Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
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 [tax collector].’”
With Zacchaeus last Sunday, we stood at the door of Pre-Lent – the preparatory season for the Fast of Great and Holy Lent. Today, with this parable of the Pharisee and publican, we now step through that doorway into the narthex leading us to the nave of the Great Fast. We will spend the next several Sundays getting ready before we dive into the deep end of the Lenten pool.
All of us, hopefully, are familiar with the parable of the wheat and the tares told by our Lord in St. Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43). If you recall, Jesus gives us insight into “’the Kingdom of Heaven.’” He says, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a field that was sown with wheat. But, lo and behold, it was discovered that tares or weeds were also growing together with the wheat, planted by an enemy. The tares and wheat appeared similar, making it hard for the untrained eye to distinguish between the two, and making it nigh unto impossible to pluck the weeds out without destroying the wheat. So, the wise farmer counseled his laborers to permit both to grow together until the harvest.
“’The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto this,’” our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ says. On this side of eternity, the Kingdom of God is composed of both saints and sinners, of righteous and unrighteous, of those who believe and those who do not, of Pharisees and tax collectors, of those who are full of pride and arrogance and those who are humble and contrite of heart, of those who are judgmental of fellow parishioners and those who are merciful granting the benefit of the doubt. Of such is the Kingdom of God – the Church – on this side of eternity until that last great Day of Judgment when the holy angels are sent to sort out the weeds from the wheat, the good from the bad, and cast the goats into Ghenna, along with the devil and his angels (Mt. 13:47-50; 25:31-46).
In the meantime, we are granted a reprieve by God to re-examine our hearts, our souls, and our lives, and to repent – to return to Him, to turn from our self-condemnation to His righteousness and salvation, to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God Who will, in His own blessed time, exalt us and lift us up out of the quagmire of our own creation (Ps. 39 :1-2; 1 Pe. 5:6). There is yet time known only unto God for sinners to be transformed into saints, for weeds to become wheat, for Pharisees to become humble and repentant. It is only in the Kingdom of God – His Church which is the House of His Kingdom and the Body of His Son – that such redemption and transformation are possible before the great and terrible day of divine reckoning.
“’Two men went up into the Temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a publican.’” On any given Sunday or at any other time the Church prays, we will find these two men – these two types of worshippers – gathered for services. Some come to pray and worship because it’s the thing to do, to perhaps maintain a certain social appearance. Others come because they don’t know what else to do, where else to turn. All they know is that they are desperately in need of God’s mercy and grace. Some go to church because they’re turned on by the god of their own construction reinforced by the worship they crave which is more show business and pep rally than worship and adoration of the living and true God. They go to have their egos stroked and re-affirmed, to be assured “you’re ok, I’m ok” by the god who looks like them and who echoes their image while others go to cast themselves into the mighty hand of the true and living God because they somehow believe in the midst of their messy life that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Who sent His only-begotten Son into the world to die for it, truly does care about them and about the world perishing all around them (Jn. 3:16-17; 1 Pe. 5:6-7).
The Pharisee went up into the Temple to pray and worship as does the vile tax collector. But, each goes up for his own reasons; each seeking a different god/God. The first type of worship, embodied by the Pharisee, is man-centered, which is to say, it’s all about him. It’s worship and prayer according to his fancies, that expresses his tastes, that doesn’t provide him much space to pray and contemplate, perhaps in silence or stillness, or asks anything from him or of him. It’s all curved-in on self, just as the Pharisee’s prayer and worship show us. “’The Pharisee stood and prayed,’” Jesus says, “’thus with himself’” or to himself. In this worship, little is said about God but much about the soul who has come to pray. “’”God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are: extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I possess.”’” It is all about him, centered on him. He spends his time comparing himself to others. He is the measure of others. The prayer and worship of the Pharisee does not enable him, nor does it compel him, to consider the log in his own eye (if he can only admit he has one!) while being fixated on the speck in his neighbor’s eye, that is, the tax collector (Mt. 7:1-6). It does not lead him to mercy. It does not lead him to repentance. It does not lead him to “send up glory” to God. It does not inculcate in him humility, but rather promotes the self above others – even God! Indeed, the late Bishop-emeritus of Rome, Benedict XVI, remarks in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, that the Pharisee worships, not God as God truly is, but God as he thinks Him to be, as he wants Him to be, as he needs Him to be, in order to sustain the façade of self-perception! For that matter, Benedict notes, he doesn’t even need God! For him and for such man-centered worship and prayer, God is superfluous.
