Part of the tiled wall in All Saints' church, Margaret Street, depicting the birth of Jesus Christ. The Lord lies in a manger, looked on by his mother, the Virgin Mary, and his foster father, St Joseph. Angels rejoice overhead and the shepherd and wise man (Magi) approach in humble adoration.

Homily for Palm Sunday

In 2020, James started Praying Eucharistically, a project exploring the ways of worshipping and Christian living in the Covid lockdown. For this project, he provides the appropriate liturgical texts for people celebrating at home and offers Gospel readings and homilies in video format for Sundays and the main festivities of the liturgical year. All videos can be found on YouTube.

Text: Matthew 21:1-11

Text: John 11: 1-45

Text: John 9. The longer commentary on the same text

Text: John 4:5-42

Text: Matthew 17:1-9 Exodus 34:29-35 (Moses on Horeb) 1 Kings 19 (Elijah on way to Horeb)

Text: Matthew 4:1-11 3 responses to temptation: Deuteronomy 8,3; Dt 6,16; 6:13 Dt 8,3 reference to Ex 16 and Mana; Dt 6:13 ref to Ex 17:1-7 and Massah Scripture quoted by Devil: Psalm 91:11-12

Text: Matthew 5:38-48; Leviticus 24:19 (lex talionis); Leviticus 19: 17-18 (neighbour); Leviticus 19:33-34 (alien as neighbour)

Text: Matthew 5:17-37

Text: Matthew 5:13-16 cf Isaiah 58:6-14 and 60, the whole chapter.

Text: John 1:1-18

Unedited transcript:

Welcome, my sisters and brothers, to this homily for Christmas Day. The Church proposes for the four Masses associated with Christmas Day four different Gospels. actually three different Gospels: for two of the masses it’s the Lucan account of Jesus’s birth, for one of the accounts, for one of the Gospels it’s Matthew’s account which we actually had last week, but including the genealogy, so the whole of the genealogy and the passage we had last week. and for the other mass, we have the reading of St John’s Gospel. and since for the last two Christmases I’ve used the Lucan passage and we had the Mathian passage last week, I thought that I take a quick look at the beginning of John’s Gospel, even though in one sense it seems the furthest removed from what we’re used to at Nativity, which is focusing down on the very practical issues of baby manger, beasts, swaddling clothes, stars, shepherds – all those very particular human or human and animal things which attend a birth.

and what we get in John’s Gospel if you like seems so extra-planetary that we pass it off with something like dismay and having to interpret it. so I don’t want to attempt a full interpretation which course would be quite impossible – these 18 verses are some of the most remarkable words ever to have been written in any human language. it would be foolish to try to expatiate too wildly on them. what I would like to do is to say how much closer I think they are to more concrete, more human, more historical sense of a little baby in a precarious situation in Bethlehem than perhaps we might give credit for.

I’m taking it as many do that there is a basic chiastic structure in St John’s prologue meaning that the first and the last verses reflect each other and so on through the middle until you get to the central point. and of course, the chiastic structure has been slightly altered by the putting in of the bits of John the Baptist which were probably not in the original poetry but were put in so as to help make sense of what was coming about. The first verse: in the beginning, was the word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…

after we’ve been through the history comes out as no one has ever seen God. it is God the only son who is close to the Father’s Heart who has made him known.

why do I say that so the two explain each other in this strange way? the beginning was the Criterion, was the word, the beginning for us of creation. this does reflect Genesis. it would have been understood to a Jewish audience or anyone who knew anything about how the temple worked, and how the holy of holies was the microcosm of the heart of creation outside which God and God’s angels were. of course, no one could see God. it was only as God’s Criterion showed itself and the Criterion shows itself the word in creation. you remember how Genesis starts: and God said. the creative word, the word that creates.

So the word was at the very beginning of all things, word was with God, and the Word was God. Which is to say the creative thing is not simply an extra thing that God happened us to do, it is God’s criteria for God, we are actually learning something about who God is when God makes God’s Criterion available to us in and as and through creation.

