THE PUBLICAN’S PRAYER
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
October 23, 2016
Twenty-second Sunday after Trinity
Lections: Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Tim 4:6-8; 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
This morning’s Gospel teaches us about humility by giving us the example of the Publican. The job of the Publican was to collect taxes from his fellow Jews for the Roman occupiers of their country. As you can imagine, these tax collectors were not liked by their countrymen, who regarded them as traitors, and they had a bad reputation for corruption: they collected more than they had to and kept the difference for themselves. So publicans were not allowed to serves as judges, trusted as witnesses in court, or permitted to take part in the temple activities, and they brought disgrace upon their families. This is why the tax collector “stood at a distance.”
The Pharisee, on the other hand, “stood by himself” because he was “confident of his own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” Literally, he kept separate from the rest of the people, who he despised. His clothing, ornamented for prayer, also would have set him apart from the common dress of the Publican. The Pharisee was no doubt a well-respected man about town. Ironically then, in one of the great reversals that Jesus taught as the essence of righteousness, the Publican’s prayer that has been repeated by Christians over the centuries: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The prayer is easily remembered and kept in our heart and on our lips, and we hear it echoing in many forms and contexts of our worship: “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy, Lord have mercy.” The prayer is also heard in the famous Jesus prayer, which is counted off almost continuously on prayer ropes in monasteries around the world: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Again we note: it is not necessary for a prayer to be long-winded. When in the course of our daily activity we suddenly realize that we are drifting, immediately we can say this little prayer three times, in one of the forms we have just given. Then, as we see, we recall everything that is truly essential about our life and faith.
In the parable Jesus tells, humility is contrasted to pride. The proud man trusts in himself for his righteousness: he fasts, he tithes. The humble man, however, trusts in God; he asks for mercy, knowing that his only hope is to be declared righteous by God’s pardon. This is what grace is: mercy and pardon.
It is easy for us to look down on others, and to oppress those we look down on. At the same time, we want, perhaps even expect God to count us among his people, those who “will never again be put to shame.” Yet he has told us he will pour out his spirit on all people, and everyone “who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” from the wrath of judgment. We have no basis ever to think we are better or more important than someone else, even the unborn.
We imagine the wrath of judgment to be the anger of God, violently coming down on us from the heavens, as if penetrating our world from a place outside of it, piercing us like lightning and striking us like thunder. We picture the wrath to come from our perspective. God’s perspective, however, is different. From God’s perspective, the wrath of judgment is the accumulation of all the judgments you and I and everyone else has ever made, and God watches with horror as the weight of all our judgments slowly becomes too much for us to bear and crushes us in their avalanche.
Human beings will never get things right, or make things right, through their own efforts. When we examine ourselves, we find this is true. We are always in one way or another hurting those who we are called to love. Or we avoid doing what we are called to do and choose to do something else instead. So again, we hurt others, and we hurt ourselves; and when we examine ourselves, we discover we are also hurting God. Sin is especially “an offense against God,” because sin is “a refusal of God’s invitation to share his life.”
Between grace and sin, there is enmity. To fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith, we pray, so that we can love God and each other. Prayer is the means of grace that is always available to us; prayer “overturns” sin, because God works through prayer to change the heart. When we pray, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” God refocuses our attention. He rescues us, and brings us safely into his heavenly embrace.
God justifies the person who with humility trusts in Him; to God be the glory. “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Amen.
 Archaeological Study Bible Notes, Mark 2:14
 Henri de Lubac, A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace, 169