Saturday, August 18, 2007
Musings on the Pharisee and the Publican
The Luke 18 story of the Pharisee and the Publican (Trinity XI) is pretty straightforward; yet it is perhaps one of the easiest Gospels to ignore, especially by religious men.
Who is a religious man? The faith we confess requires of us that we behave decently, uprighly, and soberly; and these are outward things. Behavior is an outward thing, and thus we are in danger whenever we consider the works we have done. What's so bad about the Pharisee and his religion? See, he prays, he fasts, he gives! He considers the works he has done. Such wonderful marks of a religious man, a man who knows himself to be serious about his religion. And see what he says, God, I thank thee . . . He even thanks God for all that he is; certainly better than the publican. Yet he is cast aside in the judgment: he did not go to his house justified. Why? Because he had no need of repentance. He was a religious man. Beware of the works you do; for though you surely ought to do them, as soon as you have done them, they can become a cause of stumbling.
Now what of the publican? His works were not in view here. He seemingly did not belong in the temple. He was a thief, a selfish, evil man. He was not a religious man. See how ashamed he was; couldn't even lift up his eyes.
But this is according to Psalm 131: My heart is not haughty nor mine eyes lofty.
And his prayer made all the difference: Kyrie eleison! Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner. He called upon One who alone is righteous, and truly religious. And for this he went home justified.
The old liturgical practice of beating the breast thrice during the Agnus Dei ought always to call this parable to mind: "O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the [here strike the breast] sin of the world, have mercy upon us. [3x]"
True humility does not consist in acting humble; how easy it is to misunderstand this. For by the folly of the fallen mind it all becomes so much pretense and empty show, whether to your neighbors, to yourself, or even to your God. What, did you think He would be impressed?
Behold the worst kind of sin: not thievery, false witness, or adultery (as bad as these are); rather, the worst kind is that against which Jesus spoke most often: hypocrisy. Outward righteousness and inward pride. Outward humility and inward haughtiness. Did you think no one would notice? Oh, perhaps no one will, except the omniscient One. He notices, and sends home the Pharisee unjustified.
Let every soul repent; become like the publican! What? you might say, become a thief or a knave? No, friend, you don't need to become like that, you already are: for to be sinful is already to steal from God the honor due Him alone. Rather, it means to repent (daily) of what you are; to beat the breast in token of unworthiness; to plead for mercy, to Him who alone is able to give it, since He has purchased it by His own blood. How excellent is the poor, shameful, begging publican! He goes home justified. What could be better than that?