An icon of the Pharisee and the Publican
Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin,
23 October 2016,
The Fifth Sunday before Advent,
11 a.m., The Sung Eucharist,
Readings: Joel 2: 23-32; Psalm 65; II Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18; Luke 18: 9-14.
In the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Sometimes I find our memories from childhood of familiar Gospel stories, going right back to how they were taught to us as children, leave us unwilling to think afresh about what the stories may be saying.
The parables in Saint Luke’s Gospel, which we have been reading in the Lectionary this year, are a good example of this: the story of the Prodigal Son, the Story of the Good Samaritan, the story of Dives and Lazarus, and this morning’s story of the Pharisee and the Publican, or the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector, are excellent illustrations of this.
The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican and their prayers is an interesting way to examine our own approaches to prayer. Christ teaches his Disciples a variety of approaches to prayer, giving them examples of prayer with the Lord’s Prayer, and examples of how others pray: the Prodigal Son’s father who prays for his son every day; the persistent widow who keeps on badgering the unjust judge every day; and this morning’s Gospel reading, which presents us with two different approaches to prayer, public and private.
But perhaps we can we can be too quick to say that we are presented with one good example and one bad example.
Both the Pharisee and the Publican prays for himself. Each bares himself before God.
The Pharisee gives thanks to God. In fact, by all the current standards of and means of measuring Jewish piety, he is a good man. Consider what he tells God and us about himself.
First of all, he thanks God that he is not like other people. The Morning Prayer for Orthodox Jewish men, to this day, includes a prayer with these words: ‘Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast not made me a gentile, … a slave, … a woman.’
Thanking God that I am not like others is not an expression of disdain for others; it is merely another, humble way of thanking God for being made the way we are, in God’s image and likeness. The Pharisee’s prayer is not unusual.
The Pharisee then goes on to tell God that he obeys all the commandments: he prays, he fasts and he tithes – in fact, he tithes more than he has to, and perhaps also fasts more often than he has to – and he gives generously to the poor. He more than meets all the requirements laid on him by the Mosaic law, and he goes beyond that. He is a charitable, kind and faithful man.
Anyone who saw him in the Temple and heard him pray would have gone away saying he was a good man, and a spiritual man.
But, despite attending to his responsibilities towards others, the Pharisee in this parable does not pray for the needs of others, in so far as we are allowed to eavesdrop on his prayers.
But then, neither does the publican pray for the needs of others.
So neither man is condemned for not being heard to pray for the needs of the other.
What marks the prayers of the Pharisee out from the prayers of the publican is that, in his prayers, the Pharisee expresses his disdain for the needs of others.
The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican is also a reminder that at times people may think that because they have sinned they should not pray.
But the story of the Pharisee (apparently good) and the Publican (apparently bad), tells us that the Pharisee prayed easily, while the publican could not even lift his eyes to heaven. Instead, the publican smote his breast and prayed: ‘Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.’
Christ tells us it was the publican who ‘returned home justified’ not the Pharisee.
The publican wants to pray even when he feels guilty of sin.
We do not have to wait until we feel righteous, like the Pharisee, so that we can pray. Such prayer is almost useless. I know I can all too easily pray the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner,’ and pray it all the more readily when I am feeling righteous than when I realise I am a sinner.
The error of the Pharisee is to confuse the means with the end. Acts of virtue or piety are meant to dispose our hearts towards communion with God, not turn us in on ourselves. As Metropolitan Anthony Bloom wrote: ‘From the [Pharisee] learn his works, but by no means his pride; for the work by itself means nothing and does not save.’
Religious feelings can be deceptive in the extreme. When I think I feel like praying, I may in fact be feeling ‘pious,’ and I may not be ready to pray at this stage. Instead, I may be preparing to be self-consumed and self-congratulatory about being a pious person of prayer.
John Betjeman’s most savage satire is ‘In Westminster Abbey.’ This poem is a dramatic monologue, set during the early days of World War II, in which a woman enters Westminster Abbey to pray for a moment before hurrying off to ‘a luncheon date.’
She is not merely a chauvinistic nationalist, but also a racist, a snob and a hypocrite who is concerned more with how the war will affect her share portfolio than anything else. Her chauvinistic nationalism leads her to pray to God ‘to bomb the Germans’ … but ‘Don’t let anyone bomb me.’
Her social and ethical lapses are a product of her spiritual state, which is a direct result of her nation’s spiritual sickness. But she lets God know prayer and her relationship with God are low down her list of priorities:
Let me take this other glove off
As the vox humana swells,
And the beauteous fields of Eden
Bask beneath the Abbey bells.
Here, where England’s statesmen lie,
Listen to a lady’s cry.
Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans,
Spare their women for Thy Sake,
And if that is not too easy
We will pardon Thy Mistake.
But, gracious Lord, whate’er shall be,
Don’t let anyone bomb me.
