The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (18:10-14)
We continue on the march towards Great Lent. We are like soldiers who are drawing near to the front lines of the battlefield. The Church is preparing us for spiritual battle because Lent is a great spiritual battle. As we draw near to the battlefield, we are given special gospel readings to aid in our preparation. The Church like a wise general is foreshadowing the moves and the tactics of the enemy and is giving us the counterattacks. Each week is a new building block, a new tactic or weapon that we will add to our repertoire.
This week we hear one of the great passages in all of the holy gospels, the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. This is a story told by Our Lord Jesus Christ. He tells these stories because He loves us and He wants to connect with us, with our hearts, through these stories that give us access to truth and light.
Listen to what the Lord says “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’”
What is the point of the parable? The point is humility. The Lord Jesus, our beloved master, gives us two very different people with two very different prayers. One does everything correctly from an outsiders perspective, he also keeps all of the small traditions and rules with exactness. But the problem is that he doesn’t ultimately keep them out of love for God, and the proof is that his strictness has not produced love within him. He gains great pride through his perfect observance of all things religious. But it gets worse, he boldly uses this distorted vision of himself to accuse others before God! God forbid that we should become like this man. Our prayers are a sacred time to draw near to God, not to accuse and condemn others. The fact that he is obsessed with the activities of others and their shortcomings, both perceived and real, is a sign of just how much he lacks peace from above, peace from God. It reminds me of this story from a modern saint, St. Paisios of Mt. Athos. Listen to his words,
“Some people tell me that they are scandalized because they see many things wrong in the Church. I tell them that if you ask a fly, “Are there any flowers in this area?” it will say, “I don’t know about flowers, but over there in that heap of rubbish you can find all the filth you want.” And it will go on to list all the unclean things it has been to.
Now, if you ask a honeybee, “Have you seen any unclean things in this area?” it will reply, “Unclean things? No, I have not seen any; the place here is full of the most fragrant flowers.” And it will go on to name all the flowers of the garden or the meadow. You see, the fly only knows where the unclean things are, while the honeybee knows where the beautiful iris or hyacinth is. As I have come to understand, some people resemble the honeybee and some resemble the fly. Those who resemble the fly seek to find evil in every circumstance and are preoccupied with it; they see no good anywhere. But those who resemble the honeybee only see the good in everything they see. The stupid person thinks stupidly and takes everything in the wrong way, whereas the person who has good thoughts, no matter what he sees, no matter what you tell him, maintains a positive and good thought.”
The Pharisee was like the fly in the story, but what about the Publican? It turns out that he was like the bee. He could not see garbage anywhere outside. He would not so much as dare to look around or busy himself with what others were doing. He could not see any garbage anywhere outside, because he was busy looking inward, repenting. He was busy with the task of dealing with the garbage that he found within himself. That is true humility. And everyone who repents and prays with this demeanor is truly blessed beyond measure. You will know God if you have this attitude when you pray. King David writes “a broken and humbled heart, God will not despise.” Imagine the freedom and joy that we would have if we prayed with a focus on our own sins and God’s abundant mercy.
The Publican only said one heartfelt sentence “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” yet Our Lord Jesus tells us that this was enough. He did not have to say any more. The Lord says that “this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” Wow. Truly, the shortest distance to God is humility. The quickest path to God is humility. The way to become like God, to receive His boundless blessings, is through humility. And this humility is something that we can put into action in everyday aspects of our life, not only in our prayers.
You know in our day and age there is a severe lack of humility and modesty, especially humility of speech. One of the unfortunate consequences of the rise of the internet and social media is that it gives every person a voice, but not every voice is worth hearing on every subject. If you ask me my opinion regarding the economy and the stock market, I can give you some general information that I’ve gleaned from reading the news, but I can’t tell you anything that will actually benefit you much. If however, you go and ask a professional investor with great experience and a proven track record, like Warren Buffet, he might be able to give you some valuable insights that would be worth sharing.
Everyday we are tempted to comment on social media (or in person). We want to comment on politics, social justice, even religion and theology. But sometimes it is better to keep our mouths shut. Why? Because we want to put on humility, the way of Christ, as a lifestyle. It’s not good to have a public opinion about every subject. It means that we have an inflated view of our opinions. Sometimes it is best to shrug and say “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know.” So perhaps that is one concrete way to practice humility during this coming lenten period.
Whatever we do in our lives, we can do it all with humility and then we will not be alone, but with God and if God is with us, what do we lack? St. John of San Francisco writes, “The power of God is effective when a person asks for the help from God, acknowledging his own weakness and sinfulness. This is why humility and the striving towards God are the fundamental virtues of a Christian.” My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us take these virtues and boldly run the race set before us. Glory be to God forever AMEN.