In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is teaching a parable directed to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and yet, they despised others. He tells of two men who went up to the temple to pray and describes rather succinctly, what was in each man’s heart. The first man, a Pharisee, is presented as an example of self-righteous pride. He is acutely aware of other worshippers around him. Instead of praying, he thanks God in a litany of self praise that he is “not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. He fasts twice each week and gives tithes of all he possesses.” This is quite a resume – but one that is noticeably devoid of prayer, personal humility, and charity towards a repentant sinner praying in his immediate proximity.
In stark contrast, the second man who was a tax collector is grounded in reality. He all to well knows his sins and moral failings, but as he prays, he seeks only the mercy of God.
Like those men in the parable, we have all gathered here this morning to pray. What parallels are applicable or instructive to us today from our Gospel lesson? Where is our focus and how are we to approach God with our prayers? Where is our heart in worship this morning? Are our eyes fixed upon God or are we distracted by other people or other things?
At St. Matthew’s, we ask that silence be kept in Church before our worship service begins. Entering into prayer requires a time of preparation to quiet both heart and mind. Someone once asked a well known sage what he did before praying. His classic response was that, “I pray, that I may be able to pray properly.”
We begin our Eucharistic worship openly acknowledging that nothing is hid from God. He knows our heart, all of our desires, and every secret – even those we hide from ourselves. This incorporates into our time of prayer the fundamental characteristic of every Christian; that is, a spirit of humility and openness in our relationship with God.
Humility before God is a theme that permeates the Scriptures. It is often spoken of by the Psalmist and others. In Ecclesiasticus, we learn that (35:17) “the prayer of the humble pierces the clouds.” St. James, in his Epistle (4:6), reminds us that “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.” A medieval Orthodox bishop beautifully wrote that “Humility is the chariot in which the ascent to God is made.”
Humility before God, rather than an attitude of entitlement or pride, is an apt summary of this parable by Jesus of two men at prayer. We also learn that God welcomes the outsiders, even notorious or public sinners, the moment they begin to repent. It is the same point Jesus made in the parable of the prodigal son a few weeks ago. As soon as the younger son turned back to his father and before confession was made, the father ran to embrace and kiss him.
It is not surprising that other social outcasts, deemed beneath the respectability of mainline 1st century Judaism, were frequently exalted by Jesus in his teachings. These include poor Lazarus at the rich man’s gate, the lepers, the blind, those suffering physical deformities, Samaritans, tax collectors, shepherds, prostitutes and the like – people that the religious elite of his day believed could be conveniently neglected. Jesus shocked the religious community of his day by reaching out to them, touching and healing them, urging them to repent, and welcoming them to the Kingdom of God.
In this morning’s parable, although the tax collector is exhibiting repentance, he is still despised and held in contempt by the Pharisee with the mindset that – once a sinner, always a sinner. The tax collector is thought of and treated as a second class citizen – a pariah, one that should continue to be shunned and excluded from the community.
God’s perspective, as expressed by Jesus in the parable, is decidedly different. We learn from our text that the tax collector returned to his house justified.
Not surprisingly, the Church struggles with the same issue. How do we, as a Christian community, welcome and incorporate the repentant sinner who has caused great pain and anguish to individual members of a parish or the wider Body of Christ? Jesus taught us that there is joy in heaven over the sinner who repents. The reality on earth is often less enthusiastic and more problematic.
In our Epistle this morning, St. Paul recalls and confesses the persecution he inflicted upon the Church and his own unworthiness to be called an Apostle. His experience of grace on the Damascus Road where he encountered the Risen Lord, lost his sight, immediately and radically transformed him forever. He repented and became a disciple of our Lord.
The response of the 1st century Church was extremely guarded and definitely more subdued. A disciple in Damascus, Ananias by name, sincerely inquired of God as to why he was being sent to pray for Paul that his sight be restored. Paul’s reputation, known by the Church, was (Acts 9:13-14) of all “the evil he hath done to the saints in Jerusalem: and his authority to arrest all that call on the name of Jesus.” Nonetheless, Ananias was obedient and Paul’s eyesight was restored.
St. Paul subsequently journeyed to Jerusalem to join the other disciples. It is written in the Acts of the Apostles that they were afraid of him and questioned his conversion. Barnabus, in faith, brought him to the Apostles who believed him and his testimony. Following what they had learned directly from their three year apprenticeship with Jesus, the Apostles led the Early Church by example as they embraced St. Paul as their brother in Christ.
St. Paul humbly acknowledged that his new life in Christ was solely by the grace of God. So it is with all of us. None of us can change our past. With St. Paul, we come to understand and confess that “by the grace of God, I am what I am.” We can only move forward with all that God had called us to do.
St. Gregory the Great likened the Church to a hospital where sinners came to be healed and restored into the community of the faithful. A sincere examen of conscience will bring us to the unpleasant realization that each of us has offended others in time past – in thought, word or deed.
In our prayers this morning, as we humbly ask God to forgive us our sins, may we truly forgive all those who have sinned against us.
When they repent, may we welcome and restore them to full life and fellowship in the Church.