Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost -Proper 21 Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32, Psalm 25:1-14, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:28-32
On the first of April 1990 a riot began in the Chapel of Strangeways Prison in Manchester England. Within an hour the inmates had taken control of the entire jail and the guards fled. They broke through the roof and stood upon it in protest against their conditions.
The Strangeways Prison opened in 1868. In 1990 it was certified to hold 970 inmates. On the first of April there were 1,647. The cells did not have flushing lavatories. There was a shortage of clean clothing. Food was scarce. And in a prison which housed many non-white inmates, the guards were frequently seen wearing National Front emblems and arm bands. Beatings were common. They were permitted one shower a week. Visits once per month. They could write letters only once a week. There were no phones the inmates could access.
The protesting prisoners made their demands known through the press:
- Improved visiting facilities, including the right to physical contact with visitors and a children’s play area.
- Category A prisoners would be allowed to wear their own clothes and be able to receive food parcels.
- Longer exercise periods.
- An end to 23-hour-a-day lock-up
Modest, isn’t it?
The protest began after a sermon, but maybe a truly prophetic message came from the mouth of prisoner Paul Taylor, who took the microphone and said:
“I would like to say, right, that this man has just talked about blessing of the heart and a hardened heart can be delivered. No it cannot, not with resentment, anger and bitterness and hatred being instilled in people.”
Desperate people, hurting people, will do whatever they must to get by, whatever they can to be heard, whatever they are able to be seen.
There are decisions we make, or people we know make, or our neighbors make that are not born out of pure malevolence. I think there are very few people capable of real evil. But rather you do what you think you have to, to survive in a hostile world.
Jesus has compassion for those whose lives are scarred by such necessity. The Tax Collectors and Prostitutes. In the context of the Gospels, these are the lowest of the low, seen by the spiritual types as beyond redemption.
In Matthew’s Gospel we first meet a Tax Collector when Jesus calls Matthew, the author of this Gospel sitting in his Tax Booth. Jesus calls this Tax Collector to come and follow him and in the next scene Jesus is reclining at a table in the company of “many Tax Collectors and sinners”. The Pharisees are furious. How could Jesus eat with these people? Jesus replies simply: Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.
And indeed the Tax Collector is deeply unwell. When the Holy Forerunner, John the Baptiszer, is proclaiming his message in Luke’s Gosepl he tells the Tax Collectors to collect only what they are authorised to. Now why would he tell them this unless it was a well-known problem, common enough to warrent that kind of preaching? Later in Luke’s Gospel we meet the chief Tax Collector, Zaccheus, who after recieivng Jesus, pledges to give away half of his wealth and restore all that he has taken from people by fraud.
The Tax Collector is justifiably hated by his neighbors. He is a thief and a fraudster. And worse still, he is a constant reminder that the People of God are not free, they are under the control of the Roman Empire. The Pharisees hold these people in contempt. And they are contemptable. So contemptable that their only company is other rejects and outcasts – Prostitutes and other sinners.
I suppose I’ve kept my nose clean enough to never meet the tax man, but I have served those who derive an income from prostitution. In shelters, aid misisons, clinics, and other places the desperate go for help, you’ll often find those who sell their bodies to survive.
I’ve never met someone in that situation who enjoys what they do. It is a choice made when you feel you’re out of options, without hope or a future. Now, we should be careful when transposing our contemporary experiences back into the Scriptures, but I think the rejection and contempt shown to prostitutes by the Pharisees indicates that their status in that society isn’t much different to the situation today.
And so Jesus becomes the center of another scandal when visiting the home of a Pharisee and a person who Luke calls “A woman of the city, who was a sinner”, which is a common euphemism for a prostitute in the Gospels, washes his feet with her tears and anointed him with perfume. Jesus says to this woman “your sins are forgiven, go in peace”.
In a flourishing community it ought not be the case that people need to resort to theft, fraud and selling their bodies. In the vision of a flourishing people of God, found in the lists of laws in the Torah, those who would be faced with these choices of desperation are given a place of great care.
Deutronomy says: You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge
When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.
When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.
When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year, which is the year of tithing, giving it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your towns and be filled.
When we read the Gospels we think of the Pharisees as fastidious observers of the Law of God, fussing over ritual hand washing and sabbath observance. But the very fact that Tax Collectors and Prostitutes exist might point us to a dark reality, that these spiritual leaders were concerned with only some small and visible aspect of the Law.
