I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that
exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
(St. Luke xviii. 14)
Trinity-tide invites us on to the road that leads to salvation for those who embrace God’s power as He reveals it chiefly in shewing mercy and pity upon those who running the way of His Commandments hope to obtain His gracious promises and to be made partakers of His heavenly treasure. (Collect Trinity XI)No human being is denied this offer of redemption and reconciliation with Almighty God, the Father of lights, the Creator and Mover of all things. Every human being can come to see and know either the way that leads to death and destruction or the way that leads to life and reconciliation. The road or way that a man takes is, of course, his spiritual path. His spiritual path is determined by the character and nature of his prayer life. In this morning’s Gospel Parableour Lord illustrates two kinds of prayer life and where each of them leads. Perhaps our careful study of both will move us to embrace the one and eschew the other with more determined earnestness.
Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a Publican. (St. Luke xviii. 10) The first man who went up to praywas a Pharisee, a religious leader of the Jewish Church in his day and an expert in how the Jewish Law brought man closer to God. The other man who went up to pray was a Publican – also a Jew, but one who was despised by his own people as a traitor because he collected taxes for the heathen Roman overlords. So, on the face of it, we should expect to find the Phariseepraying in a way that surrenders to God in habitual humble dependence. From the Publicanwe might anticipate some superficial, haphazard, uncommon, and cursory prayer.
So we read that The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed thus.... (Ibid, 11; Archbishop Trench’s translation) Even before our ears are opened to the content of the Pharisee’s prayer, we are a bit surprised. We learn that he has isolated and cordoned himself off from all others. Putting a distance between himself and all unclean worshipers, (Parables, p. 381) he does not seek an inconspicuous and anonymous place to pour out his sin-sick heart before God. Rather, he intends to be conspicuously positioned to parade his piety before others. Jesus tells us what the Pharisee will broadcast to his audience. God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. (Ibid, 11) Speakingthus with himself,the Pharisee thanks God that he is unlike all other men. He is unique, special, and precious. By way of judgment, he assumes that all other men are notorious sinners or maybe even as wicked as thePublican whom he notices out of the corner of his eye. So, first he conflates sin with sinners. For while he is surely right to thank God for deliverance from vice and into virtue, he is not right to contrast himself withor elevate himself aboveother men. He has started off on the wrong foot altogether by thanking God for a goodness that is comparative. He is better because others are worse. The publican, who is not far from him, is a useful prop in the dramatic presentation of himself to God. He insists that he is so very, very good because other men are so very, very bad! His sin is first found, then, in a self-conscious righteousnessthat is defined wholly in comparison to his neighbors.
Second, to enhance his sinful spiritual superiority, he tells us who he is and what he does: I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. (Ibid, 12) He is at least as good as he is because what he doesis not as bad as what other men do. So, it would seem, he needs to be no better. To be religious,as Cardinal Newman points out, was for him to keep peace towards others, to take his share in the burdens of the poor, to abstain from gross vice, and to set a good example. His alms and fastings were done not in penance, but because the world asked for them; penance would have implied consciousness of sin; whereas it was only the Publicans, and such as they, who had anything to be forgiven. (10th Sunday after Pentecost, 1856) He thanks God for his well-behaved, decorous, consistent, and respectable life. (Ibid) He is grateful to God for himself and crowns his pride and arrogance in gratitude for being spared the condition of this [pitiful] Publican. (Ibid, 11)In the end, he has only condescending contempt for one whose humble repentance should have stirred in him the need for the same.
