Vol I No. 7
Daily Thought

Trinity XI: The Publican and the Pharisee

by William J. Martin


maxresdefaultI 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 Parable our 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 pray was a Pharisee, a religious leader of the Jewish Church in his day, no doubt a theological 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 and alienated 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 from the prayer of the Pharisee a useful illustration of man’s habitual spiritual dependence upon God, and from the Publican’s perhaps some pathetic late hour, last-ditch effort to supplicate God’s mercy.

Yet notice what we read: The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed thus…. (Ibid, 11; Archbishop Trench’s translation) We have no sooner opened our spiritual ears to the substance of the Pharisee’s instructive prayer, than he has isolated and insulated himself from us! Putting a distance between himself and all unclean worshipers, (Parables, p. 381) he does not seem much interested in welcoming us into a common spiritual exercise. Rather, he intends to be seen, noticed, and recorded. Jesus tells us what the Pharisee intends to broadcast. God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. (Ibid, 11) Speaking thus with himself, the Pharisee thanks God for rescuing him from the habitual notorious sins of enforced gain, robbery, and adultery. And yet his first spiritual error is to conflate 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 with or elevate himself above other sinners. He has started off on the wrong foot altogether by thanking God for a religious success that owes its merit only to spiritual failure of others. His superiority finds its consummate crowning in comparison to the poor, but useful, publican who stands nearby. He insists, in other words, 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 righteousness that is defined wholly in relation to other men’s sins.

But 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 podssess. (Ibid, 12) He is at least as good as he is because what he does is 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) So 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) And in the end, he has no pity but only condescending contempt for one whose humble repentance should have moved him to the same.

And yet, still, 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 that place must be held for men spiritually superior to himself. So he stands at a distance, taking the lowest seat, painfully aware that he is not worthy even of this. 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 finally that he can no longer endure the distance he has travelled 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 and not in comparison to all other men. 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)

Unlike the Pharisee, who thinks that he has no sins to confess, the Publican repents before the heart-searching God. He does not walk now by his own light, but by the Light that only God can give. God’s light reveals to him what he has been, and now what he can become. 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 heard the words of the Lord, addressed to him about himself: Be still and know that I am God.(Psalm 46.10) He has seen himself in the light of God’s truth and mercy. 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 is showing him the way forward. 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 to make ample room for the power of God’s all-liberating light.

The Publican and his prayer, veiled and concealed to the Pharisee in his pride, illustrate for us that spiritual character that must inform and define our relation to God. The Publican does not postpone the inevitable encounter with God. Rather he sees himself, with all men, as standing before God every day of his life, always a sinner in danger of being eternally damned. He knows that the power that he needs most is chiefly declared in [God’s] pity and mercy. He can identify with all men, because, as Cardinal Newman reminds us, 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. (Ibid) The Publican’s is the true prayer of all men. From his heart we find the truth of our own. In his words we find that prayer 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 qualifies us for sure and certain salvation? Have we stopped growing spiritually because we think that what we 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 be conscious of most is God’s power…as that undeserved and unmerited pity and mercy that longs to forever 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) So with the the Publican, today let us have the honesty and courage to plead and to pray, God be merciful to me a sinner. And let us remember, again with Father Tugwell, that we are all equally [sinful] and thus equally privileged but unentitled beggars before the door of God’s mercy. Amen.