But, up goes the vile tax collector into the Temple to pray and to worship. Jesus says, he cannot so much as even lift up his eyes to Heaven or raise his head. Why? Because he has come into the Presence of the true and living God and he sees himself as he is. Such prayer and worship is not about him, as unworthy a sinner as he is, but it is all about God Who is holy, just, merciful, compassionate, longsuffering. God sees him – and all sinners – as he is, but God also knows what such sinners can become when they surrender pride and arrogance and cast themselves in repentance at His feet. God knows what He has created all men and women to be and become in His image and according to His likeness (Gn. 1:26-27; WS 2:23). The tax collector does not cast his eyes about looking at those around him, comparing himself with them, curiously wondering about them, speculating, but rather his eye can only see how far he has fallen short of the glory of God (Rm. 3:23). It moves him to honest self-examination. It moves him to confess honestly his sinfulness. It moves him to repentance and amendment of life, just like the old sinner, Zacchaeus (Lk. 19:1-10), and just like the murderer and adulterer, David, Israel’s beloved king whose only prayer for redemption after his dirty deeds was that imploring the eternal mercy of God:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy mercy; and according to the multitude of Thy compassions blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. Against Thee only have I sinned and done that which is evil in Thy sight, . . . .
It is David, the icon of repentance because of the God of mercy and compassion, who leads the vile publican and us sinners to hope in God, even at the burden of our sin that is rightfully ours. “Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, Thou God of my salvation, and my tongue shall rejoice in Thy righteousness. . . . The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken-spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise. . . . .” (Ps. 50 :1-19).
This is the plea that is prayed at every service by the priest and the deacon as they cense. The true and right worship of God brings us face-to-face with the true and living God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, just as the tax collector experienced. Authentic prayer and worship -worship in Spirit and in Truth (Jn. 4:24) – does this. It engenders and promotes humility, which is the key of salvation and the path to Heaven. If we do not become as little children, Jesus says, we cannot receive the Kingdom of God or enter in (Lk. 18:15-17). Those who exalt themselves God will put down; those who humble themselves God will lift up. “[A]ll of you be submissive to one another,” says St. Peter, “and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (Pr. 3:34; Is. 57:15; 1 Pe. 5:5).
St. Augustine once quipped, “The whole of Christian religion is humility.” Think about that carefully, beloved. Mull over the words of this great saint – who once was a philanderer and fornicator, among other things. Ponder them. Worship needs to call us beyond ourselves, call us – beckon us – to the age to come. It should not be a mirror simply reflecting back an image of ourselves and the god of our own devising. There is no place for self in authentic Orthodox Christian worship and prayer. “For unto Thee are due all glory, honor, and worship, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages” (Priestly exclamation). Again and again we hear the priest offering up these and similar praises to God, re-directing our vision, focusing our attention rightly and properly (as Orthodox worship is) on the Triune God. These stand in stark contrast to the Pharisee’s self-acclamation. Worship needs to humble us by bringing us to the throne of God’s grace, the mercy seat of God. This is how we become what God has created us to be. This is how we enter into worship. And this is how we can (and need) to depart, not only from this Temple, but at the end of our earthly days.
One final thought, actually a seed: this parable also can tell us a lot about how we approach confession, which we haven’t even begun to address! Do we come at it like the Pharisee so that we have nothing to confess because, compared to others, we’re not so bad? Or, do we come at it like the publican, having come face-to-face with the holy God of glory all we can do is cry out, “’God, be merciful to me [the] sinner!’”? Only one went home from worship that day justified in the sight of God.
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