So, over there, we find the Publican, standing, afar off, [who] would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote his breast, saying,God be merciful to me a sinner. (Ibid, 13) Here we come upon a man who, alienated and shunned by his own people for his compromised loyalty and divided fidelity, is standing afar off. (Ibid)This self-conscious sinner’s own sin prevents him from drawing nearer to the wall of prayer since he believes that this space is reserved for the holy men of God. He must stand at a distance, taking the lowest seat, painfully aware that he is not worthy even of this station. His poverty of spirit renders him fearful of moving closer to the Wall of Prayer before he has obtained remission of his sins. He reminds us of Mephibosheth, the disabled son of Jonathan, who responds to King David’s mercy with the words of the unworthy: What is thy servant, that thou shouldest look upon such a dead dog as I am? (2 Sam. 8) He beats his breast, revealing how he cannot endure the distance he has traveled away from his Maker. With neither self-pity nor self-excuse, quietly and conscientiously, he prays, God be merciful to me a sinner. (Ibid) This man knows who he is and what he has become in relation to God. He knows, too, that the all-seeing God knows the secrets of [his] heart. (Ps. xliv. 21) And so, as St. Theophylact has written, he comes as close as he is able to the table of God’s mercy, knowing that he [could] not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven (Ibid, 13), regarding them as unworthy of the celestial vision: because they had preferred to look upon and seek out only earthly riches. (Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, p. 358) He cannot look up to God, for he is a sinner. He cannot look around at others, for they are far better than he.
Unlike the Pharisee, who has no sins to confess, the Publicanrepents before the all-seeing God. His heart is convicted and he repents him of his sins. God’s sees into his heart and elicits the truth. Unlike the Pharisee he is not his own teacher,as Cardinal Newman writes, pacing round and round in the small circle of his own thoughts and judgments, careless to know what God says to him, fearless of being condemned by Him, standing approved in his own sight. (Ibid) Rather he has finally heard the Lord speaking to him: Be still and know that I am God.(Psalm 46.10) He is conscious of God’s omniscience. He knows himself to be spiritually last and least, and that God alone can overcome his spiritual wretchedness with the power of His pity and mercy. (Idem)And so God calls him up and into regeneration. He seeks pardon for wrong done, and power to do better. And thus he beats his breast to drive out the presence of darkness within that the power of God’s all-liberating light may suffuse his soul.
The Publican in his prayer, veiled and concealed to the Phariseein his pride, illustrates for us that spiritual character that must inform and define our relation to God. The Publican does not postpone the inevitable encounter with God. While there is still time, he returns to the Lord. He knows that the powerthat he needs mostis chiefly declared in [God’s] pity and mercy. He can identify with all men, because created natures, high and low, are all on a level and one in the sight and comparison of the Creator, and so all of them have one speech, and one only, whether it be the thief on the cross, Magdalen at the feast, of St. Paul before martyrdom. One and all have nothing but what comes from Him, and are as nothing before Him, who is all in all. (Newman, Ibid) The Publican’s prayer is everyman’s prayer. From his heart, we find the truth that must always travel from our lips back to God.
Dear friends, today let us look into our hearts and see if in them we find any traces or habits of being self-consciously righteous. Do we rest contented in being freed from certain sins and thus so unlike other notorious livers –extortioners, the unjust, adulterers, or publicans?Do we think that we are in possession of enough righteousness because we pay our tithes, attend the Church’s services, do this and do that, give enough of this and certainly almost too much of that? Do we settle for a form of holiness and righteousness which we think sufficient for sure and certain salvation? Have we stopped growing spiritually because we think that whatwe have, is our very own prized-possession that we have earned and are entitled to keep? Father Simon Tugwell reminds us that this all adds up to a complacency that is found when a man is pleased with himself. (Beatitudes: Darton, Longman & Todd, p. 3)My brothers and sisters, today let us admit and confess that God alone is our help and our salvation. He is like no other; He reproveth, and nurtureth, and teacheth and bringeth again, as a Shepherd his flock. He hath mercy on them that receive discipline, and that diligently seek after His judgments. (Ecclus. xviii. 13, 14) What we should perceive most is that undeserved and unmeritedpity and mercy that longs forever to change us, make us new, sanctify, and perfect us. Perfection for the Christian means the forever striving ahead, and not any conviction of achievement. (Tugwell, p. 5) Let us remember that we are all equally [sinful] and thus equally privileged but unentitled beggars before the door of God’s mercy. (Idem) So, with the Publican today let us have the honesty and courage to plead and to pray, God be merciful to me a sinner. Amen.
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