Summary: A sermon for a school service of teenagers, not necessarily believers.
I want to begin this morning thinking about assumptions. If I asked you what is about six inches long and produces a white, frothy substance when rubbed back and forth and in and out, I’m sure you’d all make an assumption, when the answer is in fact a toothbrush.
Assumptions cause all kinds of chaos everyday. Religion is also beset by assumptions. Often people tell me that they’re good people, even though they don’t attend church, clearly assuming that goodness is what God wants of us.
If you regard making people good as the purpose of religion, then you’re in for a shock when you think about Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector.
We are told that two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, a member of a strict religious group and a pillar of the community. Today’s equivalent might be a successful businessman who was also a leading member of his church and a local councillor. You get the picture.
The second man was at the other end of the social scale - a tax-collector for the Roman authorities. The tax collector was not employed by the Romans, but was a privatised contractor whose only payment would whatever he managed to extract from the people on his list over and above what he had undertaken to pass on to the Roman authorities. It was a system with built-in dishonesty and corruption, and it placed tax-collectors outside respectable society. Today’s equivalent would be someone involved in a criminal protection racket - the kind of dodgy character we used to see on The Bill.
Note, again, that the Pharisee was a good person and the tax-collector was a bad person.
The Pharisee went and stood up at the front of the Temple and prayed. The problem was that his prayers were not really addressed to God, but to show off his virtues to everyone listening. He defined himself by negatives - not greedy, not dishonest, not an adulterer. His only positives were things he did better than others - fasting more often than was necessary, giving more money than the law said he had to. Clearly he was rather smug, and the kind of religious person who is quite unpleasant.
The tax-collector must have been a desperate man and a social outcast. He was probably longing to break out of it, but without being able to because public repentance would involve returning the money dishonestly obtained, which he had already spent. So he stands at the back, hangs his head, and all he can say is, God, have mercy on me, sinner that I am.
And Jesus said that the honest prayer of the tax collector was much more what God wanted.
So, we should never assume anything, least of all what God wants of us.
The Pharisee had missed the mark. How can we avoid getting making the same mistakes?
1. Remember you’re only human, as is everyone else.
2. Don’t distance yourself from people different from you. It cuts you off from other humans.
3. Jesus is the one who was good and perfect. Look to his example.
4. Remember a simple and honest prayer: God, have mercy on me, sinner that I am.
5. Accept and love yourself, because God accepts and loves you.
So, I end with some slightly adapted words we sometimes use in our Communion service:
Come to God, not because you must, but because you may;
come not to testify that you are righteous, but that you try to love and follow God;
Come not because you are strong, but because you are weak;
Come not because you have any claim on God’s rewards, but because in your frailty and brokenness you need God’s mercy and help;
Come not to express an opinion, but to seek a presence and pray for a Spirit. Amen.