O, To Be a Publican
Fr. Gregory Hallam · February 8, 2012
Fr. Gregory gives a sermon on the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee.
Christianity is not for “good” people. Good people crucified Jesus. Good people defend God’s honour by force. Good people kill the souls others with their oppressive religious duties and expectations. Good people fast twice a week and give tithes of all that they possess .... and then look down on those who don’t. Good people don’t eat with tax collectors, prostitutes and other heinous sinners. Good people keep themselves pure. Good people never experience any doubt .... isn’t that frightening? Good people are blameless. To paraphrase an Archbishop: “Good people don’t dream. They sleep the sleep of the righteous.” How can God save good people? Well with God, anything is possible.
Christianity is not for evil people. Evil people will use religion to suit their own ends. Evil people will put on the mantle of religion to bless bombs, to curse enemies, to demonise those who oppose them. Evil people will cast away the mantle of true religion and persecute those who hold to what they hate. Evil people do not want God. They have themselves. Cast not your pearls before such swine!
But, if a “good” person should repent, if an “evil” person should repent, then Christianity .... CHRIST! is definitely for them. Such a person will not lift his or her eyes toward heaven. Rather with a godly grief he will confess: “God be merciful to me a sinner!” And God will not disappoint in His mercy. Oh, then, to be a publican! Oh to have his grace, his self knowledge, his hope. Here are the truly great, despised by the world but magnified in the kingdom of heaven, the truly humble. Their humility is not an affectation, a pretence, a bargain with the Almighty; it is a painfully wrought true understanding of the human heart.
Who can bear such knowledge? Wouldn’t we rather think a little better of ourselves? You know, the typical English disease: “not too bad, not too good, moderation in all things, a little bit of God when you need him.” To these the Son of Man says:
“I know your works. You are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth!” (Revelation 3:5-16)
Some people say that we don’t like looking at our true selves because we are frightened what God will think of us; others that we secretly hate God and just go through the motions; others that it is too upsetting to our self esteem, others that we resist the call to change, preferring comfort instead. I don’t think that there is just one answer to that question but the key is honesty. I recall, a long time ago now, an alcoholic at his wits end coming into church, (not here), and sitting alone. In a long conversation, I asked him if he could pray. His reply was disarming. “If I can’t be honest with myself, how can I be honest with God?” Let us recall… “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
Happily our God is big enough for such problems, but we are not small enough to see the solution. One of history’s great tyrants, Napoleon Bonaparte,” is buried in a mausoleum in Paris where visitors have to bow their heads to view the body. In a monstrous parody of Christian worship, we recognise what we often neglect in our relationship with God. We have to get down in order to be raised up. We have to lose everything in this life in order to gain heaven.
This is why our Lord drew close to the poor. They were already pretty low down. This is why he drew close to children. They were already nearer the Source. This is why he drew near to the despised. There only hope could be God. Marx saw in all of this the opiate of the people. We see the glory of an eternal kingdom. Oh then to be a publican; to pray the Jesus prayer: “God be merciful unto me a sinner.” Only in this manner can we be saved. So, as we draw near to the beginning of the Fast of Great Lent with the Jesus Prayer and the Prayer of St. Ephraim ringing in our ears, let us always keep before us the great truth that these prayers can only be truly prayed with a humble and contrite heart. In this life we shall never cease to need to repent.