27 October 2019

‘So, Lord, reserve for me a crown,
And do not let my shares go down’

‘In Westminster Abbey’ by John Betjeman is a dramatic monologue that retells one part of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 27 October 2019

The Fifth Sunday before Advent

11.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick.

Readings: Joel 2: 23-32; Psalm 65; II Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18; Luke 18: 9-14.

The Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18: 9-14) … a stained glass window in Saint Michael’s Church, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The readings this morning are reminders that the call to pray is a call that embraces all, and that freedom brings with it freedom to give praise to God, and to pray to God.

In the Old Testament reading (Joel 2: 23-32), we are reminded that ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Joel 2: 32).

In the Psalm (Psalm 65), God is described as the one who answers prayer and who forgives all. Even those who live at the farthest ends of the earth (Psalm 65: 7), the most marginalised and isolated of people, are invited to give praise to God and can know his blessings.

In the New Testament reading (II Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18), Saint Paul reminds his readers that ‘the crown of righteousness’ he looks forward to receiving is accessible ‘to all who have longed for his appearing’ (II Timothy 4: 8) and the good news of the Gospel should be brought to ‘all the Gentiles’ (II Timothy 4: 17).

But down through time, it has been difficult to get this message across within communities of faith. When Christ tells the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, his listeners are amazed that the publican’s prayer could be respected and heard. In turning the tables, we now find it difficult to listen to the prayer of the Pharisee.

In allowing ourselves to be dismissive of the prayers of one group of people, are we trying to compensate for the inadequacies of our own prayer lives? Yet, our readings ask us to consider once again that all are invited into a prayer life that sets the foundation for a relationship with God. And entering into that prayer life is less about its quality and more about accepting the invitation.

This parable and the prayers of the Pharisee and the Publican (or the tax collector) are interesting ways to examine our own approaches to prayer. In this parable, Christ teaches the disciples to pray not by giving words but by giving examples of how others pray. But perhaps we can we be too quick to say that we are presented with one good example and one bad example.

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.

The Pharisee and the Publican each prays for himself, each bares himself before God. The Pharisee gives thanks to God. He prays. In fact, by all the current standards of and means of measuring Jewish piety, he is a good man. Look at 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.’

Jesus 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 a 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,’ 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.

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.

A poem might help us to reflect on this Gospel reading.

‘In Westminster Abbey’ is one of John Betjeman’s most savage satires. 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.’ But her social and ethical lapses are a product of her spiritual state, which is a direct result of her nation’s spiritual sickness.

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.

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 … who was good at praying, and who was a model for praying?

Luke 18: 9-14 (NRSVA):

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.’

‘I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth’ (Joel 2: 30) … sunset in Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Liturgical Colour: Green (Ordinary Time)

The Collect of the Day:

Blessed Lord,
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.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

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.

A modern icon of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector


366, Praise, my soul, the King of heaven (CD 22)
712, Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord (CD 40)
630, Blessed are the pure in heart (CD 36)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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

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