We pair that off with the very end: no one has ever seen God. that’s absolutely standard, of course: God is not an object that can be seen. that’s not at all what is meant by any use of language about God by anybody rational really, that would be a god, a God who could be seen. no one has ever seen God, it’s God’s the only son who is close to the Father’s heart who has made him known.

so the Criterion that was with God, and the Criterion was God, was in the beginning with God. so it turns out that the Criterion for everything being is her son. that’s in a sense the most extraordinary claim for us to understand and from which to get a glimpse of what’s going on in the Christmas story. it’s God’s only son is God’s Criterion who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. In other words, the criteria for bringing everything into being is that of a Father’s love for us all. The underpinning reality of everything that is is this sort of affection, the structure, the very structure of reality is made available to us through this sort of love.

Given that it is perhaps less surprising that at the midpoint of the chiasmus, and we could go through advice by verse all the way up and down that would take far too long, it’d be far too complicated at least for me, but the midpoint of the chiasmus is: he came to to his own and his own people did not accept him, but to all who received him who believed in his name he gave power to become children of God. that’s the central line: but to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.

Here’s the suggestion that the very structuring force of reality, which is a loving structure, finally came into our midst, came into our midst as something that can enlighten us, light us up from within, was the light, was the source of our seeing, has come in.

And for those who receive him, who believe in his name – his name is the same as of the name – he gives power to become children of God who are born not of bloods (which might refer just to the two people involved in conceptional work, might refer to the way in which mythical stories of creation, and therefore of birth, happen through massacres) or the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God. so the notion that there is a being brought into being according to who the Father is, who the God is, and what God’s love is that actually seeks to bring us into being as children of God. and that means us being aligned with what really is.

In him was life, and life was the light of all people, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. – he’s talking about people being brought into being so that we may actually participate on the inside of creation, and discover what really is.

and that the way that this was made available to us started – of course, John doesn’t say this, we only get this in Matthew and Luke – started with the bizarrely powerless seeming sign of the babe born in Bethlehem. this was a wholy fully human sign, it’s us learning to detect the love of the only begotten Son, God the only begotten. it also appears to be a way of referring to Isaac in the Abraham story – he was referred to as God’s – in one translation it’s the – only begotten Son, which wasn’t true of course because Abraham had Ishmael, another son, and often is translated as I love it. so clearly it does not refer to something numerical, it refers to a quality of love.

that there is a purpose to everything which happened who like the friendliness towards us humans of everything that there is not known to us. we are so often stuck in darkness not able to see what is really happening.

the law tried to enable us to stand upright a little bit, to learn what is true, to understand something about how the Creator wanted us to see and participate in the creation. with grace and truth and through Jesus Christ the sense of the tenderness and not out to get us, the friendly quality in the backdrop to everything that that there is that this is a friendly gentle adventure. strangely, it’s that, if you like, the background colours to the Nativity picture that are some of the most difficult things to get. the background colours which are of the whole of creation actually being vastly more friendly to us. if only we could learn to find our way into being sons and daughters of God, those who are actually on the inside of creation as it says, to use Paul’s language, but the same message is here.

So as you come to the Christmas celebration this year, think not only of the 3D figures in the crash, what they say about a God’s power being shown forth in being exposed to be absolutely weak in the middle of a precarious situation, in the middle of some people who are going to make his life difficult and ultimately going to kill him.

But also the vast backdrop of the sheer friendliness of creation, that which we’re becoming used to learning about and seeing ourselves as sons and daughters. this is if you’re like not a moral thing but us being shown who God really is. he said: no one has ever seen God, it’s God’s the only son who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known everything that we learn about God is going to be learned through following the human life of Jesus. and it’s going to show us that there is extraordinary power in weakness, an extraordinary joy in our discovering our likeness with apparent others, and that all these actually tend to show a vastly richer project, adventure, a friendly adventure, which is creation; and that this is the constant background to everything that is.

It’s the difficulty of receiving and living from that backdrop which is one of the real challenges of our lives and one of the real joys of Christmas asking ourselves: am I a little bit closer to that this year, is the world a little bit friendlier, is it out of gratitude that I’m able to give presents.

just because I’m so pleased to be in part of this world rather than how I’ve got to go through the usual drag of presents and all that.

For me that’s the question that was brought to my mind by these astounding verses from St John. and with that I wish you a very happy Christmas and along with the Gospel text in the little bit below the picture in YouTube I’ve put a link to Jussi Bjoerling singing Oh Holy Night which for me is one of the absolute must-haves of the Christmas season and one of the most beautiful pieces of the singing of that great Carol that I know. and furthermore, it’s in Swedish so I can’t understand it so we don’t have the terrible words of the original French which are full of exactly the worst sort of sacrificial nonsense that it’s very very good not to be able to understand. Very happy Christmas to you all.