See the Pharisees and Scribes are experts in reading the Old Testament, and in it they see that it is always failure to uphold the Law of God that results God removing God’s blessing. And so in response they have manufactured certain norms so that they can teach the people to uphold God’s law, or a distinctive form thereof, in the hope that God will liberate them from Roman occupation.
The existence of Tax Collectors and Prostitutes gives the lie to the claim of the Pharisees and Scribes that they are able to bring about the redemption of God’s people. If they were truly following in God’s ways, there would be no one to pay for the prostitutes, there would be no need for theft because everyone would flourish and be filled with plenty, there would be none who were excluded from God’s abundant blessing, and indeed God would have broken the yoke of the Romans.
But Jesus looks at those who the Pharisees refuse to see. He has compassion upon them, as contemptable and despicable as they are, and he is moved by compassion. They are like sheep without a shepherd, because the shepherds had abandoned them, believing them to be beyond salvation. Jesus is a friend to tax collectors and prositutes. He comes to them and eats with them. He embraces them. He forgives their many sins. And he calls them to follow him.
It is sometimes easy to forget that St Paul was trained as a Pharisee. Before he encountered Christ he was zealous to protect and uphold the establishment they had worked so hard to build, the establishment that narrowed the Law of God to that which could be achieved by human striving, upholding the letter of the Law and forgetting its Spirit, leaning upon a human understanding, closed off to the supernatural power of God’s grace. The Prophets foretold of a day when God would implant his Spirit in his people as a pure unmerited gift, and on that day there would be no need to teach people the ways of God, for the ways of God would be imprinted on our hearts and in our minds. There would be a day when God would dwell amongst us.
In Jesus of Nazareth that day had come. He had come to be a friend to sinners to show them the path to salvation. This is the path of humility which Paul teaches the early Church to walk in. Do not look only to your own interests, to preserving your own purity or righteousness or holiness or success. Look also to the interests of others, following the example of Christ. Through closing our eyes to suffering and misery and the sins of others, we might be able to manufacture our own holiness. But Jesus didn’t do that. He didn’t count equality with God as a right to be grasped. He took the form of a servant and dwelt amongst us, becomming a servant to an unworthy humanity, to the point of being nailed to a cross of wood to bear the curse of sin.
Thereby showing us that the way of salvation is not one of washing our hands of the unpleasent parts of our world, but by following him to serve it. For his obedience God raised him from the dead, and now he dwells at the right hand of the Father until the day when all things are subject to his gracious rule and reign.
Once Paul might have been found amongst those fussing over hand washing and whether it is right to heal on the Sabbath day. But now he follows his Lord, Jesus Christ, in being a servant to the sad and lost. One might read the Epistles to the Corinthians to see just how lovingly he sought to serve the broken and wicked.
When Paul Taylor stood up to address the inmates of the overcrowded and derelict Strangeways Prison the Priest tried to placate them saying
“Right lads, down. Down. Come on, this is no way to carry on in God’s house.”
The prisoners shouted back “What? You’re a [f-ing] hypocrite, you.”
He pleads with them “I’m trying to help you, to keep you.”
But the pleasent preaching of the minister could not withstand the pressure of the misery which caused the inmates to do what they thought they must in the desperation of their predicament. It had tragic results with two deaths and dozens injured. Perhaps what these men needed from a Man of God was for him to be a friend. To truly see their misery, to be moved with compassion to act on their behalf, rather than stand at a safe distance and tell them how to amend their lives. To do for them what they could not do for themselves.
Because that is what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. Moved by pity for us lost souls he has come to make his dwelling in our midst, to eat and drink with us, to forgive our sins and to lead us in his ways. The Tax Collectors and the Prostitutes are the first to know they cannot save themselves and so they go before the Pharisees into the kingdom of Heaven. The Pharisees persist in believing they are obedient to God’s laws, and so they will not befriend Christ and become followers of him. And so they will find themselves watching from the sidelines as others enter into the new life before them, wondering where they went wrong.
The word of God goes out to all God’s creatures and there are some who say they will go as he asks, and do not do so. And there are those who seem hard hearted and deaf to that call, but deep in their misery are even now turning to the one who is a Friend of Sinners. Today let us follow our saviors call to be found amongst those whom are easily forgotten in this world.
And in so doing may we know ever more deeply our own need of a savior. For the only thing that seperated the Pharisees from the Tax Collectors and Prostitutes, was presumption.