23 October 2016

Which of these two would you
prefer to meet afterwards?

The Pharisee and the Publican … who would you prefer to have coffee with this morning? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin,

23 October 2016,

The Fifth Sunday before Advent,

9 a.m.
, The Said 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.

The parables in Saint Luke’s Gospel are so familiar that we often forget how shocking they must have been to the people who first heard them.

The Prodigal Son, for example, is shocking because the loyal and caring stay-at-home son seems to become the victim. The Story of the Good Samaritan is shocking because good people are exposed and the someone who is an obvious as outsider is held up as a paragon of virtue.

The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican must have had the same impact on those who heard it for the first time.

As the story unfolds, they would have identified with the Pharisee – they would want to pray like him, they may even have prayed with him. And as the story unfolds, who would they prefer to head off with after the morning prayers for coffee – undoubtedly the Pharisee.

As they settle into the story, they would have expected the Pharisee to be held up as the good example. This man gives thanks to God. By all the standards of the day, by all the 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. We forget, because of generations of hearing this story, we forget that that the Pharisee is not a bad man.

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.

Despite meeting 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 others.

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. Yet, if I had been around the Temple that day, I am sure it is the Pharisee I would have wanted to join for coffee later that morning, not the Publican.

But it is the Publican who goes back home having south to encounter God in the right way – even if he and his neighbours do not know so.

Perhaps 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.’

And so, this morning’s Gospel story remains a criticism of my priorities and my values before it ever even begins to examine anyone else’s conscience.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

A contemporary icon of the Pharisee and the Publican praying in the Temple

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was shared in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin, on 23 October 2016.

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