Three Paradoxes Resolved by Love

Posted in: Uncategorised

This week I’d like to think a bit about the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.  This parable is read in many churches around the beginning of Lent.  It’s a great parable and I think it puts before us three of the great truths, and paradoxes, that are at the heart of the Christian life.

The first paradoxical truth: we have to work as hard as we can, but our relationship with God doesn’t depend on our efforts!

I don’t think the parable is telling us that we don’t need to make an effort to keep God’s commandments.  If it was telling us that it would be an odd choice for a season of repentance, when we are precisely making an effort to turn our lives back to God.   The Lord makes it clear that we do have to make an effort in another parable about the servant, who after a day’s labour in the fields was then expected to cook and serve his master’s meal.  I can’t help feeling that there may be some wry humour in this parable, with its possibly unreasonable demands.  I wonder how many 1st century “masters” would want to have their meal presented by an exhausted and probably quite grubby servant. Would he not rather have chosen someone else from his household?  Be that as it may, the point of that parable is clear: the Lord asks us to work really hard for the Kingdom of God, and afterwards we can only say: “we are unworthy servants, we only did our duty”.  It isn’t the work itself that gets us close to God.

In another place the Lord says: For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.[1]  One can imagine Jesus’ hearers saying to themselves: “Really???!!!   Is that humanly possible????!!!!”

So, in the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, if the Lord is not cautioning against fasting, praying and giving generous alms, what is he warning us about?  It’s not hard to identify pride, self-righteousness, trusting in his own efforts, condemnation of others, in the Pharisee’s words.  There are some very recognisable human weaknesses there – just like the old lady in the Russian fable who finding herself after death in a lake of fire called out to her guardian angel: “Hey! There’s been a mistake!  I am a very good old lady!”

The humility of the Publican’s prayer brings us to another of the great paradoxes of Christianity: humility and God’s glory go together.  Just before going to his Passion, Jesus tells his disciples “Now is the Son of Man glorified”.[2]  This is one of the great themes of St John’s Gospel - that God’s glory is revealed by his extreme humiliation.

As the epistle to the Philippians says:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death- even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is LORD, to the glory of God the Father.[3]

We know that the theological word for this “making himself nothing” is kenosis – self-emptying.  In the context of Lent it is helpful to reflect that self-emptying is not the same as self-filling.  Consumerism may have taken a bit of a hit in the pandemic, but it’s rapacious hold on our society is still deep.  Lent gives us an opportunity to try to reverse the tendency to grab, to get as much as one can for oneself, to make an effort to empty out our “stuff” so that we can make room for love and mercy.

Kenosis, being obedient unto death, brings me to the third paradox.  We have to die in order to live.  This is at the heart of the Paschal mystery to which we are travelling in Lent.  And it is a mystery!  How each one of us finds the path to uniting ourself with the death of Christ, so that we may share his life, is known only to ourselves, and maybe one or two other people. Like the seed hidden in the earth which dies in order to bring forth new shoots, our life has to be hidden in Christ with God[4] so that he can infect us with his humble love.

I’d like to end with a poem by C S Lewis.

Love’s as warm as tears,
Love is tears:
Pressure within the brain,
Tension at the throat,
Deluge, weeks of rain,
Haystacks afloat,
Featureless seas between
Hedges, where once was green.

Love’s as fierce as fire,
Love is fire:
All sorts – Infernal heat
Clinkered with greed and pride,
Lyric desire, sharp-sweet,
Laughing, even when denied,
And that empyreal flame
Whence all love came.

Love’s as fresh as spring,
Love is spring:
Bird-song in the air,
Cool smells in a wood,
Whispering, ‘Dare! Dare!
To sap, to blood,
Telling, ‘Ease, safety rest,
Are good: not best.’

Love’s as hard as nails,
Love is nails:
Blunt, thick, hammered through
The medial nerves of One
Who, having made us, knew
The thing He had done,
Seeing (with all that is)
Our cross, and His.

Lewis, a medieval scholar, has subtly woven the four elements, and perhaps more faintly the four seasons, into these meditative verses on love.[5]  But essentially, in this poem he gives the clue, the background melody, the key, to all the great truths, and paradoxes of our life in Christ.  We need to accept the love of Christ, to radically accept the love of God.

Mother Sarah

[1] Matthew 5:20

[2] John 13:31

[3] Philippians 2:6 - 11

[4] Colossians 3:3

[5][5] Malcolm Guite, Words in the Wilderness, p 149

Posted in: Uncategorised


  • (we won't publish this)

Write a response