28 October 2007

Who needs God?

Sometimes, when you hear Jesus talk about the Pharisees, you would think they were really wicked, awful people. Worst sinners in the universe. But they weren’t, of course. They were actually really religious, holy people. People like Nicodemus, you remember, or St Paul – they were Pharisees. Not even wicked villains at all!

And that, of course, was the problem. Because back then, if you wanted to be God’s person, it was thought that you had to keep loads of rules and regulations. It was all very well when it was just the Ten Commandments, and some of the food and other rules laid down in the book of Deuteronomy, they were simple enough to follow.

But, of course, people got themselves rather worried by all of this. What did you mean when you said “You mustn’t work on a Sunday”? Was lighting a fire work? Was getting dressed work? That sort of thing. So the Pharisees and their like laid down all sorts of rules and regulations to try to cover every possibility, from how far you could walk on a Sunday, to just exactly what you could and couldn’t eat. Even today, observant Jews have two sets of crockery and cutlery, one for when they eat meat, and one for when they eat dairy products.

Well, okay. But there were then two problems: first of all, you simply couldn’t keep them all – nobody could. No matter how hard you tried, it simply wasn’t possible. So almost everybody went round feeling like a failure. And, of course, as happened in Jesus’ story, people who could and did keep most of the rules felt very proud of themselves, very clever. And, Jesus says elsewhere, some of the time they got so wrapped up in keeping the rules that they forgot all about loving other people!

Actually, there was a third problem, too. And that is that human nature simply adores rules. Especially when it comes to our relationship with God. It’s a lot easier to keep the rules than to live in a relationship with God – that’s just scary! But we like rules anyway – and, of course, we need rules to keep ourselves and our society safe.

But we do tend to impose our own personal rules on other people. To take a very silly example, when I was a child, my mother had a rule that my brother and I were only allowed tomato ketchup if we were having chips – I think we would have poured it on to everything if we could, and never developed any appreciation of any other flavour! So even though I know better, I still think it’s awful when I see someone put tomato ketchup on anything else! I have to remind myself that not everybody grew up with that rule, and it’s perfectly all right to put tomato ketchup on your egg and bacon, if that’s what you like.

And sometimes we make rules for other people because we know we ourselves are tempted in certain areas, so need to steer clear. Some people, for instance, can’t drink any alcohol as they can’t stop once they start. So they would like to have a universal rule saying that nobody can drink an alcoholic drink. Which those of us who are able to enjoy a drink without being addicted, or without having to get drunk, can’t see the point of at all. And if you remember your history, you’ll know that they tried that rule in the USA in the 1920s and it didn’t work at all, just created a whole new load of crimes and criminals.

But the problem in today’s reading is that the Pharisee in Jesus’ story was so pleased with himself for keeping the rules – and indeed, keeping them even better than most people, look how he boasts about fasting twice a week, when he really only needed to do it once – he was so proud of himself that he actually seems to have forgotten what it was all about. He forgot he needed God!

The publican, or tax-gatherer, on the other hand, knew he was a pile of pooh all right. He had a rather awful job, actually. He was working for the colonial authorities and had to collect taxes from people. Which was fine, only he wasn’t paid a salary, and was expected to charge people a little extra and provide a living for himself that way. And many, if not most, tax-gatherers got a reputation for making a very good living for themselves that way – you remember Zaccheus, who hid up a sycamore tree to watch Jesus, and Jesus decided to go and have supper with him. You can quite see the temptation, of course. And they were pretty well hated anyway, as quislings, collaborators, so they might just as well do what they were accused of! So all the tax-gatherer could pray was “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

We don’t know whether the Pharisee went on from the synagogue to take a basket of fruit to an elderly member of the synagogue who was housebound, or whether the tax-gatherer went back to his job, but it’s quite probable that they did. But the difference was that, that day at any rate, God had heard and answered the tax-gatherer’s prayer, but the Pharisee had been far too pleased with himself to need God – and God can’t get in where there isn’t room! That was the Pharisee’s big mistake – he forgot that even though he did keep the rules, and was good at it, he still needed God’s help.

We all need God’s help, of course. No matter how good we are, no matter how clever, or talented, we still need

God. We are still sinners. That’s why Jesus came – because every single human being is a sinner. We’d rather go our own way than God’s way, it’s part of human nature. And when we do decide we want to go God’s way, we would rather do it by means of rules and regulations than by a relationship with the living God. Again, it’s part of human nature. It’s why we have a prayer of confession at the start of every service.

The Pharisee forgot that. He reckoned that because he was a good, God-fearing Pharisee that made him a better human being than the tax-gatherer who was also praying that day. And, of course, in human terms he was! But not in God’s terms. God loved the tax-gatherer every bit as much as he loved the Pharisee, and was quick to answer his prayers and forgive him.

It’s all too easy, isn’t it, to fall into the trap of thanking God that we’re not like that Pharisee! But are we so sure we aren’t? We find it easy, don’t we, to think of ourselves as rather better than the drug-dealers in Coldharbour Lane, the homeless woman who sells the Big Issue outside Tesco’s, the beggars who accost us outside Brixton Tube station.... but God loves them every bit as much as he loves us! And will hear their prayers just as readily as he hears ours. If not more so, when we forget that we need God!

But there’s another trap we fall into. One of the rules many Christians make for themselves is that we don’t allow ourselves to recognise our good parts. We think that, because we are sinners, there is nothing about us that is good, and we end up disliking ourselves, which makes it a bit difficult when we’re told to love our neighbour as we love ourselves!

But that’s silly, really. After all, God made us, right? So even though we do tend to wander away from God, and to cling to rules and regulations to try to help us stay close to him, God still loves us and wants to help us grow into the people he designed us to be. All those nice qualities that St Paul tells us are the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience and so on? They come from God, and it’s not only silly to pretend we haven’t got good qualities, it’s downright rude to poor old God!

The Pharisee went wrong because he thought that sticking to the rules made him a better person – but he wasn’t wrong to thank God for his good qualities. He was wrong to think he was better than the tax-gatherer, but he wasn’t wrong to be comfortable in his own skin. He just needed to remember that he still needed God, and he needed to be as comfortable with the tax-gatherer as he was with himself.

And so, indeed, do we. So in our prayers of Thanksgiving today, we are going to think about what we like about ourselves and about each other. So start thinking now, while we have our hymn, and the notices and offertory, and then Audrey will help us focus our thinking.

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