Text: Matthew 1:18-25; Isaiah 7:10-15; Deuteronomy 13:6-11; Genesis 6:6; Wisdom 3:14, 6:15; Matthew 27:19 (Pilate’s wife -dream – just man)

Text: Matthew 11:2-11; Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, Isaiah 35:5 ff, Isaiah 61:1.

Text: Matthew 24:37-44 (poss refs: Gen 4:8, Gen 27,27, conceivably Ruth and Orpah – Ruth 1)

Unedited transcript
Unedited transcript

Welcome, my sisters and brothers, to this – the homily for the last Sunday in the church’s year – the solemnity of Christ the King or the 34th Sunday in ordinary time. so it’s on this occasion that we get our last chunk of St Luke’s Gospel ending our run-through with Luke, the cycle of readings which I hope has allowed speaText: Matthew 11:2-11 Exodus 23:20 Malachi 3:1 Isaiah 35:5 ff Isaiah 61:1king to us throughout this year.

and because it’s the Feast of Christ the King we come upon some of the very very few places where Luke, actually, uses the word King in relation to Jesus. and it’s interesting Luke doesn’t go in, unlike John and other Gospel writers, for bringing out how Jesus was a king. the only place he actually talks about Jesus as king as in these passages: Pilate asks Jesus after the authorities have said this one says he is Christ a king, Pilate then says: are you the king of the Jews? and Jesus says: you have said it. and then the only other times we get a reference to Jesus as king is the soldiers who are also Romans mocking him and offer him sour wine and say: if you’re the king of Jews, save yourself; and then the plague over his head saying: this is the king of the Jews.

but I’d like to point out there for that in St Luke’s Gospel strictly all references to Jesus as king of the Jews are mockery; lies, false accusations or mockery. even the title – this is the king of the Jews – is I think this translated to most of our Bibles because the word order is “the king of the Jews, this one”. “the king of the Jews, this” is more mockery than it is a solemn proclamation. it comes across as a solemn proclamation in the other Gospels but here it’s part of Gentile mockery of Jesus. and therefore also Gentile mockery of God’s Holy People. that’s how this is set up in Luke’s Gospel. now what I’d like to do in order to show what actually Luke is bringing out even with this mockery is actually far richer than any of our normal understanding of kingship: how Jesus is the principle of all the structure and power of the world but in a far more gentle and subtle way than we’re used to with simply straightforward references. so I hope that’ll become clear as we go through this.

so just to remind you that before this has happened Jesus is fulfilled being the real human, the real Adam. he’s been in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweat has rolled down his face and his body acquiring a reddish hue so that it’s as if coagulated clumps of blood because the ground was reddish. so sweat looked as if the blood; it wasn’t blood, it was sweat, with the red earth; and the words red earth and Adam are linked together in Hebrew. so here he is fulfilling the promised Adam from Genesis that by the sweat of your blood, the right side of your brows should be when you’re living until your dust flows down to the Earth (Genesis 3:16). It’s a prophecy concerning Adam is being fulfilled. and here this is the true human, the one who does follow the will of the Father, rather than the first Adam who has followed his own will.

so the first Adam is being brought to life. and then shortly after this, within the next couple of sentences after today’s Gospel, we get the sensation of creation running down: the sun goes out, the veil of the Temple is ripped, so we go outside the created order into before creation, and then Jesus breathes out his spirit. so that which had been hovering over creation before creation is now going to rest until it comes back in to fill the new creation. so light going out, creation of us retreating outside creation, and then the spirit coming back in – all of that is what’s going to be brought out in the next few verses in St Like. So there’s been a massive build-up to this point. And almost every one of the words in today’s Gospel is part of an indication that something hugely powerful is really going on.

so we start, and the people stood by watching but the leaders scoffed at him. I’m not sure that the ‘but’ is right there, it could merely be ‘and’: the leaders scoffed at him. There is not necessary to make them apart. why is this important? because the mixture of watching and scoffing comes in Psalm 22 which we of course know very well from our Holy Week services where “all who see me, mock me, they make … at me, they shake their heads”. all who see me and mock me there – literally are the two verbs here – the same verse: watching and scoffing. so literally Psalm Psalm 22 is being fulfilled here, the one which we know is “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” here Jesus is living it out on the cross, and it is saying: when the leaders scoffed him saying: he saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God.

