21 Publican and Pharisee: January 28, 2007

2 Timothy 3:10-15

Luke 18:10-14


Abraham, when he besought the Lord to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, fell down before him and cried out: Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.[1] The patriarch Jacob prayed to God for deliverance and groaned: “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shown to thy servant.”[2] The holy apostle Peter saw the great catch of fish given to them by the Lord Jesus and he fell down at Jesus' feet in fear and trembling; for he suddenly realized he was not in the presence of an ordinary man. He cried out ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’”[3] St Paul writes to the Corinthians: “For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”[4] And to Titus, St Paul writes: “This [is] a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am first.”[5]

From these few examples, we can see why the publican was justified in this morning’s Gospel and why the Pharisee was not. In the confession of his sinfulness to God, the Publican approached the mind of all the saints who were of the mind that was also in Christ Jesus: “Though he was in the form of God and thought it not robbery to be equal to God, he emptied himself and took the form of a servant and came to be in the likeness of men. And being in figure as man he humbled himself, becoming obedient even to death, the death of the Cross.”[6]

In our baptism, we were united to Christ and we came to a knowledge of Jesus as the Son of God. In that knowledge, we see that the one who raised us up out of the waters of the Jordan at our baptism, and whom we now are following to Golgotha is no ordinary man, but the very God before whom Abraham, Jacob, Sts Peter and Paul and all the saints prostrated themselves in reverence and holy dread. It is this very God, to whom it is great and awesome even for the powers of heaven to serve, at whose rebuke the mountains tremble and the rivers turn back, who is going before us, leading us to the Cross outside the city, in order to become sin for us, he who knew no sin, humbling himself before God his Father even to the point of death on the Cross for our salvation.  

When St Paul, therefore, says in his epistle to the Hebrews that we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, he is directing us to this cloud of saints and martyrs and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith who stand before the humble God in the mind that was in Christ Jesus, a mind of humility and obedience to the Father. Every one of these great saints in their earthly life stood before God as the first of all sinners. Looking around us at all of the saints who are invisibly present with us in Christ, how can we not at least want to put the Pharisee behind us and learn the humility of the Publican? This desire is the beginning and the soul of the ascetic disciplines of the Christian faith.

Abba St Paisius was a man of great humility, having attained this grace through years of ascetic discipline. St Paisius came to the end of his life and the brothers gathered round his bed. The brothers saw his body beginning to glow with a light that came from within. Yet, they heard St Paisius with his last remaining breaths beseeching God to give him more time; he wasn’t ready yet to go. His body shone more brightly, and the brothers protested: “But Abba Paisius, you have attained such sanctity. How is it that you feel you are not ready to die?” Fr Paisius answered as his body shone brighter and brighter: “Ah, but I haven’t even begun to repent.” The way St Paisius’ died illustrates the lesson of this morning’s Gospel: it is toward learning the humility of the publican that the ascetic labors of Great Lent are directed, for it is in that humility that the doors of our heart open to receive the Heavenly Bridegroom who comes at Midnight to give us the gift of divine life in his Holy Spirit and to bring us into the communion of his saints.

In Orthodoxy, we do not practice ascetic discipline thinking we are manipulating God. Communion with God is a gift. But, precisely as a gift, communion with God is natural to us because it is in the gift of his goodness that God created us from nothing and made us to exist in him. And when he made us, he fashioned us in his image and likeness. Thus, our very existence is a gift; our being made like God is a gift; our being made to exist in God is a gift, and all of these gifts are natural to us, for it is in these gifts that we were brought into being and made to exist. Thus, we teach in Orthodoxy that to live in God and to be like God, precisely as gifts of divine grace, are natural to us. They are in accordance with our nature that was itself given to us as a gift from God. Sin, directing our will away from God so that we fall into ignorance and forgetfulness of God and become unlike God, is unnatural to us; it is against our nature.

We believe that God is love; and that we, made in his image, are love. Because our being in God is in love, we understand that God will not give himself to us if we don’t love him, if we don’t want him. Love naturally expresses itself in deeds. Giving in without ascetic struggle to self-indulgence shows that we don’t want God. Taking up the ascetic life and striving to oppose our inclination to self-indulgence – even though we may fail – is the deed that shows we do want God.

