Once upon a match day, a Newcastle fan was making his way to the Stadium of Light for the Wear/Tyne derby. Dressed proudly in his replica shirt he strode purposefully on, failed to look properly as he crossed the road and was knocked down by a car. He opened his eyes and found himself outside the pearly gates which, to his horror, were festooned with red and white scarves, bunting and flags. After all, as most of us here know, and Pope Francis seemed to acknowledge during the week, God is a Sunderland fan...
The Geordie stood up, puffed out his chest and marched up to figure behind the desk. St. Peter looked him up and down and spoke in a clear, measured voice.
“You're not coming in wearing that!”
The man stared back. “You have to let me in,” he began.
“I'm a good person. I deserve to go to heaven.”
“Well, I don't drink, smoke or swear, unlike most of the Mackems down there!” he replied. “I always give up my seat to a lass or granny on the Metro, and I don't do the bookies or look up dirty pictures on the internet like everybody else seems to.”
St. Peter seemed unmoved, so the man kept going.
“I even watch Songs of Praise sometimes, though not when Aled Jones is on 'cos he sold out and did that rubbish thing on ITV. And I'm generous!”
Peter raised a quizical eyebrow.
“Yeah,” said the Geordie, “Ask anyone, they've all seen how generous I am. I put a £20 note on the plate the vicar was holding when our Mandy's bairn got done – he saw it, he'll tell you! And I gave a tenner to a tramp the other day when I was with wor lass – she said I was dead soft, but was pleased I told him not to waste it all on drink, though he will anyway. That must be enough to get me in here.”
St. Peter stroked his beard and thought for a moment.
“I'll go and tell the boss what you've told me,” he said. “Wait here.”
A few minutes later, Peter returned. “I've talked to the boss,” he said.
The man smiled, knowing what was coming.
Peter looked him straight in the eye and said “He agrees with me – here's you £30 back, now sling your hook!”
The opening sentence of our Gospel reading makes it clear who the parable Jesus goes on to tell is aimed at: those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” People who, when they take a look at themselves, their lives, their overall behaviour, lifestyle, etc., conclude they are acceptable to God – that God will look favourably on them because of how they live and, by the same token, look down on those who do not do as they do, or live as they live.
But the interesting point is that his audience is unlikely to have been the Pharisees themselves. Aside from being incredibly offensive, and so out of whack with the way he often sought to teach them over dinner, it could have easily led those in the crowd who were not Pharisees to fall into the kind of behaviour he was condemning - “Ooo, he's having a pop at those Pharisees over there – I'm glad I'm not like them...!”
Rather, it was addressed to his disciples, not just the twelve, but the crowd of others who followed him around – something born out in the next part of the Gospel when he rebukes them for not allowing the little children to approach. He's not criticising all Pharisees, and he's not criticising the things the Pharisee says he has done – things like tithing and fasting are encouraged elsewhere. The issue is his attitude toward others. His list of those he is not like shows his misunderstanding of a God who, as those of you who came to our Harvest celebration may remember, requires His people to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God, as stated in Micah 6 verse 8.
But how often do we unwittingly fall into the same trap as the Pharisee, or the Geordie: the “at least I'm not like...” thoughts that creep in uninvited. We may not be as blatant in our boasting as those in our tales, but we can be, for want of a better word, proud of our perceived virtues when it comes to our treatment of others.
For example, our regular Church attendance of itself does not 'earn' us a place in heaven, because it is not something that can be earned. Rather our regular Church attendance helps us to grow, to hear scripture explained, to join together to seek God's will for us and our neighbour, to find the strength to look outside the walls of our building here, and our homes and seek to show the remarkable love of Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose again so we may have eternal life, to those who do not know him. In other words, to grow his kingdom on earth.
When a church congregation is a truly non-judgemental, safe space where people can come and learn to become a disciple of Jesus, it grows. We need to remember, as Archbishop Justin Welby recently said, that “the church is not a rest home for saints but a lifeboat for sinners.” Then, like the tax collector, we will find ourselves justified before our maker.
And this is the really shocking part of the parable – and deliberately so. Jesus is saying the tax collector, though still a sinner, is more open to God than the Pharisee, who to all intents and purposes is a very sincere, devout individual - purely for humbling himself: for seeking to take the plank from his own eye instead of jabbing around for the specks in the eyes of those around him.
This doesn't mean we are to consciously continue in sin – as we learnt from Paul in last weeks reading from 2 Timothy once you have a relationship with the living God this is not an option – but a reminder that none of us are spotless, none of us are better than the person next to us, or the young person having to stay in Centrepoint, or the single parent living off benefits, or whoever it is the Daily Mail feels the urge to criticize this week.
We all fall short. We all need God's grace. Our virtuous living becomes a millstone if it is used to exclude people from God's presence rather than as a way of drawing them into his kingdom.
Paul got this; he understood better than most the temptation to justify oneself for following 'the law' from his time as the most fundamental of Pharisees - something he alludes to in verse 16 of today's reading, where he echoes the plea of Stephen, whom he watched stoned to death for talking of Jesus while guarding the coats of those doing the throwing. So when Paul states that the “the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to” him when he dies will also be given to “all who have longed for Jesus appearing,” we can see how far he has come. When you take today's reading in context, as the conclusion of his letter, Paul appears to be saying to Timothy – and to us all - “I have fulfilled my ministry, during which the message was fully proclaimed so all the Gentiles might hear it – now you must fulfil yours, and do likewise.”
It is not up to us to judge who is worthy of a place in heaven – only God can do that, and he will. Our job is to help all around us into the lifeboat and let Him steer us to shore. And for those of us here who feel just like the tax collector: painfully aware of our shortcomings, unable to lift our eyes because of the weight of failure or guilt on our shoulders, questioning if God could ever love somebody like you...rejoice! Those who humble themselves will be exalted. Acknowledging our sin is the first step. Asking Jesus to help us change is the second. After all, if he can love somebody like me there's hope for everybody.
So please, this week take the pew sheet home and carve out some time, even just half an hour, to re-read the passage from Luke. Thank God for all he has done in you life, and ask Him to help you look with His eyes at all you come across that day. Then finish off by saying what has now become known as the Jesus prayer, the words of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
So maybe our story should have gone like this...
The Geordie opened his eyes and found himself outside the pearly gates which, to his horror, were festooned with red and white scarves, bunting and flags. He looked down at his black and white shirt, unable to lift his eyes, and thumping at the badge that symbolised his rebellion, his mistakes and his pride cried out “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Then all around him the light grew brighter. The black stripes on his shirt faded away, as did the red decorating the now-open gates. All was white and radiant, but somehow the brightest part was a man, dressed simply, bearing deep wounds on his forehead, hands and feet, now standing before him.
Holding out his scarred hand toward the weeping Geordie, with a voice soft and welcoming, he spoke.
“Follow me,” he said, “We need to talk...”