This morning's sermon to a local congregation on Luke 18:9-14
Like a lot of the Bible, our parable from Luke’s gospel this morning is both simple and complicated.
The simple lesson is quite obvious — don’t be like the Pharisee, arrogant and proud and looking down on other people. Instead, be like the tax collector, humble before God because, as v 14 puts it,
... everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
And even this simple lesson is of profound significance. A society where the humility shown by the tax-collector prevails will be very different from a society where the attitude of the Pharisee prevails.
But the passage is also complicated because of its significance for modern theological debate, and this is something of which we also ought to be aware.
Theologians are rather like politicians. You might think you want nothing to do with them. But what they say and what they decide has a major impact on the rest of us. So long as there are politicians in the political field and theologians in the theological field, we have to endure a certain amount of disruption.
The ‘new perspective’
And this particular passage is significant for what it has to say about something theologians call the ‘new perspective on Paul’.
Now we have to say straight away that the term ‘new perspective’, singular, is misleading. There are actually several ‘new perspectives’ on Paul.
But the movement, as such, got under way in the 1970s and it has been gaining ground and adherents, not least in the Church of England, ever since. You may meet very few laity who have heard of it, but you will meet very few clergy who haven’t, and it affects how they treat you.
What these ‘new perspectives’ have in common is a conviction that the Reformation understanding of Paul — especially that which goes back to Martin Luther — was wrong.
Luther, they say, read into the New Testament his own personal concerns with Roman Catholicism, which he thought taught salvation by works.
Luther projected this onto New Testament Judaism, which he also saw as a religion based on salvation by works, and contrasted it with what he read — but misunderstood — in the Apostle Paul.
The problem is, according to the New Perspective, Judaism never was never a religion of works. Moreover Paul understood that.
The only difference between Paul and Judaism was over the importance of Christ and the need for Jewish rituals like circumcision and food laws. Paul’s argument with Judaism was that the boundary of God’s people was no longer marked by whether you were circumcised but whether you believed in Jesus.
Beyond that, however, there was complete agreement — both Paul and Judaism, according to the New Perspective, taught that faith is a response to God’s grace, issuing in a life of faithfulness, on the basis of which we will be judged as worthy or not of God’s kingdom.
Now what are the consequences of this ‘new perspective’?
Well, the first, and most obvious, is that the Reformation got it wrong. It was wrong about Judaism. And therefore it was also wrong about Roman Catholicism.
Most importantly, though, it means the heirs of the Reformation are also wrong — and according to people like Bishop Tom Wright, the current Bishop of Durham who has written some outstanding books on Christianity, but is a strong advocate of his own version of the New Perspective evangelical Christians are the most wrong of all, especially in their understanding of salvation.
God and ‘Righteousness’
Now with all that in mind — but ‘on hold’, as it were — let’s have a look at the Bible passage for this morning. In Luke 18:9 we read this:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable ...
What is the problem here?
First and foremost, we’re told, Jesus spoke to people who were , ‘confident ... that they were righteous’. But this little word ‘righteous’ doesn’t quite mean ‘good’ or ‘blameless’, as we might assume.
Rather, it means ‘standing in a right relationship with God’.
The righteous person, then, didn’t necessarily have to be perfect. King David, for example, was an adulterer and a murderer. Yet in Psalm 51 he expresses absolute confidence in God’s righteousness and his own restoration.
There’s nothing wrong with thinking you’re forgiven and put right with God. We think we’re forgiven.
The problem is revealed as we read on: they were ‘confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else’. And what this means is brought out further in the parable.
Two Jews went up to the Temple
Two Jews went up to the temple to pray. What is the difference between them?
They are both Jews, they are both circumcised, they both know the law and respect it. But one is a godfearing and upright man, and the other is a traitor, and probably a cheat, who makes a living acting as an agent for the occupying Roman authorities.
Think ‘tax inspector for Hitler’ and you’re in the right sort of territory.
The Pharisee’s prayer
But there is another difference, and that is in the way they pray. The Pharisee prays like this (v 11-12):
God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.
And everything he says is true. So what is he doing wrong? First, he is confident he has done nothing that would really be a barrier between him and God. He is not a robber, an evildoer or an adulterer. He cannot think of a reason why God would condemn him.
Secondly, he knows he is not like those who obviously do deserve God’s condemnation — like the tax-collector, for example.
And thirdly, he is diligent in observing the requirements of his religion, he fasts and observes the Sabbath (literally, he fasts ‘twice a Sabbath’), and he tithes. He can think of several reasons why God should accept him.
Now look at the tax-collector and his prayer. We are told, v 13, he:
stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
And Jesus said,
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.
And that word ‘justified’ means ‘counted as righteous’. At the end of the parable, he is what the Pharisee thought he was: in a right relationship with God.
So what has he done right? Has he said, “I will try to do better?” Has he said, “I will go home and live a life of faith in response to God’s grace, on the basis of which I will be adjudged worthy of God’s kingdom?”
No, it’s not that either. What has he done that puts him in a right relationship with God?
The answer is, nothing. Or rather, everything he has done put him in a right relationship with God. He was ‘justified’ when he stood afar off, not lifting his eyes up to heaven, but beating on his breast and saying “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Justification and the new perspective
You see everything the Pharisee said about himself was true: he wasn’t a robber, or an evildoer or an adulterer. He wasn’t like the tax-collector and he was diligent in his religious observances.
But when he came to the Temple, what he should have done was stood afar off, beating on his breast and saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
And the fact that he didn’t shows that although Judaism was a religion teaching grace and faith, what actually happened was that people looked to themselves for a positive assurance of their relationship with God, instead of looking to God.
And that is what human beings have always done — that is why we had to have the Reformation, and why it wasn’t a mistake. Because even Christians can forget they have nothing to bring to God, and can start relying on what they are like and what they are doing.
And from there it is a very short step to contempt for others and pride in ourselves.
You see, I said at the beginning that if we live according to this parable it will have a profound affect on us and on society.
How will it affect us? For ourselves, it will keep us humble and thankful.
Do we come to Holy Communion, for example, aware of our unworthiness, as the Prayer of Humble Access encourages us to be, or trusting in our own righteousness — glad that we haven’t committed any obvious sins this week, and that we’ve generally done right and been good?
If we understand this parable correctly, we will always come to communion knowing that here God welcomes the tax-collector and the sinner — in fact he really welcomes to Communion the person who thinks they are not worthy to take Communion.
And it will affect society. What will a society be like that is run by people who are more confident about their relationship with God when they can see the fruits of that relationship in their own lives?
It will either produce people who are burdened with anxiety, like Luther was before his own flash of insight, or they will be moralistic, self-righteous and in the end merciless.
By contrast, a society where we all know that we all stand before God as undeserving sinners in need of undeserved forgiveness will be a society where we forgive others their sins as we have been forgiven ours. And I know where I would rather live.
So let us close by praying that God will help us understand this parable, and even more that he will help us apply it to our lives.Anonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.