As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, The Faith of the Bikie, was given at Waverley Temple Salvation Army on Sunday 27 October, 2013. The Bible reading was Luke 18:9-14.
Honest question, right here and now: Who heard this story and thought to themselves, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee”?
It’s an easy trap to fall into. We like to exalt ourselves, and to build ourselves up because of the good work that we’re doing. When I was a musician, I had to build up my own biography to help me gain work. And perhaps, like some people might be tempted to do on a resume, we fudge the facts a little bit. For example, I claimed that I was an internationally performed composer and arranger, which included my work being played by members of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. What I failed to mention in there was that it was part of an online composers workshop, and it was a trio for Violin, Bassoon and Harp. Not exactly a whole orchestra in performance as my bio may have read. But, as a muso, you had to build yourself up so that you could be noticed.
Strangely, when it came to writing my bio to send through to the Devonport Corps so that they could get to know us a bit, I had no idea what to write. It just didn’t seem right to build myself up.
The parable that we have today is probably very familiar to us, and if you’ve been in the church for a while it uses a lot of familiar imagery. The contrast between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is one that is very common, and the Pharisee in particular gets a lot of bad press, particularly in Luke. Because of this, we often tend to focus in on his arrogance, that line, “Thank you that I am not like other people.” We also make a lot of assumptions about the tax collector, mainly because we don’t hear a lot about him in this parable. Today, I want to expand these characters out for you, to bring this parable to life and perhaps to shed some new light on it for us.
First, let’s look at the Pharisee. Now, before we get into all the imagery that we read about in Luke, we need to find out what exactly a Pharisee was. I think in my head I often see a Pharisee as a priest of sorts, but that’s not exactly right. A Pharisee is a member of a sect – or to use a more friendly word, a denomination – within Jewish religion. The word means separated, and they would separate themselves from all that was unclean. Even within the Pharisees, there were different types, including those that would walk around with their eyes closed or covered so that they wouldn’t see any impurities or indecencies. We’re not talking about one of those with this Pharisee though – because he can quite clearly see the Tax collector. It’s more likely that this Pharisee was what is described as a Pharisee from fear – as he keeps the law because he was afraid of future judgement. In fact, this Pharisee is exceeding the law. He says, as examples of his righteousness, that he fasts twice a week, and gives a tenth of all his income. The Law that the Jews followed only prescribed one occasion of strict fasting, which was the Day of Atonement. While there was a practice of a private voluntary fast twice a week, this seems to have been only a tradition, and is not actually mandated anywhere. Likewise, with his tithing, the law called for a tenth of all produce, flocks and cattle. It had no mention of income. By saying this, the Pharisee is saying that he goes above and beyond what the law requires.
On the other hand, the tax collector, he is someone that while we think we can relate to, we really have no idea. While we may not like the tax collector today, we at least live with the knowledge that the money we pay is actually going back into Australia, and the services that we are provided with. In Jesus’ day, the tax collector actually worked for the Romans, and the taxes he collected went to Rome, not to Jerusalem. There were also numerous reports of tax collectors collecting extra from the Jews, and pocketing the profit for themselves. They were seen as a participant in a cruel and corrupt system, politically a traitor, religiously unclean, and a reprehensible character who lived an offensive life.
I guess if we were to put these people into modern day equivalents, you would have a parable about Ned Flanders and a bikie. Ned is faithful, dependable, goes beyond anything that is commanded in the bible, he is in all aspects, a Pharisee. Where as Bikies are potentially the most hated citizens in our country at the moment, with a reprehensible character who lives an offensive life.
With these two characters in mind, let’s remind ourselves of the parable. Jesus is telling the parable on his way to Jerusalem. He’s just told a parable about the persistence of praying, and then tells another one that involves prayer. Two men go to the temple to pray, one – an upright, faithful, dependable person, the other, an outlaw bikie.
