It is a truth almost universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a good fortune … is in the good books with God. One of the problems with growing up comfortable and in the church is that it is too easy to think this. For we are the good guys: the right sort of people who never do anything seriously wrong. Insulated by our wealth and our privilege, we glance over at all those ghastly people whose lives are a mess, congratulate ourselves for our nice morals and clean living, and assure ourselves and everyone else that we belong in God’s house. For we are not sinners like them. We never rejected God; we belong in the kingdom. Yet, week after week, in God’s house we hear stories which should challenge our assumptions, and this week is no exception.
In tonight’s reading, Jesus tells a story. The first character is a Pharisee. This man was a religious fellow who followed Judaic law right down to the letter. And when he went to the temple, he prayed long and loud, reminding God of all the things he did right—especially compared to that fellow over there!
And then, Jesus describes that fellow over there: a tax collector. Now, in those days a tax collector wasn’t a mild-manner pen-pusher at the ATO. He was a collaborator with the Roman army, someone who could use violence and coercion to extort enormous sums of money from the poor. These payments were used to feed, clothe and house the soldiers who were controlling the region through military means: executions, beatings, intimidation, and humiliation. Everyone hated the soldiers, and everyone hated the tax collectors whose work supported them. So a tax collector was clearly a sinner, a wretch: someone who had no right to come sauntering into God’s house. Yet in the story, Jesus describes the tax collector as ‘justified’ or ‘vindicated’, which means he was ‘found to be right’ with God. What on earth is going on here?
Let’s take a closer look at their prayers. The tax collector threw himself down, described himself as a sinner, and asked for mercy. The Pharisee stood up tall, described himself as a saint, put down the tax collector, and asked for nothing. And they both got what they asked for: the tax collector received mercy, and the Pharisee received nothing!
Growing up in the church, growing up wealthy, growing up middle class: In our world, these are often seen to be privileges—and they can certainly make our lives comfortable. It is easy for us to consider ourselves healthy and not in need of any physician; we already know we are fine. We are self-sufficient; we don’t need anyone; we have nothing to confess; we don’t ask God for mercy or healing: and so, like the Pharisee, we get exactly what we ask for—nix, nada, nothing. Our experience of God becomes the cherry on the top of our comfortable lives: It adds a little meaning and purpose: a narrative to live by, perhaps.
Maybe that’s why Jesus told so many stories that challenge us. For he doesn’t call us to lives which are complacent and comfortable. Instead, he promises life in abundance: flourishing life; a life overflowing with goodness and mercy. A life like this is a grand adventure—but it’s not easy. It means giving things up: Our illusions of self-sufficiency. A sense of entitlement. The near-universal belief that wealth is a reward from God. Our identity as insiders. Our pride. And our prejudices.
To those of us who are comfortable, Jesus’ way is costly. This is why Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. This is why the wealthy man ignored Lazarus at his gate and built a wall between himself and God’s kingdom. This is why another rich man was possessed by his possessions, and a wealthy young man turned his back on Jesus. We take pride in our possessions and our self-sufficiency. We are not like other people, we don’t want to love them, and we don’t want to give anything up—especially not to the undeserving poor.
No wonder the destitute, the vulnerable, and those who know that they are sinful are most at home in God’s culture. Not the churched, not the wealthy, not the comfortable—but the outsiders. People who are lonely and rejected and impoverished; people who are loathed; people whose lives are a mess: people who know their need of God’s love, and acceptance, and forgiveness. And so the tax collector, a hated and feared traitor, a sell-out to the Roman army, threw himself on God’s mercy—and found himself in the good books with God.
But to those of us “in possession of a good fortune,” the idea of humbling ourselves shakes our pride and our prejudices right down to the core. For in God’s culture, wealth is not earned, and poverty shames no one but the rich. In God’s culture, the wealthy are no better than anyone else; they are not entitled and they never were. In God’s culture, mercy is not given out in little portions to those who work for it, but is poured out in abundance to everyone who asks. It is lavished upon the just and the unjust; it is offered to God’s enemies; it is offered to our own. This goes against everything we know—and this is why the Pharisee is cut off from God: he cannot place his faith in a God who pours out mercy not only upon the Pharisee, but upon the tax collector, too.
It’s not that the comfortable can’t be part of the kingdom. From the story of the Prodigal Son, we know that God’s abundance surrounds the older brother: it is his for the asking, and it is also ours. We can throw a party any time! But as long as we hold fast to our pride and self-sufficiency, as long as we place our faith in a bean-counting God who measures out rewards and punishments, as long as we try to earn God’s grace, then we will never see it, nor will we think to ask. God’s flourishing life is already here, but to enter into it, we must learn to recognise our deep poverty. We must throw ourselves on God and beg: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” A sinner like the tax collector. A sinner like the Pharisee. A sinner like everyone else.
For it is only once we understand we have nothing to offer, and place our trust in God’s mercy, that we can accept the grace that God so freely gives. It means giving up everything we hold dear. But Jesus promises that those who lose their life for his sake shall find it. And so we can be confident that, in humbly confessing our pride and acknowledging our prejudices, we will find love and friendship with God. And in this divine love and friendship, we will experience an extraordinary fullness of life. Amen. Ω