Jeremiah 14.7-10, 19-end; 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18; Luke
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written
for our learning: help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and
inwardly digest them that, through patience, and the comfort of
your holy word, we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of
everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus
THERE was a crisis: Jeremiah's devastating words came when the
nation, threatened with destruction by a powerful enemy, faced
severe drought. He described starkly what we see so often on the
news: parched and cracked ground, empty water cisterns, dead
animals (Jeremiah 14.1-6).
People cried in despair, pleading with God not to spurn them. We
can hear echoes of Habakkuk, three weeks ago, berating God for not
seeing what he saw, or failing to hear his cry of "Violence!"
Shockingly, God ignored the people, refusing to hear their
pleas, seeming to act like the unjust judge with whom the widow
pleaded in last week's Gospel. In practice, God's silence was in
response to the people's persistent refusal to hear his previous
calls to them; but they crudely likened him to a lost stranger, a
confused, disoriented, powerless warrior.
In contrast to the Lord's abandonment of the citizens of
Jerusalem to be killed or exiled by the Babylonians, the author of
the epistle averred boldly that, whereas others deserted him, the
Lord stood by him and gave him strength. He likened the experience
to Daniel's rescue from lions.
He prefaced this testimony to God's power by saying: "I have
finished the race, I have kept the faith" - something that could
also be said of Jeremiah, who remained faithful, despite his
We hear the Gospel in the light of these two contrasting
readings. This parable is about what it is to be righteous, the
issue at the heart of Jerusalem's dilemma. Greeks thought that to
be righteous was to be civilised; Hebrews considered that it was to
be in relationship with God. Jesus had the Hebrew concept in mind,
and directed this parable at people who trusted themselves for
Besides challenging us about where our trust is placed, the
parable asks us with whom we compare ourselves. Jesus offered two
options, and I wonder whether he acted them out. They beg for
drama: a Pharisee standing by himself, a tax-collector standing
afar off; a Pharisee reminding God that he was not like other
people, a tax-collector describing himself as a sinner; a Pharisee
with confident stance exalting himself, a tax-collector looking
down, beating his breast, pleading for mercy (literally, here,
Since women, not men, beat their breasts and the only other time
Luke describes men doing so is in the crowds' response to the
crucifixion (Luke 23.48), he is emphasising the depth of the man's
In contrast, lest there be any doubting his righteousness, the
Pharisee announced to the world that he fasted twice a week (a work
of supererogation, since fasting was mandatory only on the annual
Day of Atonement) and gave away one tenth of his income. But then
came the shock, as stunning as the Lord's refusal of the pleas of
Jerusalem centuries earlier.
While both men "went up" to the Temple, only one man "went down"
justified, and it was not the Pharisee. He even lost his identity:
no longer was he "not like other men"; Jesus simply dismissed him
as "the other". Like the people to whom Jesus directed this
parable, his self-directed trust was misplaced, and he could not
save himself. He justified himself, but remained unjustified in
Barbara Kingsolver's marvellous portrayal (in Flight
Behaviour, Faber, 2012) of a self-righteous Appalachian
mother-in-law humorously portrays a contemporary Pharisee given to
telling others how they fail to match her virtue.
"Hester's confidence in her own rectitude was frankly unwomanly.
She never doubted a thing about herself, not even her wardrobe.
Hester owned cowboy boots in many colours, including a round-toed
pair in lime green lizard."
Boots like that might not be our manifestation of smug conceit,
but we all have ways of substituting self-righteousness for the
epistle's godly source of confidence.
Today is the Last Sunday after Trinity. We end this season with
salutary and sobering readings. At the same time, we pray in the
collect that we may to learn through patience and the comfort of
God's holy word to embrace and ever hold fast the hope of eternal
life. To do this means knowing in whom our righteousness lies. That
there is such hope leads us to share the epistle's exaltation: "To
God be the glory for ever and ever. Amen."