The Great Divide

The 19th Sunday of Trinity

Luke 18;9-14

C. S. Lewis reflects on St. Luke’s parable of two men at prayer in the Temple in his own tale of a ghostly coach trip in which tourists are taken by a well respected social worker to visit heaven and hell. The coach first stops in heaven and the guide sees walking around a face he recognised as a notorious murderer. He is outraged and shouts out, “this can’t be right! This criminal should be in hell by rights.” Hearing this outburst, the murderer replies, “I am not here because of my rights but because I asked forgiveness and have been reconciled with my victim; I am here because of God’s mercy”.

The Pharisee and the Publican, watercolour on paper, by John Everett Millais (ca.1860), Aberdeen Art Gallery [Public Domain]

St. Luke’s parable is a beautifully crafted teaching about this keyword “Mercy” so frequently misunderstood, not least within the church by people who complain that using the word mercy regularly in our prayers and services amounts to grovelling. Whereas in this gospel it is again and again proclaimed as a vital step in the journey of the soul. The parable dramatically contrasts two men at prayer. The scene is set in verse 11“the Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself”. He is supposed to be an example of how things should be seen to be done in organized religion; he is a pillar of society as he gives thanks for his blessings, he observes all the rules, he fasts and is not greedy or dishonest publically, not even an adulterer. Who would not be rejoicing to have such a fine parishioner? But lift the veil only a little and we encounter the tipping point. This one has slipped into delusion as he prays “with himself” and God must listen to this display of zealous superiority which so quickly has fallen into the trap of judging and comparing his prayer and life with others. He is seeing the speck of dust in his neighbour’s eye before the plank in his own eye. His is the prayer without knowledge of the need for mercy which in Old Testament language means, God’s loving kindness, and is used so frequently in the Miserere Psalms, like 57, “Be merciful to me O God”.

Here we have the great divide between the Pharisee’s attitude to prayer and that of the despised tax collector, a man who collaborates with the Roman occupiers but who knows his deepest needs and who relies on the spirit of the Psalms that are the daily diet of religious Jews. We are told that this man, “standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’

Jesus responded to those who have not fallen into the trap of self delusion and who acknowledge their frailty, the people, so often looked down upon, yet will become the first disciples of the early Church and to whom this parable is first addressed. Then it is for all of us, that we do not fall into the trap of creating a bespoke, tailor made prayer life, like the Pharisee, trusting in ourselves that our virtuous acts make us right with God. Disciples of Jesus Christ recognize what Our Lord said at the end of this teaching “he who humbles himself will be exalted” and St. Gregory of Palamas when preaching on the passage went on to explain that from humility flows the sense of mercy which raises us to the heights of holiness.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

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