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Readings: Last Sunday after Trinity

18 October 2013


Jeremiah 14.7-10, 19-end; 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18; Luke 18.9-14

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 Christ. Amen.

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 people's waywardness.

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 their righteousness.

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, "atonement").

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 distress.

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 God's sight.

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."

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