|22 - Publican and Pharisee, February 9, 2014|
2 Timothy 3:10-15
Nowhere and at no time does the Church ever direct us to pray like the Pharisee but always like the Publican: “LORD, have mercy on me, a sinner”; always like the blind man of Jericho; always like the Canaanite woman: “LORD, Son of David, have mercy on me!” It is the prayer, I believe, of the one who is striving to unite himself to Christ in the likeness of His death. It is the prayer of the one who embraces the LORD’s command: deny yourself, lose your life for my sake and the Gospel’s, and take up your cross and follow Me.
The LORD said to Adam and Eve when they had eaten of the tree He told them not to eat: “In the sweat of your face, you shall eat bread until you return to the dust. For, out of it you were taken. You are dust, and to the dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19)
God made Adam from the ground; and then, He planted a garden in Eden, toward the east – i.e., toward the “light” that had burst forth from the word of the LORD on the First Day of creation, toward the “mystery” of Resurrection. He then took the man whom He had formed, and placed him there in His newly-planted garden. (Gen 2:8) The image is of God carrying Adam, like the Shepherd carrying the new-born lamb. He put the man there, it says, in order for him to work it and to guard it. (Gen 2:15 LXX)
In the spiritual pride and self-righteousness of the Pharisee in this morning’s Gospel, I see the whole history of mankind since the transgression of Adam and Eve. Indeed, can we not see the biography of our own life? The work we give ourselves to in this life is the work of building so many towers of Babel: cities, kingdoms and empires, works of art and literature, of law and ritual and science, of acquiring awards and accomplishments, which we then guard as monuments to ourselves, as though we have attained some kind of eternity in them.
Yet, beneath it all rings the word of the LORD to Adam and Eve, i.e. to you and me: “You are dust, and to the dust you shall return.” It is the word of the LORD that Israel stoutly resisted throughout her history, as she worked to build and to guard her own kingdom, so that she could be a worldly nation like all the others, as she herself testified at the crucifixion of Christ, her LORD and King: “We have no king but Caesar!”
All of these monuments to man’s achievements, however, are of the earth. However subtle, sophisticated, cultured or civilized, however cosmic they may be, they cannot transcend the earth (or the cosmos – and is not the cosmos but swirling dust?). However diligently man works to guard them, he cannot silence or undo the judgment of the LORD to Adam and Eve: “You are dust, and to the dust you shall return”.
Now, there is an eternity that these monuments of ours are the face of; and we would do well to know what it is. It is the eternity of an endless cycle in which the particulars are always disintegrating back into the dust where they came from, to be refashioned into something else. But, this is a vacuous eternity of nothing because nothing remains, nothing really exists. Everything dissolves back into its underlying essence – what the bible calls, the “dust of the ground” – to be reconstituted into something else from out of a prior disintegration.
The sweat that is produced from the work that goes into creating and sustaining monuments to this kind of “eternity” in the end has produced nothing. And yet, mankind, blinded as he is by the sweat of his hubris, in his delusion has fashioned this empty eternity into a religion, even world religions. It claims the devotion of the simple, the specters of its delusions frightening them and comforting them in turn. Scholars love to bend their intellects to the study of it; for, it does indeed have a certain mesmerizing fascination about it, like the mesmerizing gaze of the serpent. It is fascinating because it transcends the human mind even in its nothingness, since the human mind was born from it. The geometrical patterns and wispy filaments of the human mind are fashioned into spiritual beings, angels, demons, gods, goddesses, some dark, some white, which the human soul then worships as cosmic, eternal forces. But, they are just kaleidoscopic reconfigurations of the dusty filaments swirling about in the human mind that was itself fashioned from the dust of the ground.
When the LORD Jesus Christ came from the wilderness, having triumphed over the devil, He began preaching and teaching: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” This is the call of the same LORD who gave His judgment to Adam and Eve in the garden. The Kingdom that is at hand is not the old worldly kingdom of Israel. That was destroyed by the LORD Himself, and it was returned to the dust centuries ago. What Israel could not see was that the destruction of the old Israelite Kingdom, its return to the dust of the ground, was the beginning of Israel’s salvation. For, the Kingdom of Heaven that is at hand in the coming of Christ, the King of the Kingdom of Heaven, is the Kingdom of His Holy Resurrection that is raised up from the dust of the ground as the world re-created, re-constituted in the mystery of Christ. In the eternity of this Kingdom, the particulars are not constantly disintegrating back into the dust of the ground; for in this eternity, the LORD has destroyed death by His death, and He gives life to those in the tombs by giving His own body and blood as their food and drink that is from heaven, that is not of this world.
And Christ went on to tell us how we can find this Kingdom of Heaven, and how we enter it. It is within you, He says – as though to say, it is in the dust of the ground that you came from. Therefore, if you would follow me, the King, into this Kingdom of Heaven, deny yourself, lose your life for My sake and the Gospel’s, and take up your cross and follow Me. This is how we repent. This is how we return to the dust of the ground in order to be raised up in the resurrection of Christ, a new creation.
The righteousness that the Pharisee boasted before the LORD was his own personal tower of Babel that he had obviously worked hard to build, and to guard. And so, when we pray as he did, we are not justified, we are not made to live, for we show that we have no desire to return to the dust of the ground, to deny ourselves, to take up our cross, to put to death our earthly members (Col 3:5) and return to the dust of the ground.
The Publican prayed, “LORD, have mercy on me a sinner.” He prayed standing afar off, not even lifting his eyes to heaven. This shows all the signs of a soul who, in the humility of faith, is truly in the presence of the LORD. In the merciful severity of the LORD’s presence, the Publican must have seen what the LORD spoke through His prophets: “You are dust, and to the dust you shall return.” It is a profoundly therapeutic vision. It cleanses, it heals because it humbles us. It brings us down to the dust of the ground to where the gates that open onto the Kingdom of Heaven are found. We can see the Publican working in his prayer to tear down the tower of Babel he had worked his life-long building in his soul, in order to return to the dust of the ground in union with his LORD and King, Christ our God, so that by sharing in the likeness of his LORD’s death, it would be the LORD, and not he himself, who would create in him, not a tower of Babel, but a clean heart, a new and right spirit.
Beloved faithful, the sweat that we are called to produce comes from the work not of building towers of Babel in our souls but from the work of denying ourselves and taking up our cross in order to return to the dust of the ground in union with our LORD and King, Jesus Christ. That work is given to us in the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent: prayer, fasting, acts of mercy, confession of our sins. Those disciplines together form the cross by which we who choose voluntarily to take it up – according to our strength and according to our circumstances – will begin working in earnest to deny ourselves, so that the bread we eat is the Living Bread that comes down from Heaven, the Bread of our Resurrection in Christ our LORD and King. Amen!