Sermon 27 October 2013: Last after Trinity Year C

Publican and Pharisee     

‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray’ – nothing remarkable about that, you might think but no doubt it was the next phrase which would have caused a ripple of slightly amused interest among those listening to Jesus. ‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a Tax-collector’ – an unlikely duo: two human beings but very different from each other in their circumstances, their background and status. ‘One a Pharisee’ – highly regarded and respected, a man of consequence and standing, meticulous in his religious observance, irreproachable in his manner of life. ‘ The other a Tax-collector’ – nobody’s hero, nobody’s friend, despised and hated by everyone for his collaboration with the occupying power, extorting taxes on behalf of the enemy from his own people and making a living for himself out of it. A man who had sold his soul for dross.

‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray’. Jesus depicts them turning aside from the busy din of the narrow crowded streets, the press and throng of the city and invites us to observe them and to eavesdrop on them at their devotions.

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself’. The phrase might mean that he prayed within himself, not aloud but silently. It also might mean just what it says – that he prayed, not to God, not to ‘the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy’ but to himself – himself the object of his veneration.

He stands there, confident that he has God’s ear, God’s approval. His self-assurance sits easily on him. He can face God without a qualm, look him in the eye. ‘God, I thank you...’ Well, that’s a good beginning, it strikes the right note, the note of gratitude. Gratitude for what? ‘I thank you that I am not like other people’.

That no doubt is true. Most likely he has had a good education, is respected and looked up to by many people and is probably regarded as a wholly worthy and admirable figure – a pillar of society. From the way in which he conducts himself and speaks, he presents himself as a self-made man in the realm of virtue, self-originating and self-authenticating in his uprightness. It does not occur to him that his virtues and his qualities are all given from a Source beyond himself. He does not see that all that he is and all that he has are gifts and that of himself he has nothing and is nothing. He has no sense of dependence, no awareness that he has nothing which he has not received and that all is grace. His prayer is a recital of self-congratulation, self-admiration.

Notice his virtues are all negative – he defines himself by what he is not; he is ‘not like other people, thieves, rogues, adulterers’ and most certainly he is not ‘like this tax collector’.

He basks in the glow of his moral and spiritual achievements and excellence: he ‘fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all his income’. He is secure in the sense of his own worthiness and good standing in the eyes of both God and his fellow human beings.

‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray’ but one of them forgot what he had gone for. Delighted with his own virtue, he prayed not to God but to himself.

In total contrast, the other ‘standing far off and beating his breast’ does not ‘even look up to heaven’. Not for him ‘the best  places’ up front, ‘the seats of honour’ in the synagogue or at the feast. He would not presume to be among the devout and the respectable – he knows his place, he knows where he properly belongs. ‘Standing far off’ his head is bowed, his eyes downcast. He is too overcome by shame to be able to stand confidently before the Lord and he beats his breast and asks for mercy. He knows his need, recognises that spiritually and morally he is utterly bankrupt. He comes to God with empty pockets hanging out but he does not despair. As with that other in another of the Lord’s Parables, ‘standing far off’ he has ‘come to himself’ and like the Prodigal in the ‘far country’ he knows the road he must take.

The Pharisee in this parable is a reminder to us of just how easily we human beings can subconsciously slip into a kind of unquestioning self-regard, which blinds us to the truth and reality of who we are and what we are. This applies as much on the collective and corporate level as it does on the individual and personal. Parish congregations, ecclesiastical groups and institutions, religious communities, theological colleges, can be insidiously beguiled into subconsciously ‘trusting in themselves that they are righteous, regarding others with disdain'.

Whereas the Tax Collector stands as an assurance that no matter how much and how frequently we fall short in our relationship with God and with one another, despair is not the appropriate or the necessary response. ‘Keep your mind in Hell and despair not’ was the advice of the Staretz Silouan. For it is part of the mystery of things that darkness and grace, judgement and mercy, may be experienced inseparably bound together. The mercy of God is unfailing and inexhaustible and although it may on occasion be experienced by us as severe, nevertheless it is mercy and it is with us and for us.

What is required of us is the humility to accept it – and ‘humility is endless’ – humility and simplicity, – a condition which costs us ‘not less than everything’.

R.S. Thomas speaking of the realm of mercy, which we call the Kingdom of God, says that ‘It’s a long way off but to get the re takes no time and admission is free, if you will purge yourself of desire and present yourself with your need only and the simple offering of your faith, green as a leaf’.

Eric Simmons CR