I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that
exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
(St. Luke xviii. 14)
Trinity tide invites us on to the road that leads to salvation, in the name and nature of the One alone whose offering and sacrifice redeem and reconcile us unto God the Father. No human being is denied this offer of redemption and reconciliation with Almighty God, the Father of lights, the Creator and Mover of all things. Either every human being can come to see and know the way that leads to eternal death and destruction or he can come to see and know the way that leads to eternal life and salvation. The road or way that a man takes is, of course, his spiritual choice. The spiritual path can be trodden only by them that open up to true prayer.
And in this morning’s Gospel Parable, Our Lord teaches us of the kind of prayer that leads to death and the kind that leads to life. Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a Publican. (St. Luke xviii. 10) The first man, the Pharisee, who went up was a member of the religious establishment of his day. From him, Christian common sense expects to learn the right way or correct form of prayer. He was, after all, a religious expert in Jewish Law. The other man who went up to pray was a Publican - a Jew who was despised and hated by the Jewish people for being a traitor because he collected taxes for the Roman Empire. From him we might expect to find only a wrong-headed and misdirected manner of praying since his life was compromised and his loyalties were divided. But what we find actually is quite the opposite. For the Pharisee’s religion ends up being narcissistically empty and vacuous, while the Publican’s path is full of spiritual substance and meaning.
So we read, The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed thus.... (Ibid, 11; Archbishop Trench’s translation) Before we even encounter the substance of what the Pharisee has to say, we find him isolated, standing off by himself, safely removed from the common sort of men, perhaps intending that others should notice his piety and his earnest intention to steer clear of unclean worshipers (Parables, p. 381).Jesus describes the way that he prays. God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. (Ibid, 11) Speaking thus with himself,the Pharisee reminds God that he is wholly unlike most other men since he is no notorious sinner. God forbid that he should identify with such people – all other men, for then God might mistake him for a sinner! He is, evidently, spiritually pure, religiously holy, and, clearly very, very good in his own eyes. His prayer to God is a litany of his good works. As he lifts himself up, up and away, in what he thinks is a soaring flight into God’s divine presence, his demeaning, belittling, and lowering of all others casts them away into the forgotten ditches of despair reserved for the wicked. He proclaims that he is so very, very good because all other men are so very, very bad! He even bolsters his credentials with his claim to suffering and sacrifice: I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. (Ibid, 12) He is at least as good as he is because he is not as bad as all other men are. So, it would seem, he needs to be no better. To be religious, as Cardinal Newman points out, was for him to keep peace towards others, to take his share in the burdens of the poor, to abstain from gross vice, and to set a good example. His alms and fasting were done not in penance, but because the Law demanded it; penance would have implied consciousness of sin; whereas it was only the Publicans and their sort, who had real sins in need of forgiveness.(10th Sunday after Pentecost, 1856) So he thanks God that he has managed to make himself so very, very good. In the end, he thanks God for himself, and crowns his pride and arrogance in gratitude for being spared the condition of this Publican (Ibid, 11), whom he sees standing off at a distance.The arrogance of our Pharisee reveals something more. We discern that he has a disdainful contempt for the Publican’s audacity in even approaching this place of prayer.
And yet, as we read what comes next, we cannot help but be stilled and humbled by what transpires before our very eyes. We read thata Publican, standing, afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. (Ibid, 13) Here we find a man, rejected, and despised by his own people, alienated and shunned by his own kith and kin for his compromised loyalty and divided fidelity…standing afar off. (Ibid)His inner honesty and self-conscious conviction prevent him from drawing nearer to the wall of prayer with any self-confidence or self-assurance. So he stands at a distance, so painfully conscious of his own unworthiness and sin. The inner spiritual inventory which he has taken has revealed a great distance between the man that he is and the one whom God would have him to be. He is poor in spirit and is fearful of supplicating the mercy of the Almighty. He reminds us of Mephibosheth, the handicapped and disabled son of Jonathan, who responds to King David’s mercy with the words of the unworthy: What is thy servant, that thou shouldest look upon such a dead dog as I am? (2 Sam. 8) He beats his breast, revealing most forcefully the inner turmoil and intolerable warfare that he knows only God can relieve. He says, neither loudly nor pridefully, but diligently and insistently, God be merciful to me a sinner.(Ibid) This man knows who he is and what he has become. He knows, too, that the all-seeing God knows the secrets of [his] heart. (Ps. xliv. 21) And so he comes as close as he is able to the table of God’s mercy,knowing that he [could] not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven (Ibid, 13), regarding them as unworthy of the celestial vision: because they had preferred to look upon earthly things, and seek for them (Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, p. 358), as St. Theophylactus has said.
