Today’s gospel, Luke 18. 9–14, has always appealed. I’d like to be the publican but know I am the pharisee, or rather, I’m a bit of both. I’ve never liked simplistic readings which make the pharisee all bad and the publican all good. The fact is, the pharisee and the publican were both being honest about themselves before God. The prayer that each uttered was a truthful prayer: the pharisee did do all the right things, the publican was a sinner through and through. So why is the publican’s prayer held up to us as a model to follow, and the pharisee’s condemned as self-righteous boasting? It’s not necessarily because the pharisee is, in effect, praying to himself rather than God (we all do that at times); surely it is because the pharisee compares himself with someone else, to the other’s disadvantage, while the publican compares himself with no one, just asks for mercy. The humility of the publican consists in his being aware that he stands naked and alone before God; the pharisee wants to dress up his prayer with comparisons, a fig-leaf of propriety to cover his essential nakedness. He’s trying to hide behind others rather than face God as he is, not as he wants to be. Do we do the same?
Those of you who read the Rule of St Benedict each day, or listen to the recordings on our main website, have probably been struck by the fact that the current chapters have a lot to say about faults — offences against silence or monastic discipline generally. In each case, Benedict specifies a form of making satisfaction — what a child might call ‘putting things right’. That is an important concept to get hold of. To put things right, we must first admit they have gone wrong; and how difficult most of us find that! Proud people don’t make mistakes; they have oversights, are forced into difficult positions, make excuses for themselves and will only apologize for any offence they MAY have given. Benedict will have none of that. The so-called penal code in RB is not about apportioning blame or punishing faults as such. Rather, it is a way of bringing us to humility, to the truth about ourselves and others, reintegrating us into a community from which we have exiled ourselves by our own behaviour. As such, it is much more searching than may at first appear.
Take today’s brief chapter about making mistakes in the oratory, RB 45. When we trip over a word or sing a wrong note, we kneel briefly on the floor. It alerts everyone; and if the false note or word has led everyone astray, it often helps to get us all back on track. Such a little thing, you might think; we all make mistakes, why bother about it? The point is that in our communal worship of God carelessness has no place. To sing the Divine Office hour by hour, day by day, requires concentration. It would be easy to become sloppy now and again, but to allow such sloppiness would be not merely a personal but also a communal failure.
Sometimes we don’t see that personal wrongdoing has a communal dimension. We argue that no one else is affected by what we do. But rather like the false note in choir, even our most hidden faults, such as nursing a grudge or jealous thoughts, weaken the strength of the community as a whole by injecting it with a kind of moral poison. The only antidote is humility and that truthfulness I mentioned above. I think the Lord was on to something when he urged us to turn and become like little children. Putting things right may be more difficult for us as adults. We have to ‘unlearn’ so many defensive strategies; but ultimately, isn’t it worth it?