Tag Archives: Luke 18:10-14

Homily: From Guilty Sorrow to Cheerful Fidelity

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

Epistle: 2 Timothy 3:10-15
Gospel: Luke 18:10-14

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.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Be Merciful!

Sunday, February 21, 2016: Sunday of the Pharisee and Publican; Venerable Timothy of Symbola; Eustathios, archbishop of Antioch; Zachariah, patriarch of Jerusalem; George, bishop of Amastris

St George Antiochian Orthodox Church, Grand Rapids, MI

Epistle: 2 Timothy 3:10-15
Gospel: Luke 18:10-14

The Apostle Paul sets an intimidating standard for me as a priest. He tells Timothy, to quote what Paul says not once but twice in another place, “imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:16 and 11:1). This is an intimidating standard because the Apostle is saying that it’s not only does his “teaching” proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No, the whole of Paul’s life is nothing more or less than a testament to “Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). His behavior and his goals, his patience and love, his steadfastness in persecution and suffering are all part of his witness to Christ and the sign of Paul’s apostleship.

After saying this about himself, Paul turns to the young bishop Timothy and says do as I have done; “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Timothy, like Paul, is called to make of his life “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God.” This is Timothy’s “reasonable service”: that he refuse to “be conformed to this world” and instead “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” so that not only in the life to come but also in the ebb and flow of this life he testify to the “good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:1-2, NKJV).

A lofty standard for the priest to be sure but not simply for the priest. It is also the standard for all Christian. Like Paul, like Timothy, by virtue of our baptism God has called each of us to be His disciples and so also set each of us aside to be His witness, His apostles, for a world that desires a love they don’t know and without us can only glimpse. We are like Paul and Timothy called to be disciples of Christ and apostles, that is witnesses, to God’s love for the world poured out in Christ and Him crucified.

Turning to this morning’s Gospel, it is an unbearable tragedy that all too often the Gospel is used not to liberate people from the powers of sin and death but to shame and degrade them. Yes, when this happens it is an abuse of the Gospel and a betrayal of Christ and a sin against that love that God has shown us. And yet, it happens again and again.

All too easily I fall into the role of the Pharisee in today’s Gospel. Too often by my attitude and actions I say “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.” Self-satisfaction fills the space in my life that God would have filled by those three things that last, faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13, NKJV).

Tragic as all this is, if I stop here in my self-evaluation I fail not only my neighbor but also myself. You see the Pharisee condemns the tax collector because his own repentance is incomplete. Reading the text quickly we might think that the Pharisee knows his virtue but not his sinfulness. This is true, but only to a point. Origen says “the Pharisee … boasted with a certain wicked self-conceit” (Against Celsus, III:64). As important as it is for me to know my sinfulness, it is more important still to know “the greatness of God” and, like the publican, to continually ask Him for His mercy. As an observant Jew, the Pharisee knew his obligations under the Law. This is why he fasts twice a week and pays tithes. And it is likewise why he thanks God that he isn’t “like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”

We mustn’t think that the Pharisee’s gratitude and piety aren’t real, they are, it is rather a matter that they are deficient because he lacks mercy.

Mercy is often misunderstood. It isn’t a matter of saying that sin doesn’t matter or isn’t important. Mercy isn’t getting a free pass on my sinfulness; it isn’t as if God says that my moral failures don’t matter. No, God by His great mercy (to return to Origen) makes up for “our deficiencies” and supplies “what is wanting” in us (Against Celsus, III:64). To ask for divine mercy, is to confess my weakness, my deficiency, before God.

And having experienced God’s mercy for me, I want to offer that mercy to others.

While the Pharisee is, no doubt sincerely, grateful for what he has received from God, he fails to see the true depth and expanse of his own need. His self-conceit is that he believes that the process of repentance is over for him. He sees in himself no need, and in the tax collector no possibility, to go “from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). The Pharisee is far from St Gregory of Nyssa‘s observation that to become like the God Who is perfect and Who never changes, we must change “and change frequently.”

For all that he is grateful, the Pharisee is nevertheless in the grip of despair. His life, his view of himself and of his neighbor, is wholly static and so inescapably self-satisfied. There is in the Pharisee no awareness of his own deficiencies, his own need for the mercy of God “which always heals what is infirm and completes what is lacking” (Ordination of a Presbyter). And not seeing this in himself he can’t see this in others. So though he is grateful, his gratitude is insufficient because it lacks hope and charity. In his own way, the Pharisee is the embodiment of what the Apostle James warns against: “faith without works is dead” (see, James 2:14-26).

Turning from the Pharisee and the Apostle Timothy, what do the readings say to me about my own spiritual life on this, the first Sunday of the Triodion, the beginning of our preparation for the Great Fast?

Of all the things that could be said, I think the most important is this. God has called me, called each of us, to bear witness to the life, death and resurrection of His Son and our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. This witness isn’t just a matter of having the correct faith but being always aware of God’s mercy in our lives and the lives of those around us. This awareness is the wellspring of our charity for others.

Love requires that I must not succumb to either moral indifference or theological triumphalism. The latter assumes that, having received the Gospel in its fullness, the demands of charity are fulfilled by offering a summary of the Creed or a lecture in Church history. Cruel as this is, the former is worse since it fails to see deficits, and so the suffering they cause, as real.

To be a witness of God’s love and mercy I must be prayerfully open and obedient to the deficiency that God would complete in the moment. What I mean is that to give food to the thirsty, to give a drink to the hungry, isn’t mercy and so isn’t charity. At best it is well-meaning but incompetent; at worse it is the same self-conceit that blinded the Pharisee to his own need for repentance and that killed his love for the Publican before it born.

One person needs from me the kerygma, another a glass of water. This person needs a kind word, this one a stern word. But to respond in mercy to all of them, I need the repentant hope of the Publican but also to the faith of the Pharisee (see, Matthew 5:20). It is only in this way that I can bear an effective witness to the love of God poured out for all mankind in Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen from the dead.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory