The prayer of the Publican

I try not to have “interesting” opinions on Scripture, and when I have them anyway, to mull them through myself, rather than sharing them with any who will listen. For it is not my place to usurp the role of the orthodox priest as interpreter, or to propose novelties. And even if, as sometimes happens these days, the priest is preaching heresy, it is not my place to add more. Rather, to recover, starting in myself, a few plain meanings.

For Christ’s teaching was meant for all men (including, all women). That’s the first clue that the more arcane interpretation of Scripture is unlikelier to be the correct one. Native reason, too, instructs us to start with the obvious, and pause — ideally, forever — before skipping to the Gnostic explanation, which only a few favoured “insiders” could possibly appreciate. Verily, we should examine our motives, before passing over what is plain to the brain.

For even the mystical turns out, on mystical examination, to be surprisingly plain, as a far countrie is revealed to plain sight when we travel to it. It remains “mysterious” in the human sense, of a puzzle, only because we haven’t got there yet. And there is always more beyond our getting: infinitely more, in Jesus Christ.

And so it behooves us to be plain, not arcane, when faced with plain matters, and to remain in the condition of faith, knowing Christ will not tax us beyond our means. There will be no mystery in the questions that appear, immediately before us. Only denial (that famous river in Egypt) prevents us from seeing what is directly before our eyes.

But here I am sounding like the Pharisee again, thanking God that I’m not like that Publican over there. (You see him? … Well, if you went to church you would.)

My mistake, openly advertised I hope, began with the words, “I try.” The implication is that others don’t; that I’m up against a wall of trees filled with obfuscating howler monkeys. Whereas, usually I’m up against the tendency to obfuscation in my own noisy soul. When what “I try” is to justify myself, I am playing the Pharisee for sure.

For it is very easy to manoeuvre into the position of smug, from any starting place that is not genuinely humble. The notion that, even if I’m bad, I’m not that bad, leaves open the low window for the devil we just saw officiously out the front door.

We live in glass houses it has been said; which, as any competent devil will observe, contain a lot of windows. Why throw stones and risk cutting hisself, when so many are habitually left open? And besides, stones wake up all the neighbours. Instead he carries a can of WD-40 in his toolkit, for the squeaky hinges. And a ball of wax for my creaky drawers. Never forget that he’s a smoothie; hardly trying to make a spectacle of hisself.

Saint Irenaeus (according to my 1962 Saint Andrew Daily Missal, which I can recommend to anyone) tied the two lessons in today’s (Old) Mass together — Paul’s to the Corinthians, and Luke’s to the planet — by a single scintillating observation. He defined man as, “the receptacle of God’s gifts.”

Saint Paul tells us to stop questioning each other’s gifts; Saint Luke, in effect, to stop questioning each other’s lack of them. (Jesus speaks through both Apostles.) The gifts we have are sufficient for our needs; more than sufficient, quite frankly — for beyond this, they are also sufficient for our contribution to the common weal.

Humility is enjoined in either case. It is incidentally the mark of the Saint: “a spirit of complete and constant dependence on God.” Which is among the reasons the Saints are so various, for contrary to current assumption, God is not narrow, boring, and repetitive.

He only repeats what we haven’t yet learnt, as we are obliged to discover. From the human side, this is called “punishment,” and it is invariably thoroughly deserved. That is what the Publican grasps, and the Pharisee apparently doesn’t. And it is because he gets it that the Publican, instead of trying to justify himself, beats his breast for his own sins, and begs only for mercy.

And note, with Christ, that it is the prayer of the Publican that is answered. And note further, that this really isn’t very surprising.

Instead, it is quite plain.