The prophet Joel looks forward to a day when God says
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
‘I will pour out my spirit on all flesh…’ On whom? On the upright, like the Pharisee in today’s Gospel reading? On rogues and scoundrels like the tax collector? What does all flesh mean? How selective will the Spirit be?
Let’s try to answer that as we go to the Gospel reading. Jesus tells a parable, which is a brief story with a sting in the tail. Two men go up to the Temple to pray, probably for one of the times of public prayer, mid-morning or mid-afternoon.
Each one stands alone, and stays apart from any other worshippers. They stand apart because each one is concerned about religious purity. There, the similarity ends.
One is a Pharisee. For us, ‘Pharisee’ is another word for ‘hypocrite’, but we need to realise that Pharisees were people with high standards. This Pharisee is a moral man. He fasts twice a week—he didn’t have to fast anything like that much. He gives a tithe, a tenth of all his goods. He didn’t have to do that. He’s an upright man, important, busy, and prominent. He is a man to look up to, to emulate, a pillar of the community.
And he knows it. There’s the problem.
The Pharisee stands alone out of concerns for religious purity. His own purity. He doesn’t want to come into contact with people who will make him unclean. People like the tax collector, for example.
The tax collector is not at all a moral or upright man. He is part of a system in which some Jews paid the Roman occupying forces for the privilege of extorting cripplingly high taxes from their fellow Jews. No one looks up to him; to them, he is just a piece of human debris. And he knows it. He knows it in his heart, too. There—right there—is the possibility of his redemption.
The tax collector also stands alone out of concerns for religious purity: not his own purity, that’s shot, but the purity of others. He doesn’t want to come into contact with people because he would make them unclean. People like the Pharisee, for example.
The Pharisee is well aware of how well he is doing compared to others. That tax collector, for instance. The Pharisee knows he’s doing much more than he needs to do to obey God, and he also knows that the tax collector falls far short of God’s law. He doesn’t hesitate to remind God:
God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector.
There was a time I thought it was good to see myself as better than other people, you know what I mean? When I was a younger Christian, we church people were better than people who drank alcohol. And better than divorced people. And so much better than Catholics. Who may I feel better than now? Atheists, asylum seekers, Moslems?
Wherever we feel ourselves better people than others, we are in spiritual danger. Even if the only people we feel superior to are our noisy neighbours, our spirit is in danger of the sin of pride. Heck, even if the only people we feel superior to are Collingwood supporters, our spirit is in danger of the sin of pride.
What about the tax collector? Something drew him to the Temple for the hour of prayer. He didn’t go because he was satisfied with his spiritual progress. No, God’s Spirit drew him even though he hardly dared to go.
He had nothing to offer God. He wasn’t a good example of tithing or fasting. He most likely wasn’t a regular worshipper. He wasn’t upright, important, or prominent. Had he perhaps done something that caused him shame? We don’t know. All we know is that he emptied himself out to God, and God poured out amazing grace upon him.
This story is in Luke chapter 18. In chapters 18 and 19, Luke has included a whole string of stories about Jesus that all make the same point. Despised people, powerless people, unexpected people, little people—they all matter to Jesus. And they all have something to teach about God’s grace.
Last week, we heard the parable about the widow and the judge. This widow didn’t count in society, she was past her ‘use by’ date. The judge was an important man, a busy man, a prominent man. In the end, he had to take notice of her.
The story that follows the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is the one where the disciples keep the infants away from Jesus when their mothers brought them to him. Babies didn’t matter, they were economic burdens in a peasant society—and some of these particular infants being brought to Jesus would die in infancy. Jesus was an upright man, an important man, a busy man, a prominent man, just like the judge and the Pharisee. But he said,
Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.
That told them!—but would it sink in?
Then the ‘rich young ruler’ comes to Jesus. He wants eternal life. Surely he can have it—he’s an important, busy, prominent man! But no. He goes away saddened by the call of Jesus on his life.
Then Jesus heals a blind beggar near Jericho. The crowds want him to stay away from important, busy, prominent Jesus. But Jesus welcomes him. Jesus restores the blind beggar’s sight.
And then, peeking over into chapter 19, Jesus meets Zacchaeus, not just a tax collector but a chief tax collector. No one wants to know him! No one but Jesus.
Despised people, powerless people, unexpected people, little people—‘other’ people like the widow, the tax collector in the Temple, the tiny babies the disciples were trying to shoo off, the blind beggar, Zacchaeus, asylum seekers, Moslems, gays—they all matter to Jesus. How much do they matter to us?
And they can all know the Spirit of God poured out upon them. Remember Joel? He writes
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh…
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
‘Even on the male and female slaves…’ Even on the least important people, the ‘others’ on the bottom of the pile, God pours out the Spirit.
We think straightaway of the Day of Pentecost when we hear this passage, but I imagine the Spirit ‘leaking’ out of Jesus already, falling on people who no one ever expected. Without mentioning the Spirit, Jesus tells stories of what happens when people catch the Spirit, stories of widows finally getting justice and tax collectors emptying themselves before God and being put right with God. And so women bring their babies for a blessing, despised Zacchaeus finds faith, and the blind beggar receives his sight.
The Spirit of God is upon us and within us. The Spirit has been poured upon us so that we may become more like Jesus Christ, sharing his compassion for those who may not even seem to us to deserve it.
There’s one part of Luke 18 I haven’t yet mentioned. In the middle of these stories about the least likely people knowing God, Jesus tells the disciples that he will soon become one of those least likely people himself. He will become one of the ‘others’. Jesus says:
See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and…the Son of Man…will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.’
Jesus will be betrayed, judged and executed. On the cross, Jesus will become no better than a tax collector—he will become one of the ‘others’, all for our sakes. But, Luke says,
they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.
On this side of Easter and Pentecost, we can begin to understand. We can start to grasp that we may see God’s Spirit at work in and through us and also others—often the least likely ‘others’.
The Spirit has been poured out on all flesh, so the Spirit works through Christian people like you and me. The Spirit has been poured out on all flesh, so the Spirit sometimes works through ‘secret agents’ who are not even part of the Church. We Christians are the Holy Spirit’s visible agents, but the Spirit has others. We shouldn’t ever be surprised to see God at work in unexpected people and amazing places. It’s one of the things God does best. When we know our need of God, we can see more clearly that God is at work in others.
God, be merciful to me, a sinner—these are words anyone may say. Every day of the week.