now, this takes us straight back to Nazareth and Jesus’s first day of his ministry in the synagogue where after he’s finished speaking out and he says to them “no doubt you will say to me, doctor, save yourself” and so here exactly as predicted, they’re saying: save you first, doctor, save yourself. so his own prophecy is being fulfilled there and we’ll see very soon another prophecy from very early on in the Bible being fulfilled. and if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one. it’s interesting that it uses both of those: the Messiah of God, that’s the anointed one, so that’s the Davidic figure brought out in our first reading this Sunday; and the chosen one. the chosen one was Israel rather than a particular figure. Saul is sometimes referred to as the chosen one – the beginnings of the kingship of Israel. but the chosen one this is a reference to Isaiah 28 where God is setting a foundation in Zion by placing a chosen stone, a precious one in his eyes. we’ll see how important it comes to be because it’s the distinction between precious and shame; the one that is chosen is the one that people think “yes, this is something being done for us”; and the other one is a shame, so they’re saying it right but they’re saying it so that to shame him. we’re going to see how important that dichotomy between the chosen one and the shamed one is because everything in today’s Gospel is around that fundamental dichotomy.

the soldiers also mocked him coming up and offering him sour wine. so the Romans, please remember that while from our point of view this is a collection of individuals who were reading in the history and the story, the point of the soldiers is that these are Romans, these are Gentiles. so the Gentiles are mocking him and they’re therefore thereby fulfilling; so the Roman soldiers are thereby fulfilling Zechariah 12:2-3: I am going to make Jerusalem a cup that sends all the surrounding peoples reeling. Judah will be besieged as well as Jerusalem. On that day, when all the nations of the earth are gathered against her, I will make Jerusalem an immovable rock for all the nations. All who try to move it will injure themselves. And in the Greek version, it’s ‘I will make a mockery’, so the foreigners should be doing the mocking. It is very much in part of in Zechariah, and also in Habakkuk 1 chapter 10: at Kings they scoff and of rulers they make sport, they laugh at every fortress and keep up earth to take it. so the Gentiles again are scoffing at the king. it’s the Gentiles who apparently realize that this is a king even if ironically. that’s what they’re doing.

And then furthermore: they then behave properly as it were by offering him sour wine. they come up and they’re offering him vinegar, which, of course, is referenced in Psalm 68 (69 in our versions, you know): they gave me poison for food and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink. let’s remember that again the fulfilling of the psalm is quite plausible in those circumstances on the grounds that one of the things that people genuinely did do at public executions was to give people an anaesthetic, a drug mixed in wine for them to drink so to make it less painful. it was an element of humanity in public executions that given what is going to be a terrible show you diminish the pain somewhat by offering some sort of anaesthetic in wine. but here the important thing is it’s fulfilling the psalm.

and they say to him, the soldiers. remember, these are the Gentiles, they are taking a slightly different form of mockery. they’re saying: if you are the king of the Jews, save yourself. so here they are enacting, rather as the leaders had enacted, the fourth temptation – remember, when Jesus had been at the very beginning of his ministry, before his ministry, tempted in the wilderness, Satan asked a whole lot of questions: if you are this, do that. so here’s the fourth one: if you are the king of the Jews, save yourself. so whereas at the beginning of the Gospel, the remark had been: the devil then went away and left him until an opportune time, well – here’s the opportune time, when the accusation is coming both from Jewish leaders and from gentiles.

