May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our Gospel reading today is that of the parable of the publican and the Pharisee.* And just as he did for last week's Gospel, where St Luke very explicitly told us what was the Lord's intention in telling the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge was that we should pray always and never lose heart – he also tells us the purpose this week, to warn those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others against their behaviour – in other words a call to humility. It is a parable of particular significance, given that the prayer of the publican, which is praised by Jesus and thereby commended by him to us as an example and model of prayer, forms the basis of what is known in Orthodox spirituality of the Jesus Prayer – with the words 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner' being repeated slowly and reverently – a form of prayer whose value is being increasingly recognised and adopted by other Christian traditions. This makes it of great importance to consider this parable with great care.
First let us look at the Pharisee. Look at how our Lord describes the manner in which he prays: 'The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself.' I think that phrase bears repeating: 'The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself.' He is not truly praying to God, but praying with himself. Some more modern translations render it that he prayed alone, but that he prayed with himself is the more literal and more accurate – to say that he prayed alone risks giving the impression that he had simply picked some quiet place alone in the temple for his time of worship; but the fact that we are told that the publican or tax-collector, with whom his behaviour is contrasted, stands far off, makes it clear that the Pharisee has not chosen some quiet spot, but suggests instead that he has taken a position of great prominence within the Temple – the man who thinks himself righteous wants all the sinners present to see him at prayer. The more literal translation, by saying he prays with himself, therefore helps to make it clear that what is going on here is not really worship at all.
In fact, as what comes after shows, it is really a form of self-glorification; for the Pharisee begins by thanking God that he is not like other men – other men are sinners; he is not. They are given over to all manner of ways in which they break God's laws; but he keeps the law. In his own mind he is apparently a man apart from all others – the lone righteous man in a world of sinners … and grievous sinners at that. But just in case God has somehow missed what a good man he is, he takes the trouble to list off for him how good he is, how exacting he is in keeping to the law. God, we may be assured, is not impressed with the manner in which this man commends himself to him, nor with the wonderful opinion he has of himself; and we may be assured of this because Christ is not impressed – and Christ is God.
What a contrast the behaviour of the tax-collector is. He stands far off – he does not think himself good enough to go further into the sacred precincts of the Temple, symbolically showing that he knows that he is not worthy to draw too close to the presence of the Almighty. He can not bring himself even to lift up his eyes to heaven – again showing his understanding of how unworthy he is. And his prayer is simple and honest. He is a sinner – he does not try to pretend otherwise or excuse his actions in any way. And he knows that he has but one hope for salvation – not his own actions, but the mercy of God. And because of his humility, because he understands that he is a sinner in need of God's mercy, he is the one who goes home that day justified. There is great irony in the prayer of the Pharisee: he thanks God that he is not like the publican; but the truth is that he should be begging God that he is more like him, that he would be better able to follow his example.
We should not, it should be clarified, turn the example of the tax-collector on its head and think that it is OK to sin merrily and wilfully, thinking that all we need to do after is to wink at God and say 'sorry about that' thinking that all is now well even as we plan to continue in the sins we have just asked mercy for begin some new one. The behaviour of the tax-collector makes it clear that he is grieved by his sins, that he is truly sorry for them, and that he wants not only God's pardon for having committed them, but his strength so that he might do better in the future. The prayer 'Lord, have mercy on me a sinner' is of little worth if it is not said with the understanding that not only is the person saying it a sinner in need of God's mercy but that they also wish to do their best to no longer be a sinner. Perhaps that is why the prayer is so widely used, as I said in beginning, in Orthodox spirituality. Indeed, perhaps our Orthodox brethren have found a way of combining the messages behind last week's parable about persistence in prayer and the dangers of pride and the need for humility. And that is in the frequent repetition of these words given us by our Lord himself.
The publican found his road to salvation through the humble uttering of these words, words that he did not merely say, but took deeply into his heart. Perhaps we also may use them to find our path to God and eternal life. Why would we not if we pray them with equal humility and sincerity of heart? They were, after all, given to us and commended to us by God himself. Amen.