Sometimes, when you hear Jesus talk about the Pharisees, you would think they were really wicked, awful people.
Worst sinners in the universe.
But they weren’t, of course.
They were actually really religious, holy people.
People like Nicodemus, you remember, or St Paul –
they were Pharisees.
Not even wicked villains at all!
And that, of course, was the problem.
Because back then, if you wanted to be God’s person,
it was thought that you had to keep loads of rules and regulations.
It was all very well when it was just the Ten Commandments,
and some of the food and other rules laid down in the book of Deuteronomy, they were simple enough to follow.
But, of course, people got themselves rather worried by all of this.
What did you mean when you said “You mustn’t work on a Sunday”?
Was lighting a fire work?
Was getting dressed work?
That sort of thing.
So the Pharisees and their like laid down all sorts of rules and regulations to try to cover every possibility,
from how far you could walk on a Sunday,
to just exactly what you could and couldn’t eat.
Even today, observant Jews have two sets of crockery and cutlery,
one for when they eat meat, and one for when they eat dairy products.
But there were then two problems:
first of all, you simply couldn’t keep all the rules and regulations –
No matter how hard you tried, it simply wasn’t possible.
So almost everybody went round feeling like a failure.
And, of course, as happened in Jesus’ story, people who could and did keep most of the rules felt very proud of themselves, very clever.
And, Jesus says elsewhere, some of the time they got so wrapped up in keeping the rules that they forgot all about loving other people!
Actually, there was a third problem, too.
And that is that human nature simply adores rules.
Especially when it comes to our relationship with God.
It’s a lot easier to keep the rules than to live in a relationship with God –
that’s just scary!
But we like rules anyway –
and, of course, we need rules to keep ourselves and our society safe.
But we do tend to impose our own personal rules on other people.
To take a very silly example, when I was a child, my mother had a rule that my brother and I were only allowed tomato ketchup if we were having chips –
I think we would have poured it on to everything if we could, and never developed any appreciation of any other flavour!
So even though I know better, I still think it’s awful when I see someone put tomato ketchup on anything else!
I have to remind myself that not everybody grew up with that rule, and it’s perfectly all right to put tomato ketchup on your egg and bacon, if that’s what you like.
And sometimes we make rules for ourselves because we know we are tempted in certain areas, so need to steer clear.
Some people, for instance, can’t drink any alcohol as they can’t stop once they start.
So they would like to have a universal rule saying that nobody can drink an alcoholic drink.
Which those of us who are able to enjoy a drink without being addicted, or without having to get drunk, can’t see the point of at all.
And if you remember your history, you’ll know that they tried that rule in the USA in the 1920s and it didn’t work at all,
just created a whole new load of crimes and criminals.
But the problem in today’s reading is that the Pharisee in Jesus’ story was so pleased with himself for keeping the rules –
and indeed, keeping them even better than most people, look how he boasts about fasting twice a week, when he really only needed to do it once –
he was so proud of himself that he actually seems to have forgotten what it was all about.
He forgot he needed God!
The publican, or tax-gatherer, on the other hand, knew he was a pile of pooh all right.
He had a rather awful job, actually.
He was working for the colonial authorities and had to collect taxes from people.
Which was fine, only he wasn’t paid a salary, and was expected to charge people a little extra and provide a living for himself that way.
And many, if not most, tax-gatherers got a reputation for making a very good living for themselves that way –
you remember Zaccheus, who hid up a sycamore tree to watch Jesus, and Jesus decided to go and have supper with him.
You can quite see the temptation, of course.
And they were pretty well hated anyway, as quislings, collaborators, so they might just as well do what they were accused of!
So all the tax-gatherer could pray was “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”
We don’t know whether the Pharisee went on from the synagogue to take a basket of fruit to an elderly member of the synagogue who was housebound, or whether the tax-gatherer went back to his job,
but it’s quite probable that they did.
But the difference was that, that day at any rate, God had heard and answered the tax-gatherer’s prayer,
but the Pharisee had been far too pleased with himself to need God –
and God can’t get in where there isn’t room!
That was the Pharisee’s big mistake –
he forgot that even though he did keep the rules, and was good at it, he still needed God’s help.
We all need God’s help, of course.
No matter how good we are, no matter how clever, or talented,
we still need God.
We are still sinners.
That’s why Jesus came –
because every single human being is a sinner.
We’d rather go our own way than God’s way, it’s part of human nature.
And when we do decide we want to go God’s way, we would rather do it by means of rules and regulations than by a relationship with the living God.
Again, it’s part of human nature.
It’s why we have a prayer of confession at the start of every service.
The Pharisee forgot that.
He reckoned that because he was a good, God-fearing Pharisee that made him a better human being than the tax-gatherer who was also praying that day.
And, of course, in human terms he was!
But not in God’s terms.
God loved the tax-gatherer every bit as much as he loved the Pharisee, and was quick to answer his prayers and forgive him. In God's eyes, that day, the tax-gatherer was the better person.
We do find it difficult not to go by rules and regulations, don't we? Years ago, I read of a Sunday-school teacher who shared this story with her class, and then said “Now, children, let us thank God we are not like this Pharisee!”
Well, yes, that's all very well – until you find yourself, as I did, thanking God I was not like that Sunday-school teacher! Derrr!
But you see, that's human nature! We like to compare ourselves with those around us – are we doing it right? Are we doing better than he or she is? We like to have rules and regulations to tell us how we should behave, and what we can to do make God love us. We like to define our relationship with God by the rules.
And, of course, it's not like that. Christianity, it has often been said, is a relationship, not a religion! It is about having a mutual relationship with our Creator. It's about letting God love us.
It's the kind of relationship where, when you go astray, the Good Shepherd pulls on his boots and wellies and goes in search of you. No reproaches when he finds you, either, only joy: “Rejoice with me, for I have found that which was lost”.
It's the kind of relationship where, when you take one tiny step towards God, when you are still a long way away, God rushes to meet you and celebrates your return with a massive party.
It's the kind of relationship where you are encouraged to dare great things for God, where you're encouraged to let go of the rulebook and throw it in the bin.
It's the kind of relationship where you are encouraged to allow God to do great things in and through you. All the time, not just the hour or so a week you spend in Church on Sundays.
Most people do a fantastic job of being human without God, of course. But think, how much better could you do with God?
Do you dare try for a relationship with God on his terms? Without rules and regulations? Maybe you have been doing so this past fifty years, and wonder what I am on about – if so, that's fabulous, and I congratulate you!
But all too many of us cling frantically to the rules. The trouble is, when we let go of them, we don't have anything else to cling to – only the Cross of Christ. And that is scary.
The tax-gatherer was able to let go, though. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” That was all he needed – and it is all we need, too.
God, have mercy on us sinners. Amen.