Sun, Oct 27, 2019

Grace... without stereotypes


Politicians are liars who cannot be trusted.

Used car-salesmen are shifty and sleazy.

Christians are moralistic and judgmental homophobes and prudes––

while ministers are potential, if not actual, paedophiles.

Americans are loud and obnoxious.

African youth are violent.

Muslims are terrorists.

Asian women are horrible drivers…

and young, male P-platers are dangerous hoons.

People who live in Beaumont are snobs…

and people who live in Christies Beach are illiterate bogans.


We almost can’t help it, can we?

It seems part of our human nature that we tend to lump people together––

according to certain common characteristics…

which we then assume to be common to them all.

Unfortunately, however, we don’t just stop at using stereotypes.


and regrettably…

stereotypes frequently end up becoming prejudices.

So often we think that we know other people because of their race or where they come from;

because of their age…

because of how they look or how they act.

We all think in terms of stereotypes, even when we’re told not to. 

And we all have our prejudices, even when we know that it’s wrong.

It’s like we can’t help it.


In our parable from Luke’s Gospel this morning, a Pharisee went to the temple to pray.

He expected to be heard.

He expected to be accepted by God.

And those who heard the parable would have expected that as well––

because that was their stereotype of Pharisees.

Today, we have a different perception of Pharisees.

We usually see them as the villains––

arrogant and conceited…

judgmental and pedantic…

hypocritical and out of touch with reality…

seemingly without any redeeming features.

And yet, in the first century, they were highly regarded by most.

They were theologically progressive––

trying to make religion relevant to everyday life.

They were deeply spiritual people––

well known for their devotion to prayer… 

for attending worship and giving to charity.

They were seen as good, decent, upright people––

people who tried to live out their faith.

And the Pharisee in this parable was especially devout.

Indeed, he exceeded all normal expectations.

He prayed more regularly than was required.

He didn’t just give ten percent of what he earned

he gave ten percent of everything.

He didn’t just fast on designated fast days but regularly––

twice a week.

And, back then, fasting was an act of piety––

a means of preparing for worship;

of expressing a sense of contrition and repentance.

In other words…

this Pharisee was a good, decent, law-abiding, upright man;

a pillar of the community;

respectable and respected.

And the prayer that he prayed isn’t particularly unusual.

It’s similar to other prayers that we know from that period:

for example…

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, who has not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman”;


I thank you, O Lord, my God, that you have given me my lot with those who sit in the seat of learning and not with those who sit at the street-corners…I am early to work on the words of the Law, and they are early to work on things of no moment…I run towards the life of the age to come, and they run towards the pit”.

In other words, in his prayer, our Pharisee was just following normal religious practice.

He acknowledged that God was responsible for his good character;

that God had blessed him;

that God had given him great privileges.

He was a good, solid, faithful, and devout man.


The tax-collector, on the other hand, was the exact opposite.

In the eyes of his contemporaries, he would have been utterly despicable:

a conniving opportunist–– 

who had become wealthy at the expense of others;

an immoral man… 

helping to prop up a cruel and unjust system…

collaborating with an oppressive regime occupying the land.

So, he was ranked with “sinners”––

considered impure and unclean…

without honour or without a sense of shame;

a deviant;

and a contemptuous monster.

He would have been regarded as nothing but a thief––

a plague on society––

and treated with loathing and scorn.

He, too, came to the temple to pray.

And, when he prayed, the tax-collector didn’t follow normal practice.

He stood at a distance, alone.

He bowed his head in shame. 

He thumped his chest––


like a first-century woman did when she was mourning.

He simply acknowledged that he had done nothing to deserve God’s love.

He confessed that he needed to be reconciled to God.

And Jesus claims that it was he who went home right with God––

not the Pharisee.

And yet, there’s no mention that the tax-collector changed––

in any way.

There’s nothing in the story to suggest that he went home;

that he gave back everything that he had acquired dishonestly––

or gave it to charity;

that he turned his back on his profession and found a “respectable” job;

that he distanced himself from his old friends…

started keeping better company…

started going to the temple regularly…

and started fasting and praying.

There’s nothing to suggest that he gave up his so-called “immoral” ways;

nothing to indicate that anything in his life changed––

at all.

And yet, he, rather than the Pharisee, went home right with God.

Such a reversal of expectations would have been difficult for a first-century audience to grasp.

It defied conventional wisdom.

It was totally and utterly unexpected.

It was completely scandalous.

But we don’t always get the sense of that.

Rather, what if, instead of a tax-collector, the one who went home right with God… 

was a Muslim asylum seeker?

Or Pauline Hanson?

Or, even, Donald Trump?

It’s totally and utterly unexpected.

It doesn’t seem right or fair.

It goes against everything that we have been brought up to accept.

It’s not how we assume that the world works.

It’s not how we expect God to act.


You see it’s easy to think like the Pharisee.

It’s easy to think that God accepts us because we do the right things––

because we believe what we learnt in Sunday School;

because we go to church and pray;

because we lead a good life;

because we give money to the poor and needy;

because we try to do the right things.

But none of that earns God’s approval.

None of that puts us in God’s good books.

God simply loves us–– 

no ifs, no buts.

God loves us no matter who we are or what we have done.

We can’t earn it.


And yet… 

it’s when we start to think that God loves us because of what we do…

when we start to think that God accepts us because of what we believe or how we live…

then it’s easy to think that God doesn’t love others because they don’t––

because they don’t believe what we think they ought to;

because they don’t live an “appropriate lifestyle”;

because they don’t do what we consider to be right;

because they’re not religious in the way that we are.

And, when we start to think that… 

we’re no longer able to receive God’s love for what it is—

a totally unmerited, undeserved, and unconditional gift...


“God, be merciful to me… a sinner”!

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