Once upon a time, three pastors go to the pastor convention and they all share one room. The first pastor says, “Let’s confess our secret sins one to another. I’ll start – My secret sin is I don’t take time to pray for my church members but my members think I am a prayer warrior.” A second pastor says, “My secret sin is that I just hate working and preparing the sermons. I copy all my sermons from those given by other pastors.” A third pastor says, “My secret sin is gossiping and, oh boy, I just can’t wait to get out of this room!”
Pharisee or Publican? Which one are we?
Remember that in the time of Jesus prayer is public. When we stand in the temple area to pray, all prayers are spoken aloud. Not only does everyone see me, everyone hears me. So, the Pharisee goes to the temple and everyone hears him check off his virtues: fasting (check), pay tithes (check), pray often (check), not like this other person next to me (check). And, the Publican or Tax Collector goes to the temple standing probably in the Court of the Gentiles. He beats his breast like we do at the Confiteor and instead of boasting about all the things he does spiritually he stands naked before God and says “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Pharisee or Publican…which are we? When I ask some of the sisters this same question, their response is “both.” We are both Pharisee and Publican. On one hand we love the “righteous meter.” Good person? (check) Go to church every Sunday? (check) Receive Holy Communion? (check) Give yearly to charity? (check) Say my prayers? (check) Not like the person next to me? (check) But what about the other things on our list? Get rid of bigotry? (No) Rid myself of prejudice? (No) Stop my hatred of people? (No) Ironically, when we are not honest and humble, then we are truly in need of God’s mercy.
According to Sister Verna, one fine example is the late Benedictine Archbishop, Basil Cardinal Hume of Westminster, England. When the doctors tell Basil Hume that he has terminal cancer, he is tempted to feel that if he could go back do things over he would want to be a better monk, a better abbot and a much better bishop. Then he tells himself that maybe he could go to God “empty-handed” and ask God to be merciful to him a sinner. Interesting that Cardinal Hume chooses the Pharisee-Publican Gospel for his funeral.
So for those of us who struggle with righteousness today (all of us?), God has a lot to say to us. The Lord is a God of justice who knows no favorites. But if there were any people on earth who catch God’s eye it would be the honest and the humble. According to the writer, Sirach, the prayer of the honest and humble person is like an arrow that pierces the sky and does not stop until that prayer rests in the heart of God!
Whether we are a Pharisee or a Publican, God welcomes us to the tables of his Word and his Sacrament. St. Benedict tells us that compunction of heart is the best prayer. When we are truly sorry for our sins, then we stand naked before God and God finds us honest and humble.
The Rev. Fr. Dr. T. Becket A. Franks, O.S.B.