A Sermon from Sherborne

Publicans and sinners

A sermon for Evensong at the Abbey, preached on Sunday 22 October 2017 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


John doesn’t mention them at all in his Gospel. Mark gives us a glimpse of their social standing, or lack of it. Matthew was one. Luke seems almost to organise his Gospel around them, so many times does he mention them.

Of whom am I talking? Of tax collectors or, as our Second Lesson from Luke’s Gospel calls them in the King James Bible, ‘publicans’, from the Latin ordo publicanorum – a class of men who undertook state contracts of various kinds, and whom we meet in Roman records as early as 212 BC.

In first century Palestine, tax collectors were held in utter contempt by Orthodox Judaism. It was not so much the principle of paying taxes to which people objected, but the fact that here were their fellow countrymen raising taxes for the hated imperial overlords, the Romans. Worse still, the tax collectors were doing so on what today we would call a franchise. Rather than the fuss and the bother of collecting taxes themselves, the Romans auctioned off tax districts to the highest bidder. The successful purchaser of a tax district then set himself to wring as much revenue as he could from those within his franchise area. The difference between what he was able to extort from the people and what he had to pay the Roman administration constituted his profit, and as we know from the story of Zacchaeus, it could be a very big profit indeed. So here were Palestinians acting for and on behalf of a despised occupying power, making huge profits out of their fellow countrymen and – to add insult to injury – trading in a currency which bore the graven images of the Roman Emperors, and was therefore regarded as a blasphemy in itself. And it was with such men that Jesus kept company, and it was the prayers of such men, as Jesus tells us in the parable we heard just now [Luke 18. 9-14] for which God had such special regard.

God has always valued what the world despises. This is a central truth of our faith, but one which is hard for us to comprehend. But that is the witness of the Gospels, over and over again. No-one, in God’s sight, is an outsider. We are all made and kept and loved by him with the same intensity and fullness of his love. There is no escaping the conclusion that Jesus seemed to find it easier to deal with those who had sinned publicly, notoriously and knew their need of forgiveness than with apparently respectable religious folk who kept their mean little sins well hidden (or so they supposed). And when he called Zacchaeus down from the tree, Jesus was making it clear – as when he called Matthew, yet another tax collector, to be his disciple – that God calls the most unlikely, the most unpromising people to do his work. Let us look at these three things more closely.

First, in God’s sight no-one is an outsider. You and I probably recoil instinctively from some people. For me it is the sort of traveller, so unlike the old ‘gentlemen of the road’, who arrives at the door demanding money, is dismissive of a Vicarage sandwich, and readily becomes both abusive and aggressive. I dislike such unwelcome visitors intensely. Yet God loves them. Jesus saw everyone as the sons or daughters of his heavenly Father. I need, you need, to battle with our prejudices against our fellow human beings – prejudice of colour or class or creed – and to ask God to help us overcome them, to pray that we might see them with the eyes of Christ.

Second, “notorious sinners” are often easier for God to deal with, because on the whole they know all too well that they are sinners and are prepared to admit to those sins. That is half the battle; that is to be half way to repentance, and without repentance we cannot know forgiveness. But for those of us who think ourselves OK – good, solid, respectable, pious folk – Jesus has a name, and it’s not very polite: ‘whited sepulchres’. Squeaky clean on the outside; corrupt and in decay within. Pray for the honesty to know yourself, to know your sinfulness, and to have the humility to admit it.

Third, God calls the least-likely people to be instruments of his will. In the Bible I think particularly of Isaiah’s prophecy in the 6th century BC, concerning ‘His anointed’, his ‘messiah’, part of which was our First Lesson [Isaiah 45. 1-8]. This person would act for God upon earth, conquering kingdoms, releasing the people of Israel from foreign exile, rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple, and shepherding His people. God would go before him – even hold his hand, Isaiah writes – giving him fame, riches and power as only God can. Who did he mean? Jesus Christ? Josiah? Ezra? Nehemiah? Judas Maccabaeus? Not at all. Through Isaiah, God prophesies His anointed will be none other than Cyrus the Great, King of Persia! In other words God chose a pagan ruler, a man of bloody conquests and cut-throat politics, to be his anointed servant and the shepherd of his people. [cf. Isaiah 44]. God is never afraid to dirty his hands when it comes to choosing those for whom he has a special task.

In the same way Jesus went for his first disciples not to the learned and wise of his day, not to the professional religious men of temple and synagogue, but to simple fishermen, humble countrymen – and Matthew, the hated tax collector. And time and again he compared those the world despises – like the tax collector in the parable whose heartfelt prayer was heard unlike the self-centred prayer of the Pharisee who was religious on the outside but inside totally conformed to the spirit of this passing age. And that means, even though you might think you are the least talented, the least gifted, the least worthy and the most unlikely person here this evening to be needed or used by God, you are probably exactly the person he needs to do this or attempt that for him. He needs you: it is as simple as that. And whenever you are tempted to look down upon anyone – to get a bit ‘up yourself’, as they say these days – then just ask yourself quietly under your breath ‘Tax collector or Pharisee?’ On the answer to that question your whole salvation may depend.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 22/10/2017
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne