23 - Publican & Pharisee, Feb 5, 2017 (with audio)

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II Timothy 3:10-15

Luke 18:10-14

No deep reading of this morning’s Gospel parable is necessary to see that it is calling us to humble contrition in preparation for the Fast. But, there is a deep reading of this morning’s Gospel. It comes into view when we understand that the Exodus and its law of Passover are the shape of Jesus’ earthly life and of the Church’s liturgical cycle. The Exodus and Passover, moreover, are but the unfolding in the outward and visible realm of history of the inner and spiritual mystery of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise and the LORD preparing to lead them back. Jesus’ earthly life is the outward shape of the inner mystery of His judgment of the nations and of His leading back to Eden those who would follow Him in obedience on the Gospel’s deeper Exodus of the soul.

The LORD concludes the parable: “Whoever exalts himself will be made low, but whoever makes himself low will be exalted.” This has the ring of Isaiah: “Every valley (i.e., everything low) shall be exalted, every mountain and hill (i.e., everything high) brought low” (Isa 40:4). This part of Isaiah’s prophecy is the substance of JnBapt’s preaching (cf. Lk 3:4-6). And, from this same passage (Isa 40:3-5) St Simeon draws his prayer when he receives the LORD into his arms (Lk 2:29-32).

Through Isaiah, then, this morning’s parable is connected to Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan, and to the Meeting of the LORD in the Temple, and therefore to the Exodus, the inner substance of both. The Jordan – or even the Temple in Jerusalem – is where the old Exodus ends, and the command to, “Sanctify to me every male child opening the womb” (Ex 13:1) which Joseph and the Theotokos are observing when they bring Jesus to the Temple, was given to Israel as part of the law of the Passover on the day the LORD led Israel forth from the land of Egypt (Ex 13:3). The Feast of the Meeting of the LORD, then, seems to be telling us that we are now, liturgically, coming to the beginning of a New Exodus, Great Lent; for, here is our Joshua, the first male child born of the Virgin – as Isaiah prophesied, and as Simeon the Elder translated it into Greek – being offered to the LORD in the Temple of Jerusalem. In this Exodus of the Gospel, our Red Sea is Great Lent, our Jordan is the LORD’s Tomb, our Promised Land is the Garden of the LORD’s Resurrection in the Kingdom of Heaven that is within us (Lk 17:21).

From its roots in Isaiah that connects it to JnBapt and to the Meeting of the LORD, this morning’s parable, then, with its stern warning to humble oneself in order to be exalted, i.e., to be made righteous – which means to be raised to life – seems to be telling us something of the nature of this Exodus of the Gospel. It is a spiritual Exodus; for, its destination is the Kingdom of Heaven that is within you. And the work one must attend to on this Exodus is the inner work of repentance, of humbling oneself in a broken and contrite heart. That means that in preparing for this Lenten Exodus of the Gospel, we are making ready to embark on an inner journey to the root of our soul, the inner sanctuary of our being, to taste and see the meaning of our nature and destiny.

Let’s trace this Exodus of the Gospel to see if we can discover how we step onto the path of its inner mystery. Following the earthly life of our Joshua, we see this Exodus of the Gospel going from the Jordan, which was outside the city, to the Temple of Jerusalem, and from there to the Cross outside the city, and into the Tomb that was in the Garden (cf. Jn 19:41). There, we see our Joshua “humbling Himself” or making Himself low (tapeinosen, cf. Phil 2:8), and the Exodus of the Gospel is lost to earthly sight. I.e., from what is outward and visible, understood in an earthly manner (cf. FM 382), the Exodus of the Gospel goes inward, into the tomb, into the “midst of the earth”.

But, faith is given to know by the Psalmist that the LORD was “working salvation in the midst of the earth” (Ps 74:12); i.e., following the teaching of St Paul, He, the living and active WORD, sharper than any two-edged sword, was piercing all the way to the division of soul and spirit and all the way down into the very thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12). He was purging the conscience of the inner man from its dead works (Heb 9:14) and sprinkling our hearts clean from an evil conscience (Heb 10:22). In the midst of the earth, i.e., means in the tomb of the heart (St Macarius, Hom 11.11) where we were spiritually dead in our sins and trespasses (Eph 2:1).

“Disappearing” into the tomb, then, in no way means that the Exodus of the Gospel now cannot be known or that faith is to believe stubbornly if not arrogantly what can no longer be known or demonstrated. For, at that point where the old Exodus ends and where the Exodus of the Gospel disappears from sight – viz., the Jordan and the Tomb outside Jerusalem – the Exodus of the Gospel descends inward,into the deeps of our soul.

We are given to understand from the teaching of the Church in her dogmatic and liturgical texts that when His Body was laid in the tomb, the WORD of God was bearing in His human Soul all of creation down to the better and changeless path (FM 377). What is that path? Where is it? It’s the Path of the Gospel’s Lenten and Paschal Exodus. This path was prefigured in the old Exodus when Israel was led through the Red Sea as on dry ground, where the Red Sea is the figure of death and the Path is the figure of the LORD’s death. And so, we find that Path when we unite ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death; and we unite ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death by humbling ourselves, making ourselves low as He did (Phil 2:8), i.e., by denying ourselves and losing our life for His sake and taking up our cross. This is the cross of the Lenten Fast and the Church’s ascetic disciplines, which we take up not in the self-righteousness of the Pharisee but in the publican’s humility and in the lowliness of obedience to His command! In this self-denial, this humbling of ourselves for the sake of Christ, we come to know in a heavenly way what is inwardly understood (FM 383) or perhaps, what is inwardly experienced. We descend into the water of our inner man, i.e. our soul through obedience not to our own ideas but to what the LORD directs us to do. It is His WORD given to us in His Church, not our word given to us in the delusion of our self-righteous blindness, that bears us down into the waters of our soul and down to our heart where we are deep beyond all things (Jer 17:5/9 LXX) to that better and changeless path that ascends to God. I.e., we must make ourselves low, for it is in the lowliness of a broken and contrite heart that we find that better and changeless path that exalts us because it ascends to God.

This is the path, I think, that is cryptically identified in the Psalmist as the way of the LORD that is in the sea, His path that is in the great waters, but the footsteps of the LORD are not known (Ps 76:19 LXX). Surely, this hidden and unknown path at the bottom of the “sea” is part of the mystery of God that was hidden from the ages, and was not made known until the appearing of Jesus Christ! (Col 1:26). I believe it is the Way of the LORD that He made known to Moses (Ps 102:7 LXX).

We must make ourselves low, we must cry out like the publican. Listen to the Psalmist and you should understand: “When their hearts were brought low with troubles, when they were weak and there was no helper, when they cried out to Him in their affliction, then He saved them out of their distresses, He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and He broke their bonds asunder” (Cf. Ps 106:12-16).

That this Gospel opens the Lenten Triodion tells us that Great Lent is the inner work exemplified by the prayer of the Publican. The Lenten Fast is the cross we take up to facilitate the inner work of making the mountains and hills of our self-righteousness low. This is how we go down into the house or the tomb, the valley of our heart. For, it is in the tomb of our heart, where we are deep beyond all things, outside the city, where we are our true selves that we unite ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death, His obedience, that we may put to death our disobedience and so be made righteous, i.e., united to Christ in the likeness of His Resurrection and pass over into the Garden of Eden and into the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. Eze 37:12). Amen.