The Pharisee, the Tax Collector and Joel
A sermon on Luke 18: 9-14 & Joel 2: 23-32 by Ian Cook, 28 October 2007
 
Catastrophe. Have you ever been involved in a massive catastrophe, or perhaps only looked in via TV or other media
 
Do you remember the Granville rail disaster
Where were you when cyclone Tracey struck?
When 9/11 occurred I was watching TV live as it happened. I watched the second tower collapse and could not mentally compute what I just saw. I remember saying to Eliz “ I am sure there were two buildings there and I think one has just collapsed!!”  
Do you carry images of the Tsunami of 26 December 2004
When hurricane Katrina  struck the Carribbean we helplessly saw images of  unimagined chaos from the  Superdome in New Orleans  
I have a friend who was in Guatamala during  Katrina. During  the day after Katrina he was  attempting to reach the safety of a village some 20 KM from where he was trapped. He trekked through mud and swirling waters along disintegrated roads and was begged by women, in desperate fear of their lives to carry their babies, because he was tall and strong, and he recounts the panic he felt fearing that he would be left as the custodian of  infants whose mothers had drowned in the swirling torrent of mud.  
 
Common to all catastrophe is how people are brought together in their aftermath
From catastrophe new life emerges and community begins again.
Sometimes catastrophe can be personal rather than communal as when George Matheson writes in a hymn you probably know:
“I lay in dust life’s glory dead,  and from the ground there blossoms red - life that shall endless be”
 
In the Book of Joel we are told of an overwhelming calamity that overtook God’s people Israel probably in the fifth century BC. It could have been a famine or natural disaster, or a military conquest by the Persians.  It was a calamity so great that it  cannot be named directly; so it is described only as locusts - a poetic euphamism for a devastating event that overwhelmed the nation.
Little is known about Joel other than that his writings are excruciatingly hard to find – locked in the bowels of the minor prophets.  The writings of the first chapter and a half are lament for the destruction of the environment – of crops and pasture and cattle.
 
Read Joel:1:
 
These writings of Joel however have an eerie echo in our own unfolding environmental disaster – a disaster based on climate change, of which we are the primary cause. Our crops are failing, our cattle are dying and we are largely helpless to effect change or have any impact on the rate of change. We face a catastrophe so great that we too may soon only wish to name it obliquely. The locusts are taking our land!
When I went to primary school we were taught that Aboriginals were the least civilised cultural group in the world – the closest living group to Cave-man. Aboriginals however have lived in this continent for thousands of years and have done virtually nothing to damage or scar it in that time, yet we whites have ravaged it and all but left it barren in just  two hundred years
 
The writings of Joel move on from Chapter 1 to a happier note, (which we shared earlier in our service) for if God permits destruction it is ultimately so that he can bring salvation. Our reading  is a compelling statement of how God will rescue his people, and makes comforting reading for it is ultimately about God’s salvation.
 
In the Gospel parable we have tended to made a comfortable story from a narrative that should have been very uncomfortable indeed, because actually the priest was the goodie and the tax collector was the baddie; yet we have sanitised and  reinterpreted the parable to retrospectively declare that the priest was always the bad guy and the tax collector was a decent but misunderstood person. So in such an inverted  scenario of course the priest deservedly went to hell and the misjudged tax collector got his rightful reward from a just and forgiving God and all is well in heaven so we can pronounce the benediction and feel comfortable over supper. And isn’t that the point of the parable that we have a God of wisdom and justice?  No it’s not. In fact this parable has got nothing to do with wisdom and justice  and everything to do with forgiveness  which is quite the opposite. If the Gospel is about wisdom and justice then we are all dead meat.
 
Understand first that the religious leader was not a bad person. He was probably about as good as you could get. He observed everything that the scriptures demanded of him, and he genuinely wanted a relationship with God, and to know and follow God’s will for him. Perhaps a family man seeking as priest to care for God’s word to the flock God had entrusted him with. Who is the most decent person you have known?  Put him or her on the synagogue  steps.[Place chair on platform]
 
The Tax collector he was the scum of the earth. Not only a traitor to his country but happy to rip off his fellow countrymen and acquire wealth at their expense under the patronage of the ruling Romans.  He was far worse than a terrorist for he lived for no cause other than himself. It seems even he was full of self-loathing. In today’s culture perhaps the practicing paedophile would be about as close as we can get to this piece of dirt. Let him slide into the corner of the synagogue. [Place upturned chair on floor]
 
The righteous person notes that he obeys everything God demands of him and adds that he is glad that he is not scum like that paedophile over there in the corner – and he is right!
 
