A Handbook for Pharisees

Sunday 24th October 2004
Year C, The Last Sunday after Trinity
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Luke 18:9-14

You're better than usual today; but Just because you like sitting at the back of the church does not mean that you are going to get away with it. I know that you all want to be classified as humble, penitent sinners and maybe that's the explanation of why people tend to sit at the back of church.

For most of us, then, today's Gospel is easy, isn't it? The Pharisee deserves our uncritical condemnation because he stands for all to see in the Temple, he is pompous and insensitive, even though he goes to great trouble to understand the Law of God and obey it. On the other hand, the tax collector, or Publican as he is often called, deserves our sympathy, doesn't he, because he has repented, even if his sin of extortion on behalf of the occupying Roman power was peculiarly hated by Jews?

But the matter is not that simple; the two characters, after all, are both sinners. The man at the back of the Temple is truly penitent but that should not obscure his sinfulness. Equally, the Pharisee may be rather pompous but who are we to say he is not truly penitent, too. Then again, although we automatically warm towards the sinner for his humility, the world would be a pretty messy place without a few Pharisees.

And let's face it; there's a bit of the Pharisee in most of us. After all, many of us spend some if not all of our lives being pharisees: we sit on committees, make decisions on behalf of other people, exercise power, make public statements and in general enjoy a sense of not quite being as other people.

So I am going to use my time to outline a handbook for Pharisees, in case we need it:

The contents page would read:

  1. Know The Law
  2. Equal in the Sight of God
  3. The Quality of Mercy
  4. Inner Worship
  1. Know The Law. In the Gospels the Pharisees always seem to be making a mess of things: they ask Jesus such silly questions; they scrape the bottom of the barrel looking for false witnesses; they are vulgar and proud. Of course Matthew spends a lot of time giving them a hard time but even the gentle Luke in today's Gospel cannot resist caricature. So, just as we would undertake training and ret-training to be competent members of a board or office holders, what makes us think that after Confirmation we can dispense with training and trust in our adult lives to the version of Christian faith which we largely absorbed at school? Many of us may find it impossible to handle the awkward atheist in the pub who wants you to prove that God exists; but what about an innocent question from a young child; and what about the questions that are always asked after a terrible natural disaster, an act of terrorism or the untimely death of a loved one? Are we still shuffling a pack of caricature cards with childish pictures of God or are we deepening our knowledge of Scripture and thinking carefully of what we actually mean when we say the Creed? Would we do any better than the Pharisees in the Gospels?
  2. Equal in the Sight of God. I suppose that there was no word in the 20th Century that aroused so much passion and led to so much cant as the word "equality"; so let us remember when we use it in the context of God that we are all sinners who can only be saved through the merits of Jesus Christ and not through our own efforts alone. If we  understand this in our hearts it will not be difficult for us to see fellow human beings in a proper light. We might be tempted to envy the rich or look down on the poor but only God knows why people are one rather than the other. The Psalms are full of reproaches to God that he allows the wicked to prosper before coming round to the view that He doesn't; and there is a very special place in the Gospels for the poor. So, apart from doing what we can to alleviate poverty, we must learn to disconnect respect from earthly wealth so that we treat everyone as equal in the sight of God.
  3. The Quality of Mercy. (You see, they are short chapters) We are not all judges fortunate enough to hear the pleas of Portia but many of us struggle to be merciful. In our worst moments we want to be vengeful or punitive but we learn to moderate this by being scrupulously fair; but this is not enough. Social arrangements are very rarely made by the weak to moderate the strong; they are almost invariably made by the strong to control the weak. Because we are exercising all kinds of power we must pay special attention when what we are doing is somehow tilted in favour of our kind of people and against the kind of people who are usually on the wrong end of bad news. We have to be very careful of our language. one thing that strikes me about Pharisees, even when they are behaving with impeccable decency and integrity is the formalism and harshness of the language. So it isn't enough to be doing the right thing for the right reason, we have to behave with compassion, imagining ourselves into the position of the person receiving the bad news from us; and what we say has to reflect that.
  4. Inner Worship. Of course the Pharisee was way over the top, talking about his fasting and praying and just going through liturgies is certainly not enough. Busy people, to their credit, can usually find time to get to church but do they have time for quiet devotion; and before they become involved in formal prayer, do they wait quietly in the ante room of Christ the King, preparing to come into His presence? Of course being Christian is a corporate experience but we must also keep a Temple in our hearts.

In summary, then, we have to remember that we are both sinners and Pharisees. When the Gospels were being written the new Christian religion was still grappling with its relationship with the Judaism from which it sprang; you can see that struggle in St. Paul who was a Pharisee before he became a Christian missionary; in his letters he desperately tries to bind the old and the new, working out what to keep and what to reject. Not unnaturally, that struggle took the form of open competition with the old faith which is why the Pharisees get such a bad write up from Christianity's first theologians.

So remember, it's being a sinner that we have to worry about. As long as we keep our duties in proportion, being a Pharisee is an honourable profession.