Publican and Pharisee

23 February 1986

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

The Lord said once or perhaps was it one of His apostles, “if you judge yourself you would not be judged”. If we passed an honest judgement about what we are, turned to God in repentance and began to lead a life worthy of the judgement we have passed upon ourselves and the repentance we have brought to God, indeed, we would have found the path of eternal life. 

In these weeks in which we prepare ourselves to meet face to face with the passion of Christ, His death upon the Cross for ourselves and our salvation and His Resurrection, it is right that we should think  time and again of our own condition. And the Church presents us week after week with images which are like mirrors held before our eyes. Today it is the story of the Publican and the Pharisee.  And our immediate reaction is to side with the Publican. To feel that we are so different from the Pharisee and to condemn him. And yet  the Lord in His parable says to us  that the Publican indeed went home more forgiven than the Pharisee but  it applies also that God’s blessing accompanied the Pharisee. But indeed again we are so different from one and the other and this difference is not to our advantage. The Pharisee stood before God, he  arrogantly as the Greek text puts it took he stand before God because he knew that in many ways he was in the light. He lived according to the commandments, he was faithful to the law, he could say about himself that he not only did not infringe the law, that he kept it to the letter. And yet, there was something lacking  in him. He was under the law, he obeyed it as a slave obeys the commands of a master or a task master but he did not commune in heart and mind, with all his will with the One Whose law is  life and Whose fulfilment is  love. As a slave he did what he was told to do and  did it as best he could. 

Now, when we think of him can we say any such thing about ourselves? We have the law of the Old Testament before our eyes, we have the commandments of Christ, indeed we have more than His commandments.   We have His example  and we have got an inspiration which we could  derive from the unutterable, inspiring beauty of His personality, of His words, of His actions. And yet, we count on His mercy, we count on His forgiveness, we count on the love of God in order to cover up the fact that we do not follow in His footsteps. And yet there is no other way of being a Christian than being a follower of Christ. St Paul speaks to us in these very terms  when he says, “Be followers of me as I am of Christ”.  And the first thought that comes to us is how dare he say that?  How can he put himself as an example? If we read his Epistle we see that these words are spoken practically immediately after his confession that he was an enemy of Christ, a prosecutor of Him and that it is only when Christ revealed Himself to him that he became a follower. He turned away from the past and directed all his days and  all his immeasurably great energy to (?) a disciple. And this is where he begins. Are followers of Christ? Have we ever turned away  from something once and for all because it was not Christ’s will, because it was disfiguring in us the image of God, because it was putting God to shame, Who had given His only begotten Son to our salvation and we were rejecting His offer of love and passing by the Cross saying, not in words but in action, that this is irrelevant to us. We never asked Him to die, why did He? 

If we were honest, sincerely true, what happened in Holy Week and on Calvary would have changed our lives. And so we can not even claim what the Pharisee could claim when arrogantly he took his  stand before God and said: “I am better than others. Look at the way I live.” But then if we turn to the Publican we stand also condemned. He stood at the threshold of  the temple. He looked into the temple and saw in it the place where  God lives, the place  of the  presence, a place so holy that he dared  not set foot into it. He stood at the threshold beating his breast and saying, “God, have Mercy upon me,  a sinner, I am separated from You, I dare not come into Your presence, I can only stand at the threshold  of this vision of a holy space”. 

Do we treat the house of God in this way? Do we feel the way the Publican felt? When we look at ourselves and indeed at one another do we see anything of this veneration, of this worshipful attitude,  of this awe which we find in the Publican? We  come into the church as so it was not a space sacred, a space dedicated to God, a space which is His own place: we talk, we greet one another, we forming (?) after a service how much noise, how little recollection, how little awe  there is in us? 

As so the divine presence manifested itself only at the moment when the first words of a service are proclaimed, while this is the place where God lives, a place which in world that has become secular and godless, in  which God  is not the ruler, the  king and the Lord, a world from which He is excluded, out of which He  is rejected, the Church is the place of asylum for Him, it is a place where He is at home because men and women more than a 100 years ago  believing in Him have cut out of a godless world a small space and said to Him, “Lord, this is Thine, You can live here, You are safe and we will come to You because it is Your house and adore and worship You, treat this place as a sacred place and Your presence as the fulfilment of our life.” 

This was in a way the manner in which the Publican stood at the threshold, we daringly move in, we daringly occupy the space  leaving to God invisibly to be present in His sanctuary. How frightening.  How different  we are from the sinner who knew the greatness of God and knew his own sinfulness. Let us learn both from the Pharisee to live up to our calling,  to our vocation, let us learn to be Christian in deed and in thought and in feeling, in all our being. And let us learn from the Publican this awe, this veneration, this sense of our sinfulness and the greatness of God when we come to Holy of Holies where the Holy One dwells, where He reigns supreme, where  He can give us life but where we are judged by what we are and what we do. 

Let us reflect on these things before we move next week to the story, the parable of the Prodigal Son and reflect again on what it means to take all things from God and to scatter them, to disperse them in vane as we do. But also, let us remember that the mercy of God is here, that it is not only terrible to fall in the hands of the living God but these hands were crucified, these hands are open to us  and are offering us salvation if we only open our hearts and our lives and allow God to reign supreme within us as He reigns supreme in the place of His abode.