The scum in the corner can only say “God forgive me, for the scum that I am”.
 
The righteous person continues to be righteous, and the scum continues to be scum.    
They both went home and probably both continued much as before. The Pharisee continued to be a Pharisee, the Tax collector continued to be a Tax Collector and dare I say it, the paedophile probably continued to be a paedophile. There is no epilogue to suggest that the Tax collector suddenly became a decent person, took up carpentry,  and made tables. His lifestyle was deeply locked in. He could no more disentangle himself from his mess than we can from ours.
 
In the course of the next eighty years our children, our grand children and their children are going to curse us for what we have done to their world. We will stand accused that we have taken its wealth of resources, and destroyed this world that God has entrusted to our care, because of both our ignorance and our insatiable greed.
 
Writing in The Age recently Kenneth Davidson  foresaw a world that by the turn of the century would be inhabitable by only a few million people living at the extremities of the North and the South Pole, and that long before then the seas would rise by five metres as the Greenland’s ice  melted.  An extreme scenario certainly, yet made credible by our consistent failure to come to terms with global warming  over the past generation - where some of the very darkest predictions of that period have actually underestimated the real rate of change we are experiencing today.
 
Should Davidson’s extreme forecast prove true, there will not be enough of  our descendants left alive to even utter a curse on us. Can you imagine the global holocaust that would reduce 5 billion people to a chosen few million over only 4 generations?
 
We shall all go home today and we may turn off a light, we might put in a water tank,
And we might vote for a government that will make only political decisions about climate change. We have a fair certainty about where we are headed, but we really don’t want to change, for we are comfortable where we are, as was the tax collector and the paedophile. This is my sin and your sin that we are comfortable in our sinning and  don’t know how to change or actually want to change more than a little.
 
If in the grand scheme of life you think your doing OK,  look again at Jesus message for the Pharisee, for you have no place with God;  but if you are the Tax Collector, the paedophile and the global polluter and you slink into the corner of the temple and say  “God forgive me, for I am a sinner”. Then Jesus message for you is the good news of  the Gospel, that you have a place with God.
 
Some one said that: “Heaven is full of forgiven sinners, and hell is also full of forgiven sinners. The only difference is that the sinners in heaven accepted the forgiveness God offers. This is the message of the parable : Our goodness is meaningless; our sinning is meaningless – all that has meaning is that we recognise our sinfulness and accept God’s forgiveness
 
I believe that our earth will crumble; that we are bringing upon ourselves a holocaust of locusts. But I also believe the prophesy of  Joel is relevant;  that it is a prophesy for today and that ultimately God will save his people.

Read Joel:    Shout for joy, you who call the holy city home,
    celebrate the goodness of the LORD your God.
The LORD has done the right thing by you,
    sending you good rains, just like in the old days;
    autumn and spring rains right on cue.

Your silos will bulge with grain;
    your vats will overflow with wine and olive oil.

I, the LORD your God, will make up for the bad years;
    for the seasons when locusts destroyed everything in sight.
I sent them like an invading army,
swarming over your land,
stripping your crops bare.

But now you will have more than you can eat,
and will gladly give credit to me, the LORD your God.
I have done amazing things for you,
and you will never be humiliated again.

You, my people, will know that I am among you,
    and that I, the LORD, am your one and only God.
You are my people,
    and you will never be humiliated again.

Then, after that, I will do even more:
I will pour out my Spirit on everyone.
Your sons and your daughters will speak as prophets.
The elderly among you will dream dreams,
and the young will see visions.

In those days, I will even pour out my Spirit
upon men and women whose rights no one cares about.

I will perform miraculous signs in the sky and on the earth,
blood, and fire, and clouds of smoke.

The sun will go black and the moon blood-red
before the dawning
of my awesome and glorious day.

And everyone who cries out to me will be rescued,
    for there will be survivors on my holy mountain and in my holy city.
I, the LORD, have promised this,
and among the survivors will be the people I have called.
 
God forgive me for I am a sinner.