At the same time, the Church teaches us that in our nature we have all been corrupted by sin, both our own sins and the sins of others. The deeds of asceticism do not make us well; they do not save us. In fact, they reveal how deeply sin has become imbedded in our nature. When we take up the ascetic disciplines of the Christian faith, we discover that because of sin, we suffer from a deep spiritual schizophrenia at the core of our being. For when, through the ascetic disciplines, we work to turn our love and our desire toward their natural end in God, we discover, with St Paul, that while “I delight in the law of God according to the inward man, I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my [fleshly] members.” Ascetic struggle, then, does not save us; it reveals our inner fragmentation and the depth of our spiritual sickness. But, at the same time, ascetic discipline is the deed by which we refuse to give expression to the law of sin in us and seek to give expression instead to our desire to love God. Ascetic discipline reveals to us that we do not love God as he commands; but because the ascetic disciplines of the Church give concrete expression to our desire to love God, the practice of the Church’s ascetic discipline also reveals to us the expectant hope of the Christian expressed by St Paul: “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death! I thank God. [I am delivered] through Jesus Christ our Lord!”[7] Through the gift of the sacraments of the Church, we are recreated on the sacramental level of our being in the grace of Christ’s Holy Spirit in his holy resurrection; and in the joy and beauty of that gracious gift, we take up the Church’s ascetic disciplines to cultivate that love for God that is natural to us, and to prepare ourselves for the gift of God’s grace when he recreates us in the fullness of our nature, in our earthly body as well as our mind and our soul, in the mystery of Christ’s holy resurrection.

Perhaps the first ascetic discipline we need to take toward the humility of the Publican is simply to acknowledge before God that we are the Pharisee. In this acknowledgement, we open our eyes to see that in our pride we are not pleasing to God; and so we stop resisting the Lord. We begin to turn away from pride; we begin to repent. We begin to see how we mindlessly serve the pleasures of sin because we have no vision of the glory of our original goodness in God that alone is according to our nature. We see our estrangement from God and how the ground of our soul has become hard and dry, so that we have no tears of contrition that bring sweetness and healing to the truly penitent soul. In this acknowledgement, we are yet far from humility, but we are taking the first steps to humility because we have begun to step away from our pride. And we can take these steps toward the humility of the Publican quite literally by stepping into the Church and just listening.

For, the Church is the body of Christ. She is the fullness of him who is all in all. This means that the prayers of the Church are infused with the Holy Spirit. They are deified words through which the light of Christ shines on those who would receive them. And they can be received simply by listening to them: listening to the prayers of Vespers and of Matins that are given in the Lenten Triodion; the prayers of the Psalms given in the bible, the prayers of Compline and of the hours given in the service books and prayer books. Standing before the holy icons of the Church, we believe that we are in the presence of Christ and his holy Mother, the blessed Theotokos. Mindful that Christ is present with his holy Mother, we listen with attention to the prayers Christ is giving to us in his body, the Church. We needn’t worry about whether or not we are in the right frame of mind or if we are feeling the right emotions. Indeed, we should let go of all thoughts, and renounce all emotion so that we do not fall into vanity or sentimentality and so we can come to true feeling; so that it is not we but the Lord who builds the house of our piety. Standing in prayerful attention, we absorb the words of the Church’s prayers into our mind and make them our own. As we stand without emotion but with attention, absorbing the prayers of the Church and making them our own, we may feel them penetrating all the way to our hearts. Then we discover that the words of the Church’s prayers have a certain power, a divine power, the power of Christ’s Holy Spirit, a power to break up the stony ground of our heart and make it soft, receptive to the Bridegroom who comes at Midnight. On the heart at that very moment there may fall the heavenly dew of God’s Holy Spirit who bestows on the soul the gift of tears, the tears of repentance, the tears of the Publican. They are tears that flow from the heart even when they are not flowing from the eyes. These tears, too, because they are the gift of God, have power; a power to cleanse the soul of her unnatural love for the pleasures of sin. They ignite in the deepest heart the first flame of a love for God that makes the heart warm with an ardent desire to learn his commandments and to walk in his humility, to submit our own will to the will of the Father.

Stepping into the Church and working to train the mind attentively on the prayers of the Church is one deed of the Church’s ascetic discipline by which we give expression to our desire to serve and love God. By this ascetic deed, we submit ourselves to Christ’s tutelage and we allow him to lift our mind and our desire out of the Pharisee’s pride and to lower us into the humility of his body, the Church, the communion of saints in whom he rests. Standing with attention in the Church is an ascetic discipline by which we place ourselves in the uncreated light that shines from Christ on Mt Tabor in his holy resurrection so that we are bathed in the grace of his Holy Spirit. Standing in this grace of the Church, we allow the Church to refashion us in the humility of the Publican, and we learn to wait in expectant hope for the Bridegroom who comes at Midnight when the old passes away and when those who receive him in the ascetic life of the Church are raised up in the ancient newness of his divine life in his holy resurrection, born from above as children of God.

[2] Gn 32:10

[6] Phil 2:5-8

[7] Rm 7:22-25