A sinner stood far off

POST BY PGallagher

Photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash

The truly important consistency is between the tax collector's humble request for forgiveness and his undoubted need of that pardon.


He stood some distance away.[i] The tax collector in the parable acquires a certain dignity from his modest hanging back. Jesus praises his humility and his repentance and contrasts him favourably with a more complacent person, praying in the Temple at the same time.[ii] The back pew can feel like the right place for us also, or even the porch. More prominent positions, we may fear, have about them a whiff of the hypocrisy which Jesus deplores in the one who was not at rights with God.[iii]

A certain all or nothingness about our faith can prompt standing at some distance away from it. The Lord makes certain demands and those who cannot at present meet those demands may feel that it is better to stand aloof. The rapidity with which our age condemns inconsistency can also make people afraid to come too close the faith in all its completeness: our shortcomings expose us to the criticism that our deeds do not match our words. For all sorts of reasons, people hold themselves back from God and from living fully under his rule. There is humility; there is conscientious disagreement; there are the sins of those in the Church who have forgotten God; there is wrong-headedness.

Many of those dear to us have decided that their place is not in church at all. Their reason for placing a great distance between themselves and the altar can be a by no means discreditable desire for consistency. They cannot live the faith in its integrity so they prefer to be separate from any of it. However, Jesus praises the tax collector not for his integrity but for his humble acknowledgement in prayer that he has let integrity slip. By his visits to the Temple and by his contrite prayers, he may well be breaking down inconsistencies in his life. Nevertheless for the moment it is his humility which is praised. He recognises that he has need of God. The truly important consistency is between his humble request for forgiveness and his undoubted need of that pardon.

The challenge to us who are trying to pray is not so much to be open to the grace from God to live lives consonant with our prayers as not to lose our sense of our great need of him. Our growing closer to God does not diminish our awareness of how far from him we have been and could be again. To have found God, or traces of him, is to increase the sense of needing him. By his grace, to strive to be in touch with him in prayer is to intensify gratitude for his loving help. All there is to come is the crown of righteousness reserved for me.[iv] This infectious confidence does not call a halt to our struggle. There is steady reassurance that all the grace we need is available. We are all fighting the good fight[v] and one day we shall have run the race to the finish.[vi] Good lives which do not yet acknowledge God may nevertheless be blessed by him. God strengthens our hope that even what is far from perfect may reveal his presence which is everywhere, even where he seems to be least welcomed. All can be rescued from the lion’s mouth.[vii]

What can we do to encourage those who have drifted away to come back? To plunge right back in to the mainstream of Church life may be the best thing for some. The faith awaits them: they are ready for it; they have never completely forgotten it. Others may choose to keep some spiritual distance from the Church, and even from God himself as they try for a happy landing or return. The landing lights are never extinguished. Some travellers who have been far away are now stacked above their destination awaiting permission to descend. Some twitch on the line has brought them to where they are just now. The permission may come from themselves. We pray for inspiration to say the right thing at the right moment. Sometimes the Spirit may direct us to be silent. It might be that the Lord’s offer of abundant forgiveness is not the first thing which those retuning or contemplating returning need to hear. They will undoubtedly rediscover themselves as sinners in due course. We are most of us doing that all the time under the challenge of the Gospel and under the prompting of our conscience. A vivid sense of having being redeemed and forgiven by Christ’s sacrifice is a blessing for all who feel it, and especially for those who experience it again after years of estrangement or of despair or of complacency. To pray God be merciful to me a sinner[viii] may however not yet be possible for one still pell-mell in pursuit of what is not God. The sins of believers may disgust the outsider. At any rate, until one has discovered one’s membership of the great community of wrongdoers, God’s freely offered forgiveness is not the magnet that it seems to those who are already its delighted beneficiaries. Sorrow and repentance are, after all, as much graces as the forgiveness itself.

In the Temple there was room for the humble person and also for tithe-paying ascetic who seemed to have made the mistake of thinking he did not need God’s help any more. The two were in a kind of solidarity despite the differences. They both prayed as best they could. Those who with their whole heart serve God will be accepted.[ix] One of them came limping in to pray for God’s help to mend a disordered life. The other’s sincere prayer risked losing everything he had gained spiritually in his oh-so-ordered existence by overlooking the essential. Jesus approved of one and not of the other. Yet both were there at prayer in the Temple. There was important work to be done in both lives. God deepens the conversion of the humble. His grace shatters the complacency of the proud. The accommodating quality of God’s house encourages those who stand so far off that they are no longer within earshot to come a little closer. No one who has approached is driven away but those who come near to God with pride in their heart risk having that heart purified. We are surely glad of whatever the Lord says to us, even if he bursts the bubble of our complacency.

For all of us, it is worth straining to hear something in the sacred space which may be to our advantage. There is room in God’s kingdom for everyone. There is a place for every frame of mind, even for the un-reconciled and hostile. There is always, for everyone, more to learn about our faith and more to appreciate about its impact on our life. Our knowledge of Christ is in every case inadequate. All our prayers are acceptable to God in whatever fashion we say them. Some of us are already humble. All of us are humbled. Some of us fall into a foolish self-congratulation. Our souls are laid bare by prayer, even the clumsiest. All of us are enabled one way or another to focus on God and not on ourselves. The prayers of the humble pierce the clouds.[x] Gratitude for what God has already done in our soul gives rise to a truly wholehearted worship. Praise befits us.[xi]

We and all who pray with us are supported by being the body of Christ. This body, guided by the Holy Spirit, prays well, thinks and says the right things, and lives the right sort of life. The goodness of Jesus makes up for the badness of the members of his body. In the body of Christ we have all the consistency and integrity we need, despite our failings. This goodness is not ours alone but is shared. The blessing of his help comes from God himself and he longs to share it even more widely. Some who stand far off can be coaxed forward to hear and receive more of what God longs to give. Some who are already grateful for what they are receiving can be moved not only to welcome those who have drifted away but spread the Good News even to those who have never heard it. The Lord stood by us and gave us power. May all be at rights with God.

[i] Luke 18.13

[ii] Luke 18.14

[iii] Luke 18.14

[iv] 2 Timothy 4.8

[v] 2 Timothy 4.7

[vi] 2 Timothy 4.7

[vii] 2 Timothy 4.17 see also Psalm 22.22 and Daniel 6.21

[viii] Luke 18.13

[ix] Ecclesiasticus 35.16

[x] Ecclesiasticus 35.17

[xi] Psalm 32.2