The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in today’s Gospel reading is a compelling little tale of a man who believing he had everything in fact had nothing and another who, believing he had nothing in the eyes of God or neighbour, was open to the life and love of God in a way the socially secure and arrogant Pharisee would never experience. The Pharisee in the parable lives on into our day – so conscious of his own moral rightness, his own social comfort and so certain of the truth of his opinions that he regards others with contempt. His beliefs, moral probity, values and opinions had become idols that crowd out awareness of God and neighbour. The Tax Collector on the other hand who claimed no superior wisdom or achievement for himself has learned to welcome God as the grace of accepting and renewing love. The final verse of the reading commends humility as an appropriate stance for those who desire to follow the way pioneered by Jesus. The parable is an invitation to let go of precious certainties so that, freed from self concern, we may allow ourselves to be shaped by the hospitable, generous, forgiving, community building and healing way of Jesus.
When I was invited to prepare today’s worship and to preach it was suggested I might say something about the practice of interfaith relations. The parable, it seems to me, names attitudes that hinder the development of interfaith friendship and suggests conditions within which interfaith cordiality might flourish. Those who are confident they have nothing to learn from others, who treat with contempt the customs and traditions of others are unable to contribute to the development of the sort of human family imagined and lived by Jesus. Those who like the Tax Collector are aware of their own shortcomings and are able to let go of whatever intellectual or social power they have over others are more likely to be builders of good human community in the style of Jesus. Jesus is portrayed in Luke’s Gospel as a prophetic figure who gathers people from varied social and religious backgrounds to share in meals that anticipate the God-dream that all people be united as members of a single family.
Over the last three years members of the Community of St Luke Interfaith group have been engaged in an ongoing pilgrimage into the practices of neighbours who belong to other faiths and religions. The pilgrimage was born out of a desire to understand and appreciate beliefs, practices and hopes held by adherents of other great faiths. The pilgrimage required that as far as possible we should leave behind whatever baggage, prejudices, caricatures or media promoted lies we carried that might promote misunderstanding or damage the possibility of friendship in the presence of difference. We had to leave behind the comfort of our taken for granted ways particularly any lingering sense of superiority that might cling to us as inheritors of a Christian tendency to regard the ways of others as inferior, untrue and needing to be changed. The ways of the Pharisee in the parable: arrogant, superior, self righteous and contemptuous of the wisdom of others is deeply and sadly embedded in the history of the Christian Church. On pilgrimage into the wisdom and practice of others we learned a lot about ourselves and had to set aside many preconceptions and caricatures of others. We discovered that those we met with were also on a journey beyond Pharisee-like attitudes. It is a perennial problem for all religions: in order to feel good about oneself and to honour one’s own truth we lapse into contempt, caricature and radical distrust of those shaped by stories, myths and practices that differ from those that have shaped us.
We began our pilgrimage into the faith and practices of others very conscious of what divides us but soon discovered the obvious but easily obscured reality that those we met with in temples, synagogues, mosques, Gurdwaras and meditation centres were, like us, simply seeking to make sense of life and to live it well, like us living between life and death, sadness and laughter, hope and despair, worried about the family and the mortgage. We soon recognised each other as fellow travellers on the same rocky road of life. Relinquishing any sense of self- importance, all that is included in the idea of humility, is a significant theme in the New Testament and in the practice of Jesus. Paul said of Jesus that he let go of whatever power he might have had, humbling himself and becoming servant of a human future shaped by peace, fairness and generosity. Contempt for others was simply not part of his life style. The way of Jesus, as I have come to understand it, always has room for those who follow other paths. The fostering of contempt, exclusion and distrust, of imposed doctrinal uniformity, leads only to social disharmony and violence. The journey into deepening understanding of people of other faiths requires that we give up any inherited sense of superiority or of contempt for those whose pathway into God-life is through a different doorway. Most of us need help in this matter for the embrace of prejudice and wilful misunderstanding is deeply embedded in our cultures.
