The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity


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O God, who declarest Thy mighty power…
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Luke 18:9-14

The danger of parables which, in typically Lucan fashion, set up dichotomies, is that instead of asking us to see both sides of an issue, they invite us to identify with one of the protagonists. In this case most of us are well enough conditioned to know which we should choose: we have been schooled to opt for the homely humility of the Publican and to suspect the prickly pride of the Pharisee, naturally opting for the easier solution, playing the role of the person of whom not much is expected. God, however, ‘sees through’ moral double bluffs.

Modern psychology has taught us that this approach to self-understanding is simplistic; far from being transparent to ourselves and others, we think and act at a variety of levels so that in this case we are neither exclusively Pharisees nor Publicans. Some of us experience the two states chronologically by a radical change in our condition but most of us experience something of each simultaneously. That is precisely the case of Paul who recognises that without the Grace of God he is nothing and that the Law, as he would express it (Romans) is of “non effect” but it does not stop him, deep down, from being a Pharisee as well as an Apostle.

Whereas Paul is alive to his inner contradiction we are always in danger of not being so acute. We think that pleading guilty like the Publican will let us off the hook but it will not. Do we really think, particularly those of us who hold some position of influence, responsibility or power—who have something of the Pharisee about us—that we will get away with hiding at the bottom table, pretending that what we say and do is of no account. Jesus is warning us against false pride but we might equally be cautious of false modesty which is just as bad. Our model should be Paul who is always torn between the two.

At a superficial level, we have the contradiction, already noted, between the Law and Grace but there is also the very obvious matter of Paul’s status. In Corinth, as we know from Chapter 1 of this letter, Paul was trying to damp down factionalism and one of the factions was almost certainly made up of people who had seen or who said they had seen Jesus; and others claimed that whatever Paul’s pretensions, Peter was superior to him. In his efforts to unify the factions, Paul appeals strongly to his ecclesiological inheritance, starting with the Resurrection and going through a succession of the appearances of Jesus before attaching himself to the end of the line. Typically, he somewhat weakens the advantage he has so carefully built up by calling himself “The least of the Apostles”.

In the light of these thoughts and our personal experience, let us look again at Luke’s parable. As usual, we have stereotypical, caricatured figures without anomalous features. They have been created to make a point not about Pharisees—they are incidental—but about us and the way we view ourselves. The second point follows from this: Jesus is not saying that there ought not to be Pharisees nor that Publicans who have sinned are a particularly good thing; he never denies the importance of the role of the Pharisees and publicly consents to the Roman imposition of taxation. The caricatures simply illustrate the extremes to which we occasionally push ourselves. Thirdly—and this relates both to Paul and to the Collect—it does not matter who we are, we all depend on Grace. The Pharisee’s problem is his belief in moral and salvific self sufficiency which links with the fourth important point; the metaphor of the banquet pecking order is pragmatic at one level—the potential shame of being publicly demoted is powerful—but also refers to God as our sole means of salvation. Humility lies not in self deprecation but in understanding the relationship—or, rather, the lack of it—between what we are and which place at table we are asked to occupy.

Pharisaic credibility rested on a tradition which stretched back to the end of the Jewish exile in Babylon when most of the oral and fragmented Scriptural tradition was consolidated. Paul’s strategy for combating this formidable tradition is to sketch a Resurrection chronology which underpins his other teaching; some great figures in the early church and some 500 others saw Jesus after he had risen. His position is strengthened by the Pharisees’ own belief in Resurrection although they did not have in mind Jesus’ kind of Resurrection on earth.

So torn is Paul that his almost simultaneous hectoring and self deprecation is a common stylistic feature of most of his writing. This often makes for uncomfortable reading and it reflects what should be our chronic discomfort. Like him, but at a much greater chronological remove, we are children of the Resurrection and witnesses of Christ, called upon to live in the world and make the best of its challenges. We are Pharisees and we are Publicans and as we know from history and contemporary public life, the more we are Pharisees the more in danger we are of becoming Publicans—power corrupts—but that cannot excuse us from taking the risk. Sanctity, as we can see from Paul, is turbulent but the way in which we describe it frequently bares more resemblance to ‘good breeding’—many people colloquially described as such are simply virtuous—which begs the question of whether an established Church has any room for saints.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. What are the strengths and weaknesses of parables; and their use of caricature?
  2. Compare Paul’s account of the successive post Resurrection appearances of Jesus with the Gospel evidence
  3. How well founded is Paul’s claim to Apostleship?
  4. What tools do we need for realistic self assessment?
  5. Is there room in an established Church for saints?

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