there was also an inscription over him ‘the king of the Jews’, ‘this one king of the Jews, that’s him’ – a mocking piece of solemnity. then we have next to him the criminals. one of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying: are you not the Messiah? well and again the word here is ‘blaspheming him’ and saying are you not the Messiah, and that’s a reference to 2 Kings. so here’s this rather marvellous reference from 2 Kings 19:22: whom did you mock and revile and against whom did you raise your voice, and lift your eyes on high against the Holy One of Israel? so the whole notion of this person who was already lifted up on high blaspheming, mocking – the word is the same. so this is the criminal blaspheming him saying: are you not the Messiah? so calling him, actually recognizing the name but again in a mocking way: save yourself and us. so what do we have here: we have the thief, or as it is described here – the evildoer who’s clearly been caught up in the mockery of the crowd, in the mockery of his leaders. so he was showing himself still to be part of that, even though he’s suffering the consequences of, if you like, group violence, he is still on the side of the people who are engaging in the lynch mob: save yourself and others. but the other rebuked him saying: do not fear God since you are under the same sentence of condemnation. of course, the same sentence of condemnation refers to Deuteronomy 21:22 that the one who is hanged upon a wood shall be cursed by God. so they’re both under the same condemnation, they’re all under this condemnation of being cursed by God. so do not fear God since you aren’t the same sentence of condemnation, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds but this man has done nothing wrong. and this appears to be again a reference to Job where Job in the midst of all his suffering says: I know I have done nothing wrong. whereas here it’s not Jesus saying it but this thief with him who is going to receive because of that his complete forgiveness because he recognizes the innocence of the One who is being cast out.

Then he says: Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom. and Jesus replies: truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise. I haven’t picked up the importance of the word ‘paradise’ until I looked up all the other times that the word paradise appears in the Septuagint, in the Greek Bible. and mostly it’s meaning an orchard. Jesus is clearly making a reference to the tree as the tree of life, which is of course in paradise, in the garden, the orchard in Genesis and in Ezekiel. and then there is the curse of the tree. so the whole question is are you part of the lynch mob, in which case there is a curse going on here. or do you recognize that this is the Tree of Life?

there are two trees or, rather, there are two people interpreting the tree in an entirely different way. and the one who recognizes that this one is entirely innocent, that the one who is being falsely accused is the source of life, that one has perceived that what looked like a place of shame is in fact the precious place that has been put down as a new foundation. in other words, all these references bring out the duality of what is going on here. on the one hand, something positive coming into being, so that Jesus really is the principle of all the powers of the world, he really is going to be able to feed the people, he really is going to be the new temple – those temptations which he’d overcome.

and he is actually opening up the tree of life making it possible to come into the garden, the orchard, the beginning of new creation. so that’s how Luke shows both how our forgiveness works and at the same time how what is going on is vastly more powerful than an individual scene but a place where all the kings and princes of this world gather together, look at the King, the Anointed and don’t know what they see. it’s Psalm 2 that is being reenacted here beautifully at the centre of Luke’s passion.

Text: Luke 21:5-19; The time is near – Ezekiel 7:1-7; Joel 2:30 -32 (portents); Isaiah 19:2 (nation against nation); Isaiah 14:30 Famine; Isaiah 13:13 Earthquakes; Jeremiah 21:6-9 Pestilence (various places)

Text: Luke 20:27-40; Levirate Law Dt 25:5-10 combined with Gen 38:8; Moses and the Bush: Exodus 3:6,15; 4:5

Text: Luke 19: 1-10; 2 Samuel 12:5

Text: Luke 18: 9-14

Unedited transcript

This week our Gospel continues straight on from where we left it last time.

Last time we remember was the parable of the judge, of injustice, and the unfortunate widow. In other words, it was about the importance of prayer. And it followed on from a running with the Pharisees where they had asked him about the coming of the Kingdom. And he’d given them an answer saying that it was in their midst and then he’d given quite a long talk to his disciples about how to begin to detect that coming, which we missed out because normally that comes just before the end of the church this year, coming up to Advent. Immediately after that, he starts talking about prayer to them, to the disciples, in the wake of how they’ve had to deal with the Pharisees. And now he talks to a new group of people. This is the only time he talks to this group of people, and it’s rather important because he could have said he told this parable to some Pharisees, or he told this parable to his disciples. But no – he told also this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt Hmm, I wonder who those were. I’m going to leave that hanging for the moment because we’re going to come back to that at the end since it’s such an absolutely central part of how we find ourselves living our Christian faith now. But this is what Jesus told these people, and I hope you’ll suspend the credulity a little bit and allow me to suggest to you that actually, this is again one of Jesus’s more humorous parables, meaning that it’s full of gestures. And the gestures hint at that even in Greek but from the Aramaic background one can tell that place and gesture are important in this. In other words, there’s an element of parity going on here that Jesus is using to make a rather significant point. So let’s look at this.

