Posted by Mary Davidge

“Contempt & self-righteousness – human hallmarks”


Sunday 27 October 2013


Nic Denny-Dimitriou

Church of the Ascension – The Anglican Church in Hilton, KZN



Gospel:  Luke 18: 9-14





Sermon notes:

[As always, with grateful thanks to many sources for ideas and well-expressed phrases]



So, once again we’re here – rather, YOU are here to listen to ME give you proper teaching on how to live your life the correct way, the Godly way, the Jesus way.  It’s my job, as the priest of this congregation, to point out how far you’ve strayed, and to point out your sins to you.  It takes a pure one, such as I am, to do that for you…


… and having just spoken to you in that incredibly arrogant and self-righteous way, I think it best that I move up into the high pulpit – “just above contradiction” as they say J


That obviously OTT arrogant introduction takes us to the heart of the parable Jesus tells, recorded by Luke and read as today’s Gospel passage.



We generally think negatively of the Pharisees.  The word Pharisee is often used outside the church to describe people who are legalistic and self-righteous, and sadly, it is sometimes used to describe people inside the church!


However, in the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were seen as heroic, the ones who resisted watering down the faith to accommodate the prevailing Greek and Roman culture. They were the keen defenders of the unique faith and culture of the people of God, and they had not become corrupt fat-cats by compromising in business.









Even the conflict between the Pharisees and Jesus is probably exaggerated. If you have ever known Jewish people well, religious or otherwise, you will know that it is in the Jewish character to enjoy a good argument – especially on matters of religion; it is a mark of respect to engage you in argument.  But Jesus invariably has strong words for them, commenting that they observe the religious rules and rituals in ways far removed from God’s purposes.


We are disgusted when we hear the Pharisee’s prayer:  “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”  Our response might even be to think, “Arrogant prick”!  


But it was not an unusual type of prayer said by the Pharisees on entering the temple or synagogue.  Those who first heard Jesus tell this parable would have been familiar with such prayers and might not have regarded them as arrogant.


So the first hearers of the story would have been hugely shocked to hear Jesus saying that God would favour one who collaborated with the Romans in collecting taxes – and almost always corruptly – hence a sinner!  Could you imagine that God would favour such a person over a devout man of faith?


What is Jesus saying?  The Pharisee is very pleased with his own religious success, and the tax-collector sounds full of remorse, but that’s not all that is going on …


The Pharisee looks around and finds a person who embodies all he wants to distinguish himself from. “I thank you, God, that I am not like that man over there. I do what is right. He does evil.”  Whilst what the Pharisee is saying and thinking may well be true, it is also a fatal error. He has used his religious worldview to categorize the world up into simple groups of good and bad, and he has located the bad entirely in others.


He’s by no means alone. This is normal behaviour amongst humans, and that is Jesus’ point.  It is normal human behaviour to be busy finding evil in other people and places, and attacking them.  “It is those people who are the cause of all our problems. If we could just get rid of them, then we’d all be able to get on with serving God properly.”


Even if we respond to this story by thinking, “Thank you God that I am not like that Pharisee,” then we have fallen into the same error.





There’s a subtlety here.  Jesus is clearly saying that the Pharisee is wrong, so it must therefore be OK to make a judgment in the sense of naming a wrong. Even Jesus is doing that.


And when we think about it, there is much to name that is wrong – in other people, in other societies, in other cultures, in other companies and amongst politicians and corrupt policemen that seem to be offering us new stories in the media every day; there are many bad things to point to.


The problem arises when we only identify evil in other people.  Then we become part of the problem, not part of the solution. (Elaborate)


The famous St Augustine preached on this story in the 5th C, saying it is like someone who goes to a doctor and is so busy telling the doctor how sick everyone else is, that they forget to describe their own symptoms – and they leave the doctor without a diagnosis and cure.


In this story of Jesus, the tax collector doesn’t participate in tit-for-tat. He will have heard the public prayer of the Pharisee, but he doesn’t retaliate or respond in like manner. Rather than angrily point out the speck in the Pharisee’s eye, he humbly attends to the log in his own:  “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  He is commended for humbly facing up to his own sin; like Jesus himself, he absorbs the insult and doesn’t return it.



Jesus invites us all into a journey of transformation.  A key part of that journey is facing up to the ways that we contribute to the wrong in the world.


Even if our contribution to the problem seems small compared to somebody else’s, and our sin seems small to us compared to those of others, the only one with full responsibility for dealing with MY sin is ME!   


Therefore our worship always has prayers that confess that we have sinned, and that acknowledge our need of forgiveness and reconciliation. We repeatedly hear Jesus’ invitation, not to exclude ourselves from others who are sinners and wrongdoers, but to count ourselves IN with those in need of healing, forgiveness and transformation. We begin with ourselves, acknowledging our own sin, and our own need of God’s mercy.