Finding Forgiveness

March 1, 2020

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Preached by Canon Richard Lindley using Luke 18.9-14 at Mattins on Sunday 01 March 2020, the First Sunday of Lent.

My middle name is humility. I’m renowned for it; I’m really proud of it. I always take the lower place, I always let other people speak first. I’m ever so generous with my money, especially to the Church, but I always do it anonymously. I’m so humble that I might even get a knighthood for it, and I’ll certainly be welcomed into heaven – provided, of course, I go first to the foot of the table and wait to be invited up to the top. I really am humble.

And so I could go on. Those of you who know me might be saying, ‘Thank goodness he’s realised at last! What a hypocrite he is!’ But I hope that some of you might give me the benefit of the doubt.

In Jesus’s story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, the Pharisee doesn’t actually get round to listing humility as one of his virtues. But he might just as well, as he’s so proud of himself in other respects: not like lesser mortals he says to himself, no gross sins like theft or adultery, tithing the whole of his income in favour of the temple and rigorous fasting. I, I, I; me, me, me. And he even dares to address his self-congratulation to God, purporting to thank God for how he lives his life.

How easy it is to fall into the same trap. Perhaps not in our prayers, but in our attitude. And perhaps particularly in this proud city of Winchester in largely prosperous Hampshire. There’s so much we can correctly thank God for, since God has made us as we are, with our abilities, our earning capacity, our personality. But also, the upbringing we have had, the moral codes and social etiquette we have learned from our parents, our schools and our friends.

I worked for a number of years as a housemaster in a teenage boys’ approved school in Birmingham. I learned what I guess we all know: that people are to a considerable degree the product and victims of their upbringing, in some cases with abuse and neglect, and sometimes in an environment of criminality as the norm. But I also learnt the extent to which some of these same people are capable of remorse and fresh starts if given opportunities, and of surprising generosity with what little they have. I still use a shovel that one of the approved school boys, who’d made it in the metalwork shop, insisted on giving me. And it’s a jolly sight better than any you’ll find in the shops.

Who knows how some Jewish men became tax-collectors, greedy and conniving with the Roman occupiers? What personality disorders, what desperations drove them to it? But the tax-collector in Jesus’s story was truly penitent: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’, he prayed. He didn’t list humility as one of his virtues: he didn’t need to. And he didn’t claim his penitence as one of his virtues either: he didn’t need to. He just was sorry, really sorry, and wanted God’s forgiveness. And Jesus says that he was the one who went home from the temple justified.

‘Justified’ is a word that St Paul picked up and expounded at length. We are justified – that is, made right with God and each other – simply by our faith, our trust and belief. Our faith should certainly lead on to moral behaviour and good deeds. But those themselves won’t free us or bring us forgiveness; only real sorrow and faith will do that. Maybe a useful thought for the start of Lent.