THE ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY
The longer I read the scriptures, the more Jesus' parables captivate me. Such simple stories. They are easy to listen to and follow, but their simplicity lures us into such incredible depths of wisdom and understanding, even into the nether regions of the unknowable… into the mysteries of God where the natural mind (no matter how brilliant or trained) falls well short of plumbing the depths of total understanding. I think of the parable of the Talents, where the Master entrusts a certain amount of resources to three slaves: the first receives five talents, the second two, and one talent given to the last. Now each slave does something with the talents, two multiplied what they had but the last buried it for safekeeping.
Now, this slave didn't lose his talent or squander it, but neither did he multiply it; instead, he preserved it in fear of not having at least the one talent to return to his Master. And yet, when the Master comes to assess what each slave had done with their talents, the last slave is declared worthless and wicked, his Master's reward… being "cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth." What did this last slave do that deserved such judgment? What motivated the slave to fear the Master? Why did he go into preservation mode? Now a lot is going on this parable, one which produces more questions than clear answers. Not that we are incapable of understanding, but certainly not without much study, reflection, and guidance from the Church's reading of Holy Scripture.
Other parables immediately pierce the heart with great clarity and force. The parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are good examples, and, for most people, are two of the more memorable of Jesus' parables: because they hit so close to home, resonating with our human condition, easily placing us in the narrative. At some point in the Christian life, we've all identified with the Prodigal: at other times the older brother. Or the Priest, who upon seeing an injured man lying on the roadside, hurridly continues on to Jericho.
The parable of the Pharisee and the publican, which is today's Gospel reading, is (like the Prodigal Son) well known and definitely memorable. Perhaps when you first recognized the parable in today's reading of the Gospel began you thought, "Oh this is the parable about that self-righteous and wretched Pharisee filled with Pride and Vainglory: I can't stand this guy!" And you right, no one can stand this guy, for he is everything we hate about religious and puffed up people. He's ugly in the purest sense because he embodies the vice of all vices, the queen of the deadly sins: pride. And to make it even worse, self-righteousness and vainglory.
The sin of pride says, "I am better than God." This was the sin of Lucifer, the most awesome and beautiful of the Angels, believing himself to be better than his Creator. The crime of vainglory believes oneself to be better than everyone else, the fruit of this vice being wholesale disregard and malicious contempt for others. Today, the propers for the eleventh Sunday after Trinity intend to draw our attention to the sins of pride and vainglory, which is the seedbed of self-righteousness and disdain: absolute killers of the spiritual life.
But don't let the apparent straightforwardness of this parable fool you. Jesus isn't merely pointing out how gouache pride and self-righteousness are, nor is he shaming us into a superficial exercise in self-help moralism, calling us to pull up the old bootstraps and work at being a little less self-righteous. Neither is he preaching a three-point ‘How-To' sermon on humility. No, the issues at hand are far more profound than we might imagine. In this parable, Jesus holds up a mirror, pulls back the curtain on who we really are and our desperate need of grace. Through the power of parable, he wants us to see and apprehend the ultimate subject of this story: the mercy and grace of God the Father.
To begin, observe how Jesus has set the parable in the context of prayer, within the Temple, the unique and intimate place where God met with his people. The Pharisee and Publican have come up to the Temple to pray. They have come into the presence of God but have done so with stark contrast: vastly different thoughts and intentions. Through this parable, the Lord will expose their hearts by penetrating beyond externals. And in doing so, instructs us in how we are to approach our Father in prayer.
St. Luke writes, "Two men went up into the Temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I possess." Now the word Pharisee comes from a Hebrew root meaning ‘separate,' different, set apart from all others. So with high confidence, the Pharisee firmly and confidently stands to pray, taking his place beyond the court of the gentiles, beyond the court where women are allowed to pray. He has come into the men's court, the closest he can get to the holy of holies without being a priest. He has entered into God's house standing as near to the presence of God as the rules allow, and separated from everyone else.
"God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican." His invoking of God being nothing more than a formality, because the text says he "prayed about himself," with the connotation that he prayed out loud, for all to hear. For his prayer is really a review of his moral and religious résumé, directed both at advertising his own righteousness and exposing the perversion of the tax collector. "I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I possess." The publican is undoubtedly a religious man, fervently so, fasting twice weekly, over and above the requirement of the Law, tithing on all that he possessed not merely on what was required: as Jesus would say "tithing even his cumin, mint, and herbs."
Now the publican, in the very deepest part of his soul, has to come to the Father, as the Prodigal Son, beset by sin and without a trace of dignity. "And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner." You can imagine this man standing as far away as possible perhaps in the court of the gentiles, the furthest point away from God's presence, identifying himself with the unclean, with the outsiders, separated by the wall of partition between the ‘clean' and the ‘unclean.' He is not worthy to enter into his Father's house, and so he stays as it were, "on the porch."
