“God be merciful to me a sinner.”
Every generation has its publicans… and its Pharisees. And have you ever wondered how it is that somebody in Jesus’ time ended up becoming a publican, when it was obviously so much better to become a Pharisee? Well, I think I now know.
A little while ago, I went to a “medieval banquet”.
It was in Docklands, just beside the Tower of London.
The idea was that we were supposed to pretend to be guests at a banquet hosted by King Henry the Eighth of England, staffed by beefeaters, lords of the realm, various entertainers and served by (and I quote) ‘comely wenches’!
And there was fun to be had - good singing, good lute playing, good music, one of the best Irish banjo players I’ve ever heard, great dancers - and some pretty terrible food – an enormous amount of fairly salacious humour – though nothing worse than Jim Davidson - all the things that would appeal, you would think, to the yuppies of London's financial centres - people who (even now) take pride in having more money than sense. And you would be right. A hundred of London's finest young bankers, stock brokers and commodity lawyers stomped and rocked and rolled and roared to the echo.
And in among it all was one woman who was totally out of place working as a ‘comely wench’. Too small, too fat, too old to compete with the sassy young Aussie minxes who made up the majority of the ‘comely wenches’; too uncoordinated to dance properly and badly shown up by the professionals; too foreign to understand almost anything that was said to her; too confused and anxious to get anything right. Too sad to put any real heart into her fixed smile.
Some of the drunken young stockbrokers started to make fun of her; laughing at her mistakes; her inability to dance along with the others; her obvious age; the smudging of her mascara; even the tears that ran down her face and dripped onto the table. Even then, her fixed smile never wavered.
But do not mock her as the stock brokers did. As it happened, I had the chance to speak to her afterwards – I know just a little Spanish. She thought she had something to be sorry for - the sin of love, the burning need in a mother to do whatever it takes to feed her family. She told me that her wages feed seven people in her village in Colombia. Yet she feels ashamed of how she has to work to feed them. She does not feel it is a dignified work for a lady of her age and traditions. But it is what she has to do to feed her family.
I asked if it was like this every night; she said it was.
I asked how she coped with that. I saw her smile finally waver. She thought for a moment and said “No pienso de los ricos; pienso de los pequenos.” - I don't think about the rich people; I think about the little ones.
There are worse philosophies of life.
I don’t know about the stockbrokers – it’s not for me to say – but I do know that one very precious and impressive lady went home that night at rights with God.
Let us pray today for all the publicans who have to do jobs they hate to feed the people they love.
And let us pray for the Pharisees too, because they probably need it the more.
Fr Paul O'Reilly is a Jesuit priest. He is also a medical doctor, working with homeless patients at the Dr Hickey Surgery, in Arneway Street, Victoria, central London.
“God be merciful to me a sinner.”