Now, Ned, our upright dependable person, he walks straight to the front of the temple, because that’s where the holy and pure people went. He set himself apart from the everyone else, because they could make his prayer impure if he accidentally touched them. He lifts his hands and face to the sky, because otherwise how can God hear him, and says,
“God, I give you thanks that I am not dishonest, corrupt or perverted like other people. I especially thank you that I am not like that traitor over there. I fast religiously twice a week, and donate ten percent of all my income to you. I attend every bible study, even the one for women, and bake cakes for morning tea even though it’s not one of the gifts you’ve given me, and go to the church on my lunch breaks to pray for the minister, because you know he nee-diddly-eeds it.”
For Ned, it’s all about what he does. He doesn’t ask God for anything, because he’s certain that because of all that he does, he will be saved and justified.
Then there’s our bikie friend. He walks in, and he doesn’t go very far. He finds a quiet corner, as far away as possible because he’s ashamed of himself and doesn’t want anyone else to hear his prayer. He bows his head, hangs his head in shame, beats his chest and says quietly, “God, I know I am a sinner. Please, have mercy on me!”
He knows that he doesn’t deserve anything. He is a sinner, and he acknowledges it. Yet he still prays for God to have mercy on him, and to save him.
Jesus tells those around him that of the two men, it was the bikie who is justified, rather than Ned. Here, Jesus is saying that our actions alone won’t save us. There was nothing wrong in the actions of Ned – the fasting, the tithing, the law keeping – they’re all good things to be doing, and I’d be encouraging you to do them as well. Where he lost it was that his heart wasn’t in the same place as his actions. He was certain that his salvation was because of the things that he had done – he put no faith in God.
This is where the bikie was different – He knew that he had led a bad life. There was no amount of fudging the facts that could make it otherwise. In order to be saved, he had to humble himself before God, and rely fully on him.
When everything that you do, everything that you hold dear is stripped away, what is left? Martin Spinelli was at the pinnacle of his career – he was scheduled to give a keynote address at a huge international media conference in England. Years of work had led to this across different continents, and this was to propel him further and cement his place at the top of the game. He never got the chance to give that talk. He was met at the hotel by two policemen who informed him that there had been an accident on the highway and his wife Sasha had been killed, and his son Lio was near death in London. When he got to the hospital, there was little talk of survival, but more of plans for the inevitable. The best case scenario – according to the doctors – was for Lio to one day attend a school for the severely mentally handicapped.
A little over a week later, Lio was still in a coma, and Martin picked him up to hold him while the nurses changed the bed sheets. Martin’s grandmother described the scene as resembling Michelangelo’s
The Pietà, the sculpture of Mary holding Jesus after the crucifixion. This moment will stay with Martin forever, and I’ll quote his words here.
“As I held him warm and broken in my arms, something happened that even I wasn’t expecting. He opened his eyes. Like a newborn baby doing it for the first time, he opened his eyes for me. I can’t honestly say whether they were focused or not, but he did open his eyes. As I looked at him, and (maybe) he looked at me, everything else in the world stopped and I stared transfixed for the first time in 10 days into the blue of his eyes. I was lost in simply their colour. There it was, beyond any subjective hope, a sign that Lio was really and truly on his way out of a coma.”
When everything was stripped away for Martin, when he was at the precipice of losing everything he held dear – it was there that he found faith. He writes “Most importantly, faith, in both general and specific senses, is now something that I don’t shy away from, that I don’t seek to avoid either as a sensation or a topic of conversation. In fact, faith has become an odd kind of tether to those terrible early days in the hospital. It’s a conduit to the purpose, meaning and love I found there in those dark moments by my son’s bedside, days which remain, in the strangest of ways, the most contented of my life.”
If everything you held dear was stripped away, what would you find left? Is it a faith that allows you to fully rely on God? Or do you try to find assurance through the good works that you do? The beauty of God is that at any time, we can come to him, humbly, and seek forgiveness.
We’re going to listen to a song called “Have mercy on me”, and while we listen I invite you to look at your own life. Is your assurance on works, or on God? There is hope expressed in these lyrics, as it says “Have mercy on me, a broken and a contrite heart you won’t turn away.” God will not turn away anyone who comes to him. As you listen, I invite you to pray to God, saying the prayer the bikie said – “God, I know I am a sinner. Please, have mercy on me!”