For humility is not only an internal disposition of the heart but also externalized in the body. There is a strong external element of humility. For one man stood near, the other stood afar. One looked up the other down. One loudly disparaged his neighbor, and the other softly cried to God for mercy. One prayed with lifted hands while the other beat his breast in shame. The ladder of humility has two sides, the body, and the soul, and both must seek the way of the lowly if one is to ascend unto God.
When the publican decides to return to his Father's house, to ask his Father for forgiveness and restoration- it is no longer by virtue of his right as a son of the covenant, neither by a sense of self-righteous accomplishment, but he comes as a beggar, motivated by the hunger and poverty he has fallen into; from a sense of profound loss: riddled with humiliation and shame. This is a man who has squandered his covenantal sonship, who has been brought low in the presence of God almighty, a man who dare not look up to heaven. The Publican is the portrait of humility, with full sobriety, he casts himself upon the mercy of God and quietly moans: "be merciful to me a sinner."
Contrast this with the prayer of the Pharisee. His is an impressive litany of religious and self-righteous accomplishments. A celebratory speech given to satisfy an audience of one himself. Heralded to win the adoration of anyone within earshot. A prayer that fell flat on the ground as soon as it left his lips. But the prayer of the lowly publican rises to heaven "piercing the clouds." And Jesus says, "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." The publican had reached the end of himself, and there, realized the innate inability to justify himself; to get clean. Wholly incapable of finding rest and absolution from sin. For beloved, no one is justified apart from the mercy and grace of God.
"But by the grace of God, I am who I am." These are the words of another Pharisee, the Apostle Paul. He, perhaps more than any other, understood the supernatural grace of God, the free and undeserved gift bestowed upon every sinner who casts himself into the arms of Divine mercy. "I am the least of the Apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God," parallels the Publican "God be merciful unto me a sinner:" and our Lord's declaration that the publican went down to his house justified because of his humility, is a parallel to the inspired words of the Apostle, "By the grace of God I am what I am...yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me." What Paul was and his service for the Lord Jesus Christ, was owed to the mercy and grace of God. In spite of his pharisaical past and despite the sins he committed as a Christian, God's mercy was immediate and graciously available. Hear St. Paul whose ver words could have been the Prodigal's or the Publican's, or perhaps even your own,
"I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent man; yet because I had acted in ignorance and unbelief, I was shown mercy. And the grace of our Lord overflowed to me, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. This is a trustworthy saying, worthy of full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.…"
God's property is always to show mercy. This is the God we love and worship. He is merciful because he shows pity to the wretched. He is gracious because he is kind to the undeserving. Divine mercy is often the precursor to Divine grace but let us be cautious about setting up hard delineations or well defined sequencing of the actions and economy of God, because in a sense all of these things (mercy, grace, justice, love, pity) incohere, they overlap, but mercy is often the initiating movement of Divine love, and he does not delay: His mercy is immediate. As the publican's penitent plea for mercy left his lips, God's goodness and mercy were there. For our Father is rich in mercy and his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the abundant manifestation of Divine Mercy, the one who came in grace and truth. Hear again from St. Paul, "God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort…"
The Lord Jesus Christ is the manifestation of Divine Mercy, and in him, the almighty power of God is seen. For it is Jesus, who on the Cross, did not receive mercy from his persecutors, but was merciful to the undeserving, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." And it is precisely in the sending of his Son to become one of us poor creatures, that God's mercy is on display; through the incarnation of the eternal Son, the God-Man Jesus Christ. In Christ, the invisible nature is made visible, incomparably more apparent than through all the other "things that have been made." The mercy of God is made visible through the words and actions of the incarnate Son, reaching its fullest revelation on the Cross.
Christ Himself, in a genuine sense, is mercy. To the person who sees it in Him - and finds it in Him - God the Father, who is rich in mercy becomes "visible" and tangible; the love of God made manifest to us miserable sinners: this is what the Bible calls mercy. Christ reveals the Father, who is rich in mercy; in Christ, the reality of forgiveness is made present to us. The redemption wrought by the suffering and torment of Christ, reveals the full extent of God's mercy, "For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." By his stripes, we are healed.
At the Lord's table, in partaking of the Holy Communion, we come face to face with God's mercy, seeing and tasting the goodness of God towards us, the depth of God's mercy revealed in our salvation: "Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed for us." God's abounding grace and mercy come to us in the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our Father happily feeds us with the bread of heaven, the Divine remedy for the soul and body. We who are not worthy of the crumbs from His table feast on the restorative food of life. And perhaps here we begin to understand the meaning of today's collect in praying, "O God, who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity."
God's almighty power is chiefly or primarily declared and made known in his mercy. His power is shown in the willingness to see our miserable estate and come to us in love and goodness, to heal us, to save us, condescending and becoming a man who suffered as a criminal, tasting all that death had to offer, and then by the power of the Holy Spirit, arose from the dead; the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the penultimate display of God's mercy, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, to the end that all who believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." Beloved, you are being called into the presence of the Lord. With eyes laid low, prepare your heart, do not stand afar. Come. Come humbly to the heavenly banquet and receive the mercy and love of God. Amen+