Sunday, Feb 5, 2017: Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee; Triodion Begins Today; Agatha the Martyr, Polyeuktos, Partriarch Of Constantinople, Antonios the New Martyr of Athens, Theodosios, Archbishop of Chernigov, Afterfeast of the Presentation of Our Lord and Savior in the Temple, Theodosios of Antioch
We misunderstand the relationship between the Church and the world if we assume that it is simply one of contention and conflict. Yes, the world frequently sets itself against the Gospel—this, in fact, is what the Scriptures mean by the phrase “the world.” More specifically, “the world” refers to the creation, under the guidance of human beings, in rebellion against God.
We shouldn’t make any mistake here.
Creation’s rebellion against the Creator is led not the air or water, by seed-bearing plants or animals, but by us. This is why St Paul’s says that “the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19, NKJV). Sin has not only corrupted the human heart but, working through our hearts, corrupted creation as well.
This corruption, this state of rebellion, isn’t the whole story, however.
Sin’s power over creation isn’t absolute because it’s reign over the human heart isn’t absolute. Sin corrupts but it doesn’t destroy; it obscures but it doesn’t obliterate the image of God in us.
No matter how powerful the grip of sin, divine grace, mercy, and love still attracts us. If this weren’t the case then, then Paul couldn’t say that “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Romans 4:3; see also Genesis 15:6).
And, as we will celebrate on Pascha, whatever hold sin and death had over the heart is now broken. Simply put, Christ’s Resurrection has destroyed the power of sin and death.
Because sin’s reign is not absolute, there are moments when the world makes common cause with the Church. The parable of the publican and the Pharisee is one of these moments. Or at least, part of the parable is.
The one sin that our culture seems willing to name and condemn is hypocrisy. That this sin would be the worst sin make sense in a culture that has largely dispensed with objective moral standards. What offends us so about the hypocrite, is that he pretends to hold to moral standards the rest of the culture rejects.
In other words, the hypocrite pretends to be better than me.
I know he’s pretending because, if I’m following along with the culture’s thinking, morality is subjective. There is no right or wrong. The hypocrite is a liar; he pretends to hold to standards he, and I, know don’t really exist.
Basically, he’s lying to me.
Our cultural condemnation of hypocrisy is why at least part of this morning parable resonates with many. We recoil when the Pharisee and say: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.”
Hearing this, many see the Pharisee as stuck up. We condemn him because he thinks he’s better than everyone else. He is, in a word, “judgey.”
And all this is said without a hint of irony or self-knowledge.
So hated is this one sin that pointing it out in others exempts me from any self-reflection. In the face of hypocrisy, I’m exempt from self-examination. The sin must be condemned and its condemnation overrides any other considerations.
And yet, what actually happens in the Gospel? Jesus doesn’t condemn the Pharisee. If anyone does, it’s me. And that’s my sin.
What Jesus does instead is commend the publican for his humility.
For the fathers of the Church, the sin of pride—which is the sin that parable condemns—is only cured by humility. 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!’”
Yes, the sinful human heart is drawn by grace and the world’s rebellion is always only partial. But for all this, sin still holds us, holds me, in its grip. Reflecting on the parable, St Gregory the Great warns us that pride takes many forms. And whatever its form, humility is the only cure.
We need to be careful here that we don’t mistake the publican’s repentance for the virtue of humility. St Basil the Great says that when the “soul is lifted up towards virtue” we experience “cheerfulness” even in the midst of sorrow. Repentance is the door to humility.
St Basil says humility allows us to remain faithful to Christ and our vocation even when we are troubled by events or the opposition of others. Humility fosters in us a “loftiness of mind” that differs from “the elevation” which comes from pride. The latter, he says, is like “the swelling flesh which proceeds from dropsy.” But humility of soul is like the “well-regulated” and healthy body of an athlete.
Pride casts us down “even from heaven,” St John Chrysostom says, but “humility can raise a man up from the lowest depth of guilt.” This is precisely what we see in the parable. Jesus shows us the opening moments of the publican’s transformation, of his journey from guilty sorrow to cheerful fidelity to Christ. Having laid aside his sin, he is now on the path to spiritual health.
If I condemn the Pharisee, I remain enslaved to sin. If I am unrepentant, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are of no more value to me that they were to Pharisee. Instead, these works—good as they are in themselves—will stand in witness against me in the life to come because they were done without repentance, without humility.
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
We shouldn’t be quick to condemn anyone’s sin but our own. We must make our own the words of today’s Kontakion:
Let us flee the proud speaking of the Pharisee and learn the humility of the Publican, and with groaning let us cry unto the Savior: Be merciful to us, for Thou alone art ready to forgive.
To acquire humility, as we hear throughout at Matins through Great Lent, we must pass through the “door to repentance.” It is when we pass through this door that we learn to walk in cheerfulness, live in fidelity to our vocation, and to love one and other.