Keep our Empire undismembered
Guide our Forces by Thy Hand,
Gallant blacks from far Jamaica,
Honduras and Togoland;
Protect them Lord in all their fights,
And, even more, protect the whites.
Think of what our Nation stands for,
Books from Boots’ and country lanes,
Free speech, free passes, class distinction,
Democracy and proper drains.
Lord, put beneath Thy special care
One-eighty-nine Cadogan Square.
Although dear Lord I am a sinner,
I have done no major crime;
Now I’ll come to Evening Service
Whensoever I have the time.
So, Lord, reserve for me a crown,
And do not let my shares go down.
I will labour for Thy Kingdom,
Help our lads to win the war,
Send white feathers to the cowards
Join the Women’s Army Corps,
Then wash the steps around Thy Throne
In the Eternal Safety Zone.
Now I feel a little better,
What a treat to hear Thy Word,
Where the bones of leading statesmen
Have so often been interr’d.
And now, dear Lord, I cannot wait
Because I have a luncheon date.
On the other hand, when I feel like the Publican in our parable, then I can pray like a Publican. Throughout the Church, parishioners protest, ‘I cannot take Communion … lead the intercession … serve at the altar today, because I do not feel worthy.’ But surely I am in much greater danger when I do feel worthy.
When does someone ever say, ‘I have been so good this week I have not felt in the least like a sinner, and this is a great sin and deception?’ Now we would be getting somewhere with prayer!
The 19th century Russian, Saint John of Kronstadt (1829-1902), writes: ‘When the foolish thought of counting up any of your good works enters into your head, immediately correct your fault and rather count up your sins, your continual and innumerable offences against the All-Merciful and Righteous Master, and you will find that their number is as the sand of the sea, whilst your virtues in comparison with them are as nothing.’
What ever happened to the Publican or the tax-collector afterwards?
We are not told his name. We are not told where he lived. We are not told how he lived.
Did he ever put into practice what he was praying for? Asking for mercy, receiving mercy, giving mercy?
In moments when I allow my imagination to run away with itself, and with me, I like to ask whether this is the same tax collector who appears in next Sunday’s Gospel reading (Luke 19: 1-10).
The Pharisee this morning lists all he does: he fasts twice a week; he gives a tenth of all his income (verse 12). Next week, Zacchaeus has a profound change of heart, and decides to give away half of his possessions to the poor and to repay four-fold what he has squeezed out of anyone unjustly (Luke 19: 8).
Prayer leads us to God, but prayer that does not lead us to love our neighbour is prayer that is dead.
We need to be people who pray like a publican. We will find so many more times available for prayer if we do. But we should pray for those who are praying like a Pharisee, so that God may free us from our delusions.
And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Luke 18: 9-14
9 Εἶπεν δὲ καὶ πρός τινας τοὺς πεποιθότας ἐφ' ἑαυτοῖς ὅτι εἰσὶν δίκαιοι καὶ ἐξουθενοῦντας τοὺς λοιποὺς τὴν παραβολὴν ταύτην: 10 Ἄνθρωποι δύο ἀνέβησαν εἰς τὸ ἱερὸν προσεύξασθαι, ὁ εἷς Φαρισαῖος καὶ ὁ ἕτερος τελώνης. 11 ὁ Φαρισαῖος σταθεὶς πρὸς ἑαυτὸν ταῦτα προσηύχετο, Ὁ θεός, εὐχαριστῶ σοι ὅτι οὐκ εἰμὶ ὥσπερ οἱ λοιποὶ τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ἅρπαγες, ἄδικοι, μοιχοί, ἢ καὶ ὡς οὗτος ὁ τελώνης: 12 νηστεύω δὶς τοῦ σαββάτου, ἀποδεκατῶ πάντα ὅσα κτῶμαι. 13 ὁ δὲ τελώνης μακρόθεν ἑστὼς οὐκ ἤθελεν οὐδὲ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς ἐπᾶραι εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν, ἀλλ' ἔτυπτεν τὸ στῆθος αὐτοῦ λέγων, Ὁ θεός, ἱλάσθητί μοι τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ. 14 λέγω ὑμῖν, κατέβη οὗτος δεδικαιωμένος εἰς τὸν οἶκον αὐτοῦ παρ' ἐκεῖνον: ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ὑψῶν ἑαυτὸν ταπεινωθήσεται, ὁ δὲ ταπεινῶν ἑαυτὸν ὑψωθήσεται.
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13 But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:
Help us to hear them,
to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them
that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word,
we may embrace and for ever hold fast
the blessed hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.
God of all grace,
your Son Jesus Christ fed the hungry
with the bread of his life and the word of his kingdom.
Renew your people with your heavenly grace,
and in all our weakness
sustain us by your true and living bread,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin, on 23 October 2016.