Christ is in our midst! He is and ever shall be!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“’Two men went up into the Temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a Publican.’”
Two men, on the extreme ends of the socio-economic, political, and religious scales, went up into the Temple to pray and worship; to do, no doubt, what you and I have done countless times ourselves. We get up, we get ready, and we go to church. And there we have crossed paths over the years with folks just like ourselves and with others different from ourselves, maybe even, in some instances, radically different than ourselves. We have prayed with and among those who are as morally and ethically righteous as the newly fallen snow, and, if only we knew the truth, we have probably rubbed shoulders with those whose closets are crammed full of dark and secret sins we don’t even want to know about (unless, of course, we’re busybodies which is a sin in and of itself).
Perhaps arriving at church to pray and worship, we have spied someone out of place, that is, they’ve taken our pew or the seat we typically are associated with or the spot in which we generally hang out during services. And, not only have they displaced us, their actions have disoriented us, thrown us out of whack, disturbed our routine, so that now all we can do is secretly complain and lament in our souls. Our focus, our heart, our thoughts, are not on God nor on prayer and worship, but we’re distracted because of that person. And that person doesn’t even have to be a stranger!
Or, maybe after taking our normal place among the people of God, our eye catches someone who we can’t help but wonder why they are there because we “know” them. And no matter how we know that person, we find ourselves pondering many things about that person, perhaps finding ourselves comparing ourselves to them, maybe even sort of relishing the noted differences that set us apart from them. “Boy, am I glad that I don’t have her issues or that I’m not like that guy. My life is pretty good compared to them because I’ve got my act together. I’ve done well for myself because I’ve played life safe and smart, not at all like them. I don’t know, maybe if I were like them, I may not believe in God at all! Yeah, I’ve been lucky, no thanks to those around me. I’ve made something of myself by hard work and good investments. I work hard at being good. If others would only be more like me. . . . . Let’s see, what was I doing? Oh, yeah, better get back to praying.”
“’Two men went up into the Temple to pray, . . . .’” As we prepare to enter into the Fast of Great and Holy Lent just a few more weeks away for us (our brothers and sisters in the Western tradition have already begun), this parable presents some fodder for our spiritual chewing such as, What is the point of prayer and worship? What or who is our focus when we go up into the Temple to pray? Why do we go? What do we hope to gain? What does our prayer and worship look like? Does it orient me to God and beyond myself? Where is the emphasis of the prayer and worship I offer up? These are but a few of the questions generated in my thinking as I pondered this great and traditional parable of the Triodion.
If we listen closely to the words of our Lord, He says that the Pharisee – a distinctly pious and religious man – has, in fact, been good, lived a good life, even to the point of doing more than the Law had required of him. But, in all of his notable goodness worthy of emulation, his prayer and worship is all about himself: “’The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, . . . .’” The sense is that his prayer and worship, rising to God in Heaven, boomerangs back upon him so that, in effect, he prays to himself and his worship is all about him, “’God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are . . . .’” and on and on he goes. He goes up into the Temple to pray and worship himself, for all intents and purposes. His worship and prayer isn’t about God. It’s not about holy communion. It’s about making himself feel good about himself at the expense of his neighbor and at the expense of all those others who have gone up into the Temple to pray and to worship.
Ironically, the very thing the Pharisee lauds and praises, “’God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men,’” is the very thing God has become “for us men and for our salvation”: incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ the Son of God became Man (Nicene Creed)! “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, . . . .” (Jn. 1:14). “’”Behold, the Virgin shall be with Child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His Name Immanuel,”’ which is translated, ‘God with us”’” (Is. 7:14; Mt. 1:23). “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, [Jesus] Himself likewise shared in the same, . . . Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren,” declares the Apostle, “that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest . . . .” (Hb. 2:14-18). And, to cap it all off, St. Paul says without apology (because God doesn’t make apology), “For both He Who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason [Jesus] is not ashamed to call them brethren, . . . .” (Hb. 2:11-13). God Himself calls us His brethren! God has become like us in the flesh of Jesus Christ! The very ones disdained by the Pharisee are the very ones God the All-merciful, God the All-holy embraces! For the Gospel that our Lord proclaimed to the sinner, Zacchaeus, last week, He announces to us sinners today, “’[F]or the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost’” (Lk. 19:10). “’Those who are well have no need of a physician,’” Jesus says, “’but those who are sick. . . . For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance’” (Mt. 9:12-13; Lk. 5:31-32).
