracted might have taken comfort in sharing the thoughts of the Psalmist in that sense of righteousness that is represented, for example, in Psalm 26:

The second might well have had another model of piety in mind, as for example in Psalm 51:

We have learned the lesson, and tend to quote Psalm 51, Have mercy on me, O God, much more easily than Psalm 26, Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity. To the extent that we genuinely depend upon the mercy of God and not on our own integrity we do not need this parable that Jesus told to those who thought highly of themselves, but don't forget the trap, if you begin to take comfort in not needing the parable, then you may indeed need it all the more. There is a little of Catch 22 in this! It would help to understand the Pharisee better.

The Pharisee in this parable has given us a word in the English language that we would normally hate to have applied to ourselves: pharisaical. None of us would wish to be seen as a self-righteous person with a holier-than-thou attitude. Yet the Pharisees were good people. Even if the particular Pharisee in this story is a bad example, there was much in their way of life to be admired. Jesus taught much the same as the Pharisees. He even said that people should listen to what they and the scribes taught, saying in effect, "Do what they tell you, but do not follow their practice." (Matthew 23:1). Even that is too harsh on them if we do not see that Jesus was pointing to contradictions, not their whole way of life. Many of them tried very hard to do the right thing. Their fasting and giving tithes, one tenth of all they had, went beyond what was required of them. At the same time other things they did betrayed something in their hearts that was far from virtuous. We cannot even say that of all of them. To go back to the political trap, it is a mistake to classify people and assume the same evil in all members of a group. But the main point is to see that self-righteousness is a disease of self deception: it is not so much in contradictions with outward behaviour as it is a disease of the inner self, of the heart. Fault of the pharisee was not essentially a matter of hypocritical contradiction between what is in the heart and what is seen outwardly, although Jesus certainly pointed that out as a fault:

He came back to what was in their hearts:

The Pharisee and the tax collector, no doubt, had similar problems in this regard, but one of them had a heartfelt desire to be different, while the other did not acknowledge what was in his heart. Yet the Pharisee would have known the Proverbs in this respect:

It is because what it is in the heart, being pure in heart, is the most important thing in being right with God that Jesus taught his disciples to pray in secret.

There are many different ways in which we can fall into the trap of self-righteousness. They all involve us in deception about what is in our hearts. We may deceive others and we certainly deceive ourselves, but God knows! Let us then search our hearts with due diligence, not to be overburdened with sin, but to be cleansed by confession and repentance. Being open to God in secret, seeing ourselves in relation to God and not in comparison with others, we can then have confidence in his mercy.

That is a matter of faith, trusting God to accept us out of his goodness and not ours. So have the courage to turn to God without excuses and without comparisons. Have confidence in Christ and you will soon be right with God. Justified, not self-justified, we have cause to respond in thankfulness for us God's mercy. You can be free even of the self-justifying trap through faith in God, for then you do not need to see yourself as being on the right side or as having the best of motives. It does not depend upon us, but on God. All praise and thanks to God our Saviour!

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