Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee
Today we find ourselves in the second Pre-Lenten Sunday, in which we hear the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. Each of the Pre-Lenten Sundays has a theme concerning our preparation for the Great Fast; last Sunday, we heard the story of Zacchaeus, the theme of which is Desire: to be a disciple of Christ, we have to have the desire to see Him, the desire for something more than what we now have. This week, with this parable, we have the theme of humility.
In today’s parable, we hear the Pharisee’s “prayer” in the temple. It hard to call it a prayer because all he is doing is bragging to God about all the good things he does, like fasting and tithing. But it is all for nought, since his “thanks” to God is that he is thankful that he is not like everyone else, especially this publican, this tax collector. All he has to show for his religion are all these externals of carrying out the Law. But even these externals do nothing for him, and he might as well be a pagan, for his works do not justify him in the eyes of God. Then we see the tax-collector, who dares not even raise his eyes to heaven, but bows his head, beats his breast and prays only, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” No self-justification, no defense of his actions. He sees himself as God sees him, and all he dares ask of God is for His mercy.
Fallen humanity seems to recoil from the idea of being humble or, worse yet, from being humiliated. Nothing causes more resentment in a person than to be humiliated. Very few times would a person say that, when they are humbled, that they saw God’s hand in it. And yet, humility seems to be one of the basics for being a follower of Christ. It was pride that caused, in Eve, the temptation of the serpent to take root and led to her sin. We can look at the lives of many of the great saints of the Church. Peter, all through the Gospels, is one of the proudest of the apostles, and is humiliated publicly time and time again. When Jesus asks His disciples who they think He is, it is Peter who proclaims Him as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Later in the same chapter of Matthew (cf. Matt. 16:13-17, then vv. 21-23), Jesus is telling the disciples all that He must suffer; Peter calls Him aside and rebukes Him, and Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan!” In the story of Jesus walking on the water, Peter calls out to Him, (cf. Matt. 14:22-33) “… if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” He proceeds to do so until he takes his eyes off Jesus, at which point he begins to go under, and he cries out to Him: “Save me!” Jesus takes him by the hand and, together, they walk back to the boat. At the “Last Supper,” Jesus announces that one of those at table with Him will betray Him. Peter avers, “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble,” and again, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You.” We know, of course, that when he is later questioned in the courtyard, he denies his Lord not once but three times. “And he went out and wept bitterly” (cf. Matt. 26:33-35, and 26:69-75). Peter had to be humbled greatly before he could be a true follower of Christ.
Again, we see the holy Apostle Thomas, who on the way to Jerusalem, cries out “Let us also go that we may die with Him” (Jn. 11:16) who, after the Resurrection, says that he will not believe that Jesus is risen unless he sees in His hands the print of the nails, and puts his fingers therein, and places his hand in His side. Eight days later, when Jesus again appears, we notice that Thomas doesn’t go through with his test, but instead says “My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20:24-28). Thomas had to be humbled before he could be a true follower of Christ.
Saul, later Paul, who persecuted the Church and presided over the stoning of the arch-deacon and first martyr Stephen, was on his way to Damascus to arrest the Christians there when he was struck with blindness, had a vision of Jesus, and was humbled when his blindness was healed in Damascus by Ananias, one of those he was sent to arrest. Still, he struggled with pride the rest of his life, and was given a “thorn in the side,” which he asked the Lord to remove from him, and to which Jesus answered him, “My grace is sufficient for you…” (2 Cor. 12:7-10).
If these great saints were not immune to the need for humility, why should we escape this same need for humiliation? And if we refuse to accept this humiliation, there is no way we can expect to become a true follower, a true Christian. We must have all the tendrils of pride and arrogance rooted out of our hearts before we can do all that we are called to do or, like the Pharisee, all our works will be tainted by our pride. We must give Him our heart of stone, ask Him to crush it, to give us a broken and humbled heart (Ps. 50 :19) so that we may truly love Him.
I have been reading a series of Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s sermons on the Theotokos, and how she is to be our model on how to be totally abandoned to God. She is called the second Eve in that, whereas Eve rejected God’s word, said “no”to God, Mary, when confronted with the words of the holy Archangel Gabriel that she would conceive the Son of God by the Holy Spirit – instead of cowering at the thought of the possible shame, the possibility of Joseph having her stoned at worst, “put away privately” at best, she instead simply says to the Archangel and to God, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38). She represents, according to Fr. Schmemann, the fullness of what the Church is to be: one who gives Herself fully, totally and without reservation, in all humility, to the Lord.
This is our call, to humble ourselves, to put our own desires, our own will, aside – to humble ourselves before our God, and to allow His will to be done in us and through us, for His glory, and for the furtherance of His kingdom on earth. So let us not find within ourselves the pride and arrogance of the Pharisee, but instead let us plant the seeds of repentence and humility in our hearts, as did the Publican, this day and all the days of our lives. Amen.
[Transcribed from memory as best as possible from my homily in the parishes this past weekend. -Fr. Ron]