One of the dreams and desires of many Christians is to visit the Holy Land and retrace the footsteps of the life of Jesus Christ. One of the central buildings there is the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, which is built over the cave in which Jesus was born. The entrance to that Church is through a single doorway with a very low lintel. To enter that Church, you must make yourself small, you must bend low and humble yourself. One of the reasons for this was to avoid the muslims from entering the church on their horses. This is a fitting way to enter the Church, which celebrates the lowliness of God, who emptied Himself to take on our human nature. That doorway is a symbol of the only requirement anyone must meet to approach God in prayer: humility. The central message of the story today is to recognise that we are sinners and depend on God’s graciousness. If you enter any Church in Ireland, you will see that many Irish people readily identify themselves with the tax collector. Very few people in the front of the Church and a lot of people in the back of the Church. True humility is recognition of our radical distance from God and our need for salvation. Deep down we like to praise ourselves, and even though we don’t say it aloud, don’t we sometimes feel we’re better than others. This can lead and sometimes does lead to our looking down on others. It is very easy to fall into the habit of confessing the sins of others in prayer. In fact, there is a Pharisee lurking in each one of us. You may have heard the joke of this distinguished English gentleman who enters the church and goes up to the sanctuary and says: “O lord, in thy presence I am nothing” and then moves over to the side. Another distinguished Englishman comes in, goes up to the sanctuary and in a polished accent says. “O Lord before thee I am nothing” and moves over to the side. Then a dishevelled drunken Irish man comes in goes up to the sanctuary and splutters out: “O God I am nothing in thy presence”. One Englishman turns to the other and says: “look who thinks he’s nothing”. It’s amazing how we can turn the most sacred moments to our own advantage. The whole point of this parable is to make us humble before God and open to the path of love. In the light of this parable, we need to ask ourselves three questions:
- How often have we used our knowledge of the law to put someone else down?
- Have we ever used the law to criticise someone else?
- When was the last time you felt humbled and fearful in the presence of God? Sometimes we tend to domesticize God, turn him into a nice old guy. Maybe we should repeat this prayer of the Publican: Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.