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Communion Meditations (2015)

Publican

Luke 18:10-14

Originally scheduled for March 1

In communion, we have the privilege of approaching the Almighty God. Perhaps you don’t think of it that way, but it’s very much parallel to the way in which the ancient Jew approached the Temple. As you do this, you acknowledge the sacrifice — the body and blood — that was shed so that you might have grace. By doing this, you are actually asking for justification; that is, you are asking him to declare you “not guilty” of your sins. There seem to be two methods of doing this, as exemplified in the story of the Publican and the Pharisee.

There’s little question as to which of the two finds approval in the eyes of Christ. But may I point out that the Pharisee (at least on the surface) had good reason for doing it his way? Notice, first, that he stood close to the Temple — and that is to say, close to God. He then pours forth what seems to us to be a contradiction: how can you thank God for your character and then take credit for your actions? It’s a relatively simple thing to see, from the Pharisee’s point of view. He is thanking God for who he was — in essence, saying that God gets the credit for the Pharisee’s circumstances. He is not grateful for God’s mercy, but for God’s gifts which he translates into his own virtues. Then — giving credit where he thinks it is due — he modestly boasts of his righteousness by works. As if to make the point absolutely clear to the Almighty, he includes a brief comparison between himself and the Publican. God gave me my circumstances; I did the work.

The Publican (the word in the original means a tax collector, not an innkeeper) stands away from the Temple, as if he dares not to approach. Isaiah, the man of unclean lips, would’ve understood this perfectly. Having nothing of which particularly to boast, he comes to the point quite quickly. He is asking for mercy. From which we correctly conclude that he is a sinner; after all, no one but a sinner would need forgiveness. He reminds us that there is only one qualification you must meet before you can become a Christian: you need to be a sinner first. Some of us (blows on fingernails, polishes them on shirt) are exceedingly well qualified.

Communion shows us the sacrifice (and hence the love) that Christ has for us. It offers to us his mercy — and awaits a reaction. Curiously, choosing your reaction is rather more difficult for those who frequently practice righteousness than for those who don’t. The Pharisee (at least in his own mind) had a choice. He can either submit his own righteousness or appeal to the mercy of God. The Publican was somewhat more fortunate — he was out of options.

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