Unlike the Pharisee, for whom he can say or do nothing, the Publicanstands before the heart-searching God. He does not walk by his own light, but brings his darkness into God’s light. In God’s light, he sees himself clearly and truly, and he sees also what God’s mercy alone can do for him, the chief of all sinners.Unlike the Pharisee, he is not his own teacher, as Cardinal Newman writes, pacing round and round in the small circle of his own thoughts and judgments, careless to know what God says to him, fearless of being condemned by Him, standing approved in his own sight. (Ibid) Rather he has heard the words of the Lord, addressed to him about himself: Be still and know that I am God.(Psalm 46.10) He has seen himself in the light of God’s truth and mercy. He knows that he has need of God, and that God alone can save him from his spiritual wretchedness, misery, and poverty, giving to him that healing cure that will surely begin to work its effects. He knows himself. He sees the way. He seeks pardon for wrong done, and power to do better. And thus he beats his breast, and so drives out the presence of darkness within to make room for the power of God’s liberating light.
The Publican and his prayer, which the Pharisee can neither see nor understand, comprise the best human model for approach to God’s presence and nearness. The Publican does not postpone the inevitable encounter with God. Rather he sees himself, with all men, in the way that all men should see themselves in the presence of God. He knows that he and all men stand before God as those who need urgently salvation and deliverance. He is one with all men, whether a returning prodigal, a loyal and faithful John, a despair-ridden addict, or a conscientious Mother Theresa. He can identify with all men, because, as Cardinal Newman reminds us, created natures, high and low, are all on a level and one in the sight and comparison of the Creator, and so all of them have one speech, and one only, whether it be the thief on the cross, Magdalen at the feast, of St. Paul before martyrdom. One and all have nothing but what comes from Him, and are as nothing before Him, who is all in all. (Ibid) The Publican’sprayer is the true prayer of all men. From his heart we find the truth of our own. From his words we find that spiritual expression that must emerge from every man’s heart when he comes to God for redemption and salvation.
Let us this day, my brothers and sisters, repeat the words of the Publican and through self-examination, prayer, and confession apprehend our utter need of the Almighty’s mercy. Not needing the Almighty’s mercy and God’s redemption is a sure sign of spiritual insecurity and immaturity. Men who are proud like the Pharisee are really inwardly weak and mostly fearful. They are too fragile and cowardly to claim and confess who they truly are. They fear that their confession and honesty will bring on other men’s censure, derision, and rejection. The strong man is the honest man. The honest man is the courageous man. The courageous man is the man whom God seeks because he is after God’s own heart. (1 Samuel xiii. 14) This man is humble and yet in his humility he can be asked to lift up his head and see the Giver whose gift it is to raise men up, wash, cleanse, heal, and save. This man is our Publican. He knows that the Almighty is like no other; He reproveth, and nurtureth, and teacheth and bringeth again, as a Shepherd his flock. He hath mercy on them that receive discipline, and that diligently seek after His judgments. (Ecclus. xviii. 13, 14) And unlike any other, He can and will save us if we open our mouths with one voice and one accord, joining all others, and especially the Publican, who have the honesty and self-knowledge to plead and to pray, God be merciful to me a sinner.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: