Wesley, Frank, 1923-2002. The Publican and the Pharisee, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=59165 [retrieved October 21, 2022]. Original source: Estate of Frank Wesley, http://www.frankwesleyart.com/main_page.htm.
RCL Year C, Proper 25 (Alternate Readings)
Sirach 35:12-17, Psalm 84:1-6, II Timothy 4:6-8 and 16-18, Saint Luke 18:9-14
[Because of unexpected illness, this homily was not delivered.]
If the Gospel last week encouraged us to persevere in prayer, today’s Gospel encourages us to present ourselves humbly in prayer. Together, the first fourteen verses of Saint Luke, chapter 18, provide the guard rails that keep us on track in our prayer. Keep at it and keep yourself humble. If we accomplish both aims, our prayer will be accepted in the highest heaven.
The parable Jesus tells about the second guard rail contrasts a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee recites to God his spiritual resume: he tells God, in case God has forgotten, that he is not a thief, or a rogue, or an adulterer. He fasts twice a week and tithes his income. The gift that God has given to him, namely God’s self-disclosure, the Pharisee turns into his own accomplishment. You could wonder why the Pharisee prays at all. All he does is gloat about himself. His resume is so full of goodness and good works, you could say he confuses himself with God.
The impropriety of asserting one’s goodness to the Lord was proverbial in Jewish literature in the centuries before Christ. Our First Lesson comes from Sirach. also known as Ecclesiasticus. It was written in Judah by Jesus son of Eleazar son of Sirach a couple of centuries before Christ. And in chapter 7, verse 5, we read: “Do not assert your righteousness before the Lord.” This is exactly what the Pharisee in the parable does.
By contrast, the tax collector beats his breast and asks for mercy because he is a sinner. God has disclosed himself to him, but the tax collector takes no credit for it. To him God remains God, a different being from him, an almighty being “whose property is always to have mercy,” as we used to say. He knows he is God’s creature and asking for mercy is always a right beginning to a conversation with his Creator.
Jesus directs last Sunday’s Gospel to the disciples, and today’s Gospel to the Pharisees. But the disciples hear both Gospels, as we have also.
The disciples, and we, could come away from both Gospels and keep our prayer firmly within the guard rails of persistence and humility. We cry to God day and night, because doing so is to have faith. We cry day and night for mercy because we need it. And God gives us his righteousness. How could God do that if we claimed to have his righteousness already?
 Sirach 50:27.
 BCP (1928), page 82.