Two men went up to the temple to pray: one of the Pharisees and the other – a tax collector. Now Jesus is talking on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem going through the area close to Samaria, so it’s probably talking about people like them going up to Jerusalem, which would be a standard pilgrimage route, probably, a couple of times a year at least to go to prey. So they’re going to Jerusalem to pray. In other words, there’s something deliberate about this it’s not just they happen to drop in to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel one day. This is part of something deliberate – going up to the temple.

Then it says – and I’m afraid this is about this translation but there we are – the Pharisee standing by himself was praying thus: God etc etc. Well, once again, it’s the King James comes closer to the actual translation, it says: the Pharisees stood and prayed thus with himself: God… It’s nothing to do with him standing by himself, it’s praying to himself. And actually the Aramaic background is our famous ‘neck’ sometimes which I translated as ‘ass’ – he was praying with his neck, in other words – to himself. That’s part of the product suggestion that this is an interior discourse. Basically, there’s no one outside that than his own consideration. This is part of the parody, of the thing.

So the King James [translation] actually brings this out: the Pharisees stood us and prayed thus with himself: God… It’s a joke, yes. If you’re praying to God, you’re not praying to yourself. Well so he’s standing neck high and praying to his neck: God, I thank you – eucharistō – I thank you. The same verb we have in the Eucharist – that I am not like other people. In other words, it’s all about him. And who are these other people? well, thieves.

And let’s imagine: he’s standing there, let’s imagine these hand gestures – thieves reaching out, rogues… Actually, the Greek [word] is just unjust; and the Aramaic says ‘profiteers’, rogues, profiteers, adulterers. So thieves reaching out, profiteers bringing to themselves, and adulterers ripping the ring off the finger. So you can imagine the gestures that the Pharisee is rather splendidly making. I thank you that I’m not like those. I fast twice a week and I give a tenth of all my income. Well, yes, I give a tenth of all that I have got. It doesn’t say how he’s got it, but all that I’ve got.

Remember, this is supposed to be a parody, the same word which is used here for income is used quite frequently in the Old Testament for having obtained spoils. And here’s the point: Jesus is giving us a classic example of projection. He says: I thank you that I’m not like, and then he lists precisely some things that was considered to be true of the Pharisees. One – they were thieves in the sense they were always looking for ways to take money off people; two – they were profiteers, they tried to become the hedge fund managers for widows to make a good profit off them, and adulterers – they were people who granted easy divorces thus making other people adulterers, but also taking the ring off the people who were unfaithful to the alliance, to the covenant. Because adultery always has the sense in the Hebrew background both of a particular act of marital misconduct but also the breaking of the covenant with God. So here we have this Pharisee who sees what goodness look like. And remember that these were the people who would have literally be thought to be good. – I fast twice a week and I give a tenth of all that I’ve got. No question of how I got it, but I give a tenth of all that I’ve got. I fast twice a week. In other words, I make myself suffer a little bit and I’ve got a system of goodness which allows me to know that I am good. And that’s why I’m not like others and – straight into projection – looks at other people: thieves, profiteers, adulterers – and does not see himself, which, of course, is exactly like us.

And there are some people who are vaguely aware that when they’re saying something, they’re in fact accusing themselves. And there are others who are gloriously completely unaware that at the moment they accuse someone else of something that is in fact exactly what they’re doing or about to do themselves. This is a classic projection. And Jesus is bringing that out.

But the tax collector standing far off would not even look up to heaven. In other words, where is his neck? his neck is hidden. But he was beating his breast and saying: God be merciful to me a sinner. And that phrase is so familiar to us that we forget that actually, that’s the only time that word is used in this sense in Luke’s Gospel. This is the basis as, I understand, of the Jesus’ prayer: God be merciful to me, a sinner. This is the only place where that verb is used in that sense in Luke’s gospel. He uses other words for mercy throughout his gospel. It is famously the gospel of mercy. And this is like the combination of his teaching on mercy where he uses this verb: God be merciful to me, a sinner.

