The Daily Offices

The Daily Offices from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, (Canada 1962), including daily Bible readings and occasional sermons from the Cathedral of the Annunication of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ottawa

Thursday, August 31, 2006


The Publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me, a sinner. Luke 18:13.

There are some themes which arise again and again in Holy Scripture, in both Old and New Testaments. When this happens it should say to us that these messages are of particular importance.

Pay attention, O mortal man, your soul is at stake!

And you, preacher man, pay attention, your responsibility is pressing urgent!

In today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Luke, there are a number of things which can be drawn out and spoken to, but the one I want to address is summed up in one word, contrition.

That word touches upon the Christian requirement of genuine repentance for our sins, but in some sense goes beyond it.

It incorporates that essential Christian quality of humility, without which neither repentance nor contrition are possible because the need for them cannot be recognised.

It is bursting with our need for God. Indeed, the absence of contrition is a very real barrier between us and God. Without contrition we are certainly without fear of the Lord.

In this brilliant little parable we read from Luke 18, Jesus teaches us about that barrier, shown so vividly in the words of the Pharisee. Jesus also teaches much about contrition in His oh so few words about the Publican, a man so sure of his own spiritual poverty that he hides in the shadows of the temple and casts his eyes down to the ground. Yet he seems to be aware that God sees into the shadows, even those shadows lurking in our own hearts. God be merciful to me a sinner. That cry is the Publican’s glory and it removes any option to view him as a pathetic figure. It also turns this parable into a teaching of abundant hope.

There was another man who was afraid to lift up his eyes for fear of God and his story, in the Book of Exodus gives us reason enough to pay attention to this theme of contrition.

The people of Israel are in bondage under the strong, but not friendly hand of Pharaoh. And they cried and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God looked upon the children of Israel and God had respect unto them. Ex.2:23-25.

So God calls out Moses, then a humble shepherd of no social standing or pretensions. While keeping his father-in-law’s sheep, Moses sees a bush burning, but not consumed by the fire.

And Moses said, I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. And He said, draw not nigh hither: put thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground…….and Moses hid his face for he was afraid to look upon God. Ex.3:3-6.

Contrition is founded upon and rooted in a recognition of the awesome nature of God. It is not like standing on your dance partner’s foot and saying, “Oops, sorry dear!” Nor is it even like striking somebody and apologizing for that, no matter how sincerely.

No, this contrition is deeply spiritual and embodies the same fear of God which caused Moses to hide his face. Such fear of God is a healthy, life giving thing.

There is another, very important point to note in these verses from Exodus, namely the steadfastness of God. God remembers His promises, always and forever. And if we follow those promises through the Cross and beyond, we will see that the fear of God is not just healthy and life giving, but is also hope filled and carries with it the dawning of joy.

So the Psalmist could write, A broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise. Ps.51:17.

Likewise the prophet Isaiah was moved to proclaim, For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. Is.57:15.

These are immensely rich promises made through the prophet; rich enough, surely, to kindle a desire to drive out any inclination to be puffed up with our own imagined worth.

Later Isaiah returned to this subject with even greater emphasis. Thus saith the Lord, the heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest? For all those things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the Lord: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit and trembleth at my word. Is.66:1-2.

Small wonder, then, that Jesus says of the Publican, I tell you this man went down to his house justified rather than the other. Our Lord’s very next words tell us that the Pharisee, in fact, was not justified at all. Jesus says, For every one that exalteth himself shall be abased.

In reality, we step off the narrow way of Jesus Christ the moment we give in to the temptation to compare and contrast ourselves to worldly men and worldly values. That is not to say that we have nothing to learn from those around us. God sends us many messages carried by many messengers.

But salvation through the Cross is salvation not of this world, but from this world.

And when we understand that, we will see that there is nothing pathetic in the figure of the Publican. Far from it. Jesus is teaching us of nothing less than the glory of contrition; the hope of contrition; the fundamental honesty of sincere, deeply felt contrition.

God be merciful to me, a sinner.

There is the cry which reaches the ear of Almighty God. It is the cry of the soul seeking salvation and an eternity in the presence of God. It is the cry of one who has come to the realisation that his help really does stand, entirely and only with Almighty God.

The Pharisee in this parable was talking to himself, listening to himself and emphasizing just how far removed from God he had placed himself.

The people of Israel did not get free because they told God what good slaves they were, or what good Israelites they were under bondage. In their agony, they cried, And their cry came up unto God…

I have not the faintest idea how God hears, but I do know what He hears and it is the cry born of true contrition. It is the property of mercy always to respond to that cry. That is the cry God wants to hear, made without guile, with no affectation or pretence, rent without reservation from the pure, unadulterated honesty of a truly broken and contrite heart.

Then, through the Grace of God, we may look, still in fear and trembling, to the promise of Jesus Christ to the contrite, He that humbleth himself shall be exalted. The cry of the Publican, the cry of the genuinely contrite heart is truly the cry of glory. God be merciful to me, a sinner.

Peter Jardine+
Trinity XI, 2006