He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13 But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ Luke 18: 9-14
This is such a familiar parable that we may miss its thrust; so let's update it, as the parable of the Rector and the Churchwarden (but let's be absolutely clear that it does not refer to any particular Rector or Churchwarden – both are entirely fictitious….)
The Rector (who is full-time and stipendiary) is a good and kind man, a diligent and faithful priest. He says morning and evening prayer daily in church, ringing the bell first, as the canon law of the Church of England requires. He is meticulous in organising his diary, making time for study but also for pastoral visiting, and taking holy communion to the sick, and even attending chapter meetings and deanery synods and all the other stuff (well, most of the time). He makes sure he's seen out and about it the parish, and if he is wearing any headgear he raises it appropriately as he greets people. He keeps his working expenses to a minimum (walking and cycling and taking the bus rather than driving round; recycling envelopes; and so on). In fact – though only the stewardship recorder knows this – he contributes more than any of his parishioners to the parish stewardship scheme. He doesn't much like administration, but does his best to run an efficient PCC and have all the relevant papers ready.
At his ordination he made a number of specific promises, answering 'By the help of God, I will' to each of them. This included the question Will you endeavour to fashion your own life and that of your household according to the way of Christ, that you may be a pattern and example to Christ's people? He has always been rather proud of the way he has managed to do this. But then, he is a single man, and his domestic life is simple and uncomplicated. He is provided with a nice house, which the diocese and the parish maintain for him. It's true that he is sometimes lonely, and envies those of his congregation and fellow-clergy who have wives and children and grandchildren, but he does not have a secret life of vice, in pubs and clubs; he always behaves very properly, and his worst habit is a glass (or maybe two) of cherry brandy at the end of the day, and maybe the occasional cigar if friends come round (he's considering converting to vaping). So he feels he is entitled to regard himself as an upright citizen, and a faithful Christian – and he rather expects others to recognise that this is so, and that as their Rector he's setting them a good example (even though it's one that's hard for them to follow, since his life is in reality so different from most of theirs).
The Churchwarden, by contrast, has a rather chaotic lifestyle. She entered into a relationship in her twenties which proved disastrous and abusive, and has struggled to bring up two children, now teenagers, on her own; one of them has serious problems at school, though the other is after various hiccups set to go to college, if she can afford to support him. She has been in and out of jobs, most of them poorly paid, some of them a bit dodgy, so from time to time she has had to rely on benefits, and is finding the current climate very 'challenging' (as we say). She feels very strongly about justice issues, and has taken part in a number of marches and demonstrations over the years: she was perhaps at Extinction Rebellion. Her neighbours either look down on her (as a scrounger) or view her with suspicion, as a bit of a religious nutter or 'too political'. But getting involved with her church, she says, was the best thing that ever happened to her, and confirms her commitment to justice. She has found fulfilment, in this part of her life at least: it has given her a sense of worth and dignity and self-respect, and a circle of supportive friends. She loves being a churchwarden, but she's not much good at managing her diary, or turning up on time (or at all) for meetings, and her mobile phone always seems to be broken. She gives what she can, when she can; she never pushes herself forward, but is always there in the background to help. She has signed up for various diocesan training courses, and enjoyed them, but because of her domestic situation she hasn't managed to complete any of them. Perhaps not surprisingly, she is also a heavy smoker – though she drinks lager rather than cherry brandy.
Here they are, then: the pious Rector - always properly dressed for the occasion, of course - and the well-meaning but shambolic Churchwarden in her well-worn jeans, both of them coming into church of a Sunday to say their prayers.
(Incidentally, I was amused by a recent Guardian letter from someone who was puzzled by a reference, some years ago, to a senior wrangler at Cambridge. She assumed this meant someone who wore high-class jeans, but was disappointed to find this was what they used to term those who had taken a first class degree in Maths. Quite a few distinguished Manchester clergy in times past, by the way, were wranglers, both senior and junior, of this kind, though I fear the best we can do in this parish is an 1875 curate at St James who came in at number 26 on the list. But we did rather better with those who studied theology.)
Now we don't need to suppose anyone else hears what our two characters are saying to God; their conversation is private. There are other sayings of Jesus where he condemns those who deliberately stand in prominent places and offer loud prayers to impress anyone in earshot; but that's not the point here. The question here is, whose private prayers are the most authentic? Which will God hear, and honour?
Poor Rector! We don't need to regard him as a hypocrite – he is surely sincere in all that he believes, and does, and teaches. Nor is he a bad man – he is doing his best to be good. But he is so carried away by his convictions, his rectorial rectitude, his sense of what is right and proper, that he fails to realise that what he is offering to God is not, in fact, prayer at all: it is merely giving God information about himself which God already knows full well. I just want to thank you, Lord, that I am not like other people - I do all the things that you require of me (unlike some others I could mention). Worst of all, he is doing what Jesus tells us we cannot and should not do: he is seeking to justify himself:surely you recognise, Lord, that I have earned my reward; that's all I ask. Who is he kidding? Has he forgotten everything that he has taught in confirmation classes over the years about the nature of prayer, and about God's unmerited grace?
So what of the Churchwarden? She stays in the background, and does not even look up to heaven, but beats her breast and all she says is – what? – God be merciful to me, a sinner. And that, says Jesus, is true prayer: all we needto say, all we can say – whatever our achievements or lack of them. She was the one who went home justified (to deal with the kids, and the unpaid bills); the Rector went home (to his neat-and-tidy Waitrose meal for one, and to put his feet up with the latest episcopal biography) perhaps to a fool's paradise.
Now, as you'll have realised, I have retold the story to challenge some of our preconceptions about Jesus' version (and have been rather hard on my fellow-clergy in the process). Our normal take on this parable is this: the Pharisee (despite all his undoubtedly good deeds) is a wicked and insincere hypocrite, and probably not a nice man to know; and the publican (despite his dodgy job, collecting taxes on behalf of the hated Roman authorities) deep down is sincere, and has a heart of gold.
Well, publicans in the modern sense, i.e. landlords, may or may not have hearts of gold (think Corrie and East Enders)… I could tell you of many in times past who got elected as churchwardens but who cared nothing for the well-being of the church (and of one who allegedly kept on the bar the skull of the last man in England to be buried at a crossroads with a stake through his heart…)
But as with all the parables, we should beware of psychologising them, and reading in things that are not there, and missing what Jesus is saying to us. Perhaps – perhaps – the Pharisee was charming, and the publican a rogue; but that would make no difference. It was the publican who offered the true and authentic prayer – the only prayer that any of us, at the end of the day, can offer: God, be merciful to me, a sinner. He knew himself for what he was, and he was the one who understood what God requires, rather than the posturing Pharisee.
A final point, about the postures of prayer. We often imagine that the Pharisee (or Rector) stands up in front of everyone, perhaps with his arms raised, in charismatic style; and the publican (or churchwarden) falls on his or her knees in the background. But again, that's not what the story says, and most pictures of this parable down the ages have shown them both standing – which was the normal Jewish posture of prayer (rather than the Anglican crouch or squat). All that Jesus says is that the publican did not even raise his eyes to heaven: he looked down to the ground, in humility, rather than up to heaven, in arrogance.
So don't get the idea that true prayer requires us to grovel before God, to be holy doormats to be walked over. When we come before God we should have a proper self-knowledge, self-regard, self-respect (remember the commandment love your neighbour as yourself – you can't achieve the one without the other). But before God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden prayer must start with these words: God, be merciful to me a sinner.