For the St Luke’s interfaith pilgrims a journey that began out of a sense of curiosity soon became a journey into our own deepening awareness of God-presence. None of the groups we met with offered us a pre-packaged, take it or leave it, set of God doctrines. They simply invited us to join them in their worship and to share their food. The modes of worship differed, reflecting differing cultural backgrounds. We learned to appreciate afresh how much our expression of Christianity has been shaped by European cultural norms. Worship in each of the faith communities we visited is an occasion when conditions are created within which participants might grow in awareness of God-presence. Note: Awareness of God- presence rather than knowledge about God. Over the years I have been fortunate to observe and to participate from the edges in Muslim prayer in a variety of Mosques, schools and private homes. Over and over I have been reminded of the words of the 17th century Scottish Quaker, Robert Barclay, who on experiencing for the first time the Quaker form of worship wrote: “when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them which touched my heart; and as I gave way to it, I found the evil weakening in me, and the good raised up.”
Our pilgrim group had similar experiences, in synagogues, mosques, temples and Gurdwaras as Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists created colourful, faith embodying conditions within which they might grow in God-awareness. In passing, I had a similar experience on a Sunday ten years ago when we first attended morning worship here at St Luke’s. With Jacob I felt ‘God is in this place,’ and with Moses, ‘Take off your shoes for you are on holy ground.’ Note the emphasis: not on proving God by argument but instead creating conditions within which we, shaped by the culture of our people, might grow in God-awareness. Our visit to the Tsai Baba Hindu Temple was particularly important in this regard. An array of carefully crafted and colourful ‘deities’ represented different doorways into the elusive yet all pervasive reality of Brahma, the sea within which we all exist, the cement that holds all creation together, the gracious presence that is in us and around us, the deepest meaning of all that is. God is not regarded as an object or person whose existence is to be proved: God simply is, reality within which we live and move and have our being.
A special gift to our pilgrim band was our experience at a Zen Buddhist Centre. We were invited into the silence within us and around us, a silence in which our tired minds were cleansed and we knew ourselves to be bound together as companions on the journey of life. The dominant traditions within Buddhism avoid debate about the existence or otherwise of God lest adherents be diverted from the life task of escaping from the pain producing power of human greed. Buddhist non- theism differs greatly from aggressive and rationalistic western atheism. It’s more like an invitation to move beyond confidence in human thinking, righteousness and rationalistic certainties and instead to find oneself in the silence within ourselves, before God and beyond God. Many Christians have found this invitation to silence to represent liberation from the busy, tiresome wordiness and argumentativeness of Protestant Christianity.
Within all the groups we visited the human story is regarded as an unfinished adventure. Hope is a dominant mood. It’s a deep hope that humanity will move from our ready acceptance of violence, distrust, injustice and exploitation of the poor by the rich as normal and lasting. There is a deeply held intuition that humanity will be fulfilled only in a future shaped by peace and sharing. Jews look forward to the coming of the Messiah and the reign of peace, Muslims look forward to the Day of the Lord and a return of Jesus. Buddhists yearn for a time when humanity will have set aside greed and learned to live in non- destructive harmony. We all share a yearning for peace in our world. Yet every one of the great faiths has fallen short of this noble and necessary aspiration. Each group with whom we met on our pilgrimage shared with us their own deep disappointment at the way each of our faiths has been hijacked and used to fuel violence rather than peacemaking. Acknowledgement of the particularly sad record of Christianity in this matter helps us empathise with the pain of others who see the beauty of their traditions being perverted. What the faiths have not achieved in our separateness perhaps we can inch towards together. Part of our shared God- awareness could become our freedom to support one another as together we explore how we might contribute to the search for peace and justice. The journey into peace is surely a journey into God-presence.
In the spirit of today’s parable, told ‘to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt’: If we want to contribute to the healing of our world and to understanding between the religions of our world, if we want to enter more deeply into God-awareness, we must learn to let go of lingering fragments of self righteousness, any sense of superiority, any hints of contempt for others.