Sts. Anagyroi, Cosmas and Damien Church, Nairobi, Kenya
24 February 2013
9To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
13But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
14I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’
Today we begin the transition into Lent. It’s the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican, and in our Church we begin using the Lenten Triodion, a liturgical book that we start using in our prayers and hymns from now on Saturdays and Sundays, and then every day once Lent actually starts, all the way to when we celebrate Pascha in May. And if you were here for Orthros or were listening to the hymns we sang before the reading of the Scriptures, you will know that we’ve already begun to change the key of our prayers and hymns from the major key of celebration to the minor key of repentance. One of the hymns we chanted goes like this: ‘Open to me the doors of repentance, O Life-Giver, for my spirit rises early to pray toward your holy temple, bearing the temple of my body all defiled, but in your compassion, purify me by the loving-kindness of your mercy; lead me on the paths of salvation, O mother of God, for I have profaned my soul with shameful sins and have wasted my life in laziness, but by your intercessions deliver me from all impurity. When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am, I tremble at the fearful Day of Judgment, but trusting in your loving-kindness like David, I cry out to you: have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercy.’
And to help us in our own relationship with God, every year our liturgy turns our attention to this parable, the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. Now we need to keep a few things in mind when we hear this story. First of all, this is a parable, and a parable is a story that someone tells in order to make a particular point. That means a parable is not something that actually happened. The second thing is that this is a story that Jesus is telling. And Jesus is telling this story for a particular reason. There is a point that Jesus is trying to make. Thirdly, a parable usually has a surprise ending, or an ending that the people who first heard it didn’t expect.
Jesus is drawing a contrast here, a contrast between someone who is really good and religious by everyone’s standards, and someone who is worse than bad in everyone’s eyes, a corrupt traitor who abuses his authority as a tax collector to steal money from his own people. And in this story, Jesus wants us to know that the Pharisee really is an exemplary kind of guy. He’s not broken any of the commandments, he tithes, he fasts twice a week. And Jesus makes sure we understand that the publican, the tax collector, really isn’t a good guy. Instead he’s broken all the rules, he’s sold out to the Gentile Roman oppressors for the purpose of financial gain. And even he knows he isn’t a good person, he doesn’t dare stand up front to pray, he doesn’t dare thank God that he isn’t like all those other sinners. Instead, he stands in the back overcome, and having realized that he was in the presence of God, maybe for the first time in his life, he sees himself and his sin from God’s perspective. He’s overcome by the realization that he is a sinner and that he desperately needs to be saved from his sin, saved from its power, saved from its consequences. He has nothing he can point to like the Pharisee, and so all he can do is say ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’
The surprise of this story is that Jesus says this man, the sinner, the bad guy, not the good, religious Pharisee, left the temple justified before God. And then Jesus tells us that if we think our religion or our being better than other people is what counts when it comes to the things of God, then we are simply deluded. It’s like saying that that Mungiki member back there walked out justified in God’s eyes and this Reader missed the point and is simply a self-righteous hypocrite that God paid no attention to.
So what was the Pharisee’s problem? Simply put, the Pharisee might have been an expert in his religion, he might have compared favorably with other people around him, like the tax collector who was standing in the back. But at the heart of the matter, he had never really had an encounter with the living God. Everything he knew, everything he understood, he did so from his perspective. He was the measure of all things. He was the center of his universe. He had never found himself in the presence of the Lord, the holy, glorious God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and mercy. He never bothered to see himself from God’s perspective. He really thought that keeping the law and doing all the religious rules made him ok and took care of everything when it came to God and religion. But Jesus disagrees and says that this man’s heart, when he left the temple, was instead far away from God and from those things which really mattered.
But the Publican, he seems somehow to have had a genuine encounter with God. He realizes that he is a sinner, that he has missed the mark, that he is far from God. He has no good deeds to point to, no religious performance to lean on, all he can do is call out to God for mercy. And by calling out, he finds God and he finds God’s mercy.
But what about us Orthodox Christians? Who are we like? Who are you like? We do have a lot of rules, don’t we? And I and the Fathers and His Eminence would all affirm that the rules need to be kept. Yes, we Orthodox should fast, we should say our prayers three times a day, or seven, we should tithe and even more than tithe, giving what we can to help the needy, we should come to services and keep vigils, go to confession, we should read the Bible and do prostrations. All of these are essential to being an Orthodox Christian. But none of these are ‘good works’ that make us right with God. Instead, this is how we demonstrate our faith, these are the ways we respond and open ourselves to God’s grace and put ourselves in those places where we can meet God and encounter God and be transformed by God. But as all the Fathers and Saints teach, these things may be good, but they are not an end in themselves, rather they are a means to an end. And the end is that you and I have an ongoing encounter, an ongoing relationship with God the Holy Trinity, and that we are thereby increasingly transformed to become more and more like our Savior the Lord Jesus. If we neglect these means, then the Fathers teach and experience teaches that we will drift further and further away from God. And if we make these means themselves the end, then we have missed the point altogether and have in fact become idolaters because we are worshipping the rules and not the One to whom they point.
So what happens when one encounters God? When one sees God? When one knows God? Repentance happens. We see ourselves from God’s perspective, we see ourselves as we really are. We see the true poverty of our lives and we cry out for help! We see the true diseases of our hearts and we cry out for healing! We see the hurt and the pain we have caused others and we cry out for forgiveness! And we see what we must do, what we must change, what we must revisit, who we must talk to, and God gives us the desire to change, to turn, to make right the wrong we’ve done. That’s what repentance is.
So it’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it? From whose perspective do you see yourself and your life right now? Do you see your life from your own perspective? All of your relationships and dealings, your interactions and your religion? It’s all about what you do, and who you are, and how you compare with this person and that. You’re a good person, you go to church, you say your prayers, and you’ve done your duty. You will probably walk out of here this morning untouched and unchanged. Or do you see yourself from God’s perspective? God, who is able to see into our hearts, who perceives our motives and our thoughts from afar, God who made us and knows us better than we know ourselves. It is at this point that we realize there are things that are not right, that there are people that we have wronged or hurt, that selfishness has governed our interactions, and we begin to understand the depth of our need for a Savior.
We make the turn towards Lent today as we think about this parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. As a hymn of our Church says, ‘Let us flee from the boastfulness and the pridefulness of the Pharisee who just kept the rules externally, and let us learn from the Publican’s tears.’ And when we come into God’s presence, when we encounter the living loving God, we, too, will shed tears. The Fathers say, ‘Without tears, no one can be saved’, which is another way of saying, without God, encountering God, seeing oneself from God’s perspective, no one can be saved. As Fr. Thomas Hopko says, ‘What’s so interesting is that the more righteous, the more holy, the more full of grace, the more the fruit of the Spirit is in a person, the more they repent, the more they weep, and the more they pray the Publican’s prayer: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”’ And when we encounter God, when we see ourselves from God’s perspective, when we turn from our selfishness, when we repent, the good news of the Gospel is that right here we find forgiveness, and right here we get another chance. God meets us and we will walk out of here changed, transformed, different.