Jesus then says: I tell you, this man went down to his home justified, rather than the other. Why should that be? why the mention of a tax collector? let’s remember: all societies have tax collectors. A tax collector is a necessary evil in all societies that have taxes, which is all societies. A tax collector of whatever degree in Hebrew society at the time was someone who had made some sort of deal with a ‘tax farm’, unless he was actually the owner of the ‘tax farm’ but he’s a person who would have bought the right to farm the taxes of a certain region for a certain amount of money. The Romans would have said: okay we estimate that that region is worth 80 000 dollars in a year. If you farm we will expect 70 000 from you. You can buy the rights for seventy thousand which means that you will lower 70 000 a year. Anymore you make towards the eighty thousand that’s your profit. It’s cheaper for us to outsource to you than it is to set up a team of tax collectors for ourselves.

So a tax collector was an outsourced tax collector for the Romans and was thoroughly hated. Always let’s say held in dubious regard, whether it was the person’s reputation was likely to be poor. But – and here’s the thing – the tax collectors actually did not have a system of goodness. On the contrary tax collectors, actually, had a very vulnerable life because – one – people hated them so that always makes your life not a bundle of fun, and – two – although they were probably rich and therefore there was some worth to be got from that; on the other hand, they were terribly vulnerable to changes in harvests and the like because the Romans, once they’d fixed their sum, let’s say eighty thousand dollars for this area, you give us seventy thousand, then that was the sum that was owed year in year out independently or whether it was a good harvest, a bad harvest, whether there was a hail storms that destroyed the crops etc etc. In other words, the tax collector was gonna have to come up with that amount of money anyhow. So it’s no surprise that the tax collector would try to take more in the good years so as to prepare himself for the bad years in case he needed to pay off debt.

So it wasn’t only profiteering that caused tax collectors to be let’s say somewhat herbaceous. It wasn’t just profiteering, it was an attempt to balance their books between good years and bad years. In other words, the classic bad guy, but the bad guys with some – what’s the word – a vulnerability, not belonging to a system of goodness, utterly dependent, if you like, on the weather, on acts of God in the broadest sense. And so he comes down. He doesn’t speak to his ‘throat’, he speaks to his ‘heart’, he beats his breast and says to God: be merciful to me, a sinner. He does not have regard in his own eyes, no regard for himself in his own eyes.

And so then Jesus says at the end: all who exalt themselves, will be humbled, but all have humbled themselves, will be exalted. You’ll of course be glad to hear that all who exalt their ‘throats’, their selves, their ‘asses’, will be humbled, and all who humble their ‘throats’, themselves, will be exalted. So it’s all the physical movements are in this parable as well, it’s the humorous element and then the very very touching element as well.

Now let’s go back to the first verse of our Gospel for the day, which is the most difficult first because this is where we ask ourselves whether we who are neither formerly Pharisees nor formerly tax collectors, I imagine. And if we are tax collectors, it’s very unlikely that we’re tax farmers in the old, in the old Roman sense. He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.

How much of Christianity today is exactly this: it’s self-justification by faith on the Evangelical side and self-justification by Church on the Catholic side. “Because I am right, because I have been saved by Jesus, I can judge all the other people, because the Bible gives me permission to do so; or because I am right because I’m a Catholic, and I am on the inside of the church, I can judge all the people whom the Church disapproves of”.

And please remember: there is no such thing as these two being separated. If you trust in yourself that you are righteous, then automatically you’re defining yourself over against others with contempt. You may not realize it but that’s how we get a fake identity. How do we get a fake identity? over against others. Once you start to realize that you are like others, then you lose that fake goodness, and you find yourself coming awfully close to the position whereby you realize: oh my God, I am a sinner, have mercy on me. And it’s one – and I know, this is no longer popular because pop psychology keeps on telling people to forget about sin and so on, and so forth – it’s one of the reasons why the term sinner is such a good thing. To be able to say genuinely, not out of formulating “I am a sinner”, and for that to be a sign of having been relaxed into not having to define yourself over against others, that is an extraordinary blessing. And is the sign indeed of being made right with God. God is forgiving us by revealing to us that we are sinners. and that’s okay: being a sinner is not the problem.
fake virtue is far more terrifying. That’s it. People who consider themselves righteous and simultaneously regard others with contempt…

What must it look like in our midst for us to encourage a return of Christianity that understands this, that they’re being able to dwell in shame tenderly, and so know us also sinners and therefore find ourselves being realigned to God is the norm, rather than creating a structure of security for ourselves which depends on wicked others whom we can despise.

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