If you’re as good as the Pharisee and as stellar a soul as he makes himself out to be, then what need do you – or I – have for God Who alone is good and the eternal standard and measure for all goodness (Mt. 19:17; Mk. 10:18; Lk. 18:19)? Why, then, would the Pharisee or we go up into the Temple to pray and worship? Who would we worship and pray to? Doesn’t God become superfluous when you have your act all together? The Pharisee, according to what our Lord says, is the sole standard and measure for all worship and prayer! There is no one greater than himself to whom he can pray or worship! He prays, Jesus says, “’with himself.’”
But, the Publican . . . . . . the Publican is a different story. He is unlike the Pharisee in that he goes up into the Temple to pray to the God of Heaven and of earth, to worship the true and living God Who is the measure of all things, especially those who have been created in His image and according to His likeness. The Publican stands afar off because he knows himself to be far from God. He is honest in the assessment of his soul before the Judge of all the earth Who will do rightly by us (Gn. 18:25). He confesses the truth about himself because he dares to see himself in the light of God. He dares to see himself as God sees him. “’And the Publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes unto Heaven but smote upon his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”’” If St. Paul is correct when he writes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rm. 3:23), then what of the Pharisee who fails to see the sin dwelling in his soul, despite all the good he can name? He goes to church, doesn’t he, to praise his progress – “’I am not like other men’” – and to laud his largess – “’I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’” “I am not an extortioner. I am not an adulterer. I am not unjust. Just look at me! I am not like this publican.”
The Church, beloved, is a hospital for sinners and her treatments can only help those who freely confess their brokenness and fallenness before the face of God the Great Physician. The Church’s worship and prayer, sadly, however, is at times warped by us to conform to us. We turn the Church’s worship and prayer to be about us so that she becomes, not a hospital for our salvation, but an advertising agency to promote just how good and decent we are (Pope Benedict XVI)! We go one step further by turning away from the Mystery of Reconciliation and Repentance because we fail to see within ourselves what God knows to be there (and what we know, too, if we’re truthful): our spiritual brokenness and fragmentation, our sinfulness that comes in a multitude of forms, shapes, and sizes to varying degrees, but nonetheless there. Yet, we paint ourselves as “not like other men.” We tidy ourselves up so that by the time we get to church, confession isn’t necessary because we (notice the focus and emphasis is on us as both judge and jury) have nothing left to confess, hence we have nothing left to have forgiven by God. The devil uses our commonly shared uneasiness about “’fessing up” because we’re uncomfortable with someone else hearing we may not be as good as we would like to be seen by others. And, isn’t that what the Pharisee did?
“’Two men went up into the Temple to pray.’” The Church is the Mystery of salvation and healing for us who are afflicted by the powers of sin, death, and the devil. But, if we treat her and her worship as a pep rally for getting ourselves pumped about ourselves, then where does that leave God for Whom worship exists and to Whom we pray in Spirit and in Truth because of Who He is – the consuming fire (Ex. 24:17; Jn. 4:22-24; Hb. 12:29)?
“’Two men went up into the Temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a Publican.’” For all intents and purposes, based solely on appearances, the Pharisee would be the guy you want on the council and teaching catechesis, and he would be a candidate for the ministry. But, he is also the one, chided by St. Paul, as “having a form of godliness but denying its power,” of having form without substance, a pious pretender who lacks the courage to confess, “’God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” (2 Tm. 3:5; Ts. 1:16). We are assured by St. Nikolai of Zhicha, “God is glorified through sinners who repent!” For, “Before the Lord,” says St. Macarius of Optina, “it is better to be a sinner with repentance than a righteous person with pride.” When we stand before God in worship and prayer, we stand before His dread Judgment Seat. And, as our Lord has elsewhere warned us, “’one will be taken and the other left’” (Lk. 17:34-36). It is the publican who knows his sinfulness and who confesses it before God and knows himself to be unworthy who returns home justified in the sight of God the Lover of mankind. “’[F]or everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted’” by God Who gives grace upon grace to the humble, but resists the proud (Pr. 3:34; Jm. 4:6; 1 Pe. 5:5). In this case, beloved, the Publican is our icon.
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
2 Tm. 3:10-15