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 God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and of all things, visible and invisible. 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 spirit choice or always an expression of his free will. The spiritual path can be trodden only by them that open up to true prayer, where the desire for God generates the goodness that leads to His Kingdom.
And in this morning’s Gospel Parable, Our Lord teaches us of the kind of prayer that leads to death or 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, the Christian with common sense might expect to learn the right 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 his own 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 prayer since his life was compromised and his loyalties were divided. But what we find is quite the opposite. For, the Pharisee’s religion ends up being narcissistically empty and unfruitful, while the Publican’s opens onto the Horizon of what fills for salvation.
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). The Pharisee is self-consciously determined to be noticed by others. He is a needy narcissist. Jesus describes how 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 most definitely not a notorious liver. God forbid that he has anything in common with such people – all other men, for then God might mistake him for a sinner! He is, evidently, spiritually pure and 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 trying to convince himself that he is good, in a kind of soaring flight of the alone with the alone, his demeaning and belittling of all others condemns them 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 sacrificial suffering. 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. He has nothing but disdain for the Publican who dares to pollute the place of prayer with his presence.
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 that a 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 sinfulness prevent him from drawing near to the wall of prayer with any self-confidence. So, he stands at a distance, so painfully conscious of his own unworthiness and sin. His spiritual inventory has led him to discover his spiritual poverty. He finds that disturbing distance between the man he is and the man whom God intends him to become. He is poor in spirit and supplicates the mercy of the Almighty in fear and trembling. He is like Mephibosheth, the handicapped son of Jonathan, who responds to King David’s mercy with these words: 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 intolerable spiritual warfare that he knows only God can overcome. He says, without pride and boasting, but diligently and persistently, 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) So, he comes as close as he can 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.
Away from the Pharisee’s self-righteousness, the Publican stands close to 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 needs God, and that the Almighty alone can save him from spiritual poverty, giving to him that rich healing cure that will heal his soul. He knows himself. He sees the way. He seeks pardon for wrong done and power to do better. Thus, he beats his breast to drive out the darkness within to make room for the power of God’s liberating light.
The Publican and his prayer, which threaten the Pharisee’s spiritual impoverishment, comprise the best pattern for approaching God for forgiveness and redemption. The Publican does not delay his encounter with God until it is too late. Rather he provides us with a spiritual habit of life that we ought to embrace for salvation. With St. Paul he hears Jesus’ words: My Grace is sufficient for thee: my strength is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor. xii. 9) He is one with all men, whether a returning prodigal, a faithful disciple, a despair-ridden addict, or a conscientious worker in Christ’s Vineyard. 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’s prayer is the true prayer of all men. From his heart we find that because he has nothing, God can give him everything. He is truly poor in spirit. And, as Simon Tugwell reminds us, It is really only the poor in spirit who can, actually, have anything, because they are the ones who know how to receive gifts. For them, everything is a gift. (Tugwell: The Beatitudes)
Today, dear brethren, let us repeat the words of the Publican through self-examination and deepest confession. Let us remember that, with St. Paul, we are called as those born out of due time…and the least of the Apostles. (1 Cor. xv. 8,9) Let us claim and confess that we are not worthy to be counted as Apostles. Self-righteousness is really a sign of narcissistic insecurity and spiritual immaturity. Pharisees are inwardly weak and fearful of confessing who they truly are. They fear 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 gallant and heroic because in the midst of [his] ever so deplorable condition, the rule of the heavens has moved redemptively upon and through [him] by the grace of Christ. (Dallas Willard) This man is our Publican. He knows that the Almighty reproveth, 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, God in Jesus Christ can and will save us if we open our mouths with one voice and one accord, joining the Publican, who have the honesty and self-knowledge to plead and to pray, God be merciful to me a sinner. (Idem)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: