For some strange reason people are now too busy for the church. They are too busy to hear the word of God, the word upon which the whole of western civilization was founded. Is it any surprise that the very foundations of western society and morality are crumbling before our very eyes? Is it any wonder that people are often miserable? In truth, they are not only too busy for the church. They are too busy for their salvation, and salvation means a living relationship with the Holy Trinity. That is real life.
People in their greed and corruption of soul would run here or there for a few dollars, or a few moments or experiences, but they are completely unaware or unwilling to seek out the One who is more than every treasure, the One who is life itself. What good is the few dollars that we have when one day we will leave it all behind? God made us to have dominion over all of creation, and not that we should be the slaves of creation, which is the definition of idolatry and death.
I say all of this as an introduction to our pre-lenten period. This parable of the publican and the pharisee is like a warning bell. It tells us that it is time to begin waking up, my brothers and sisters. It is time to wash our faces and drink our coffee and perk up and stand at attention because the judge is right around the corner. It will not be long before He comes to meet us. You are the most blessed of all people because it is the Lord’s day, and you are here to listen to His words, so listen to them carefully. Lay aside every earthly care, and focus. Allow the words of the Lord to burn you, to scrape you, to cleanse and purify you, to refashion you into who God intends you to be.
Today’s parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee is a powerful introduction to the purpose of Great and Holy Lent. One of the men fasted twice a week, gave a tithe of all that he had, and prayed regularly at the appointed times. The other man did not pray much. He didn’t tithe, in fact, he regularly took money from others. Sometimes he probably took more than was necessary in order to line his own pockets. If I gave you only this information and I asked you to make a determination about which one was righteous before God, there is almost no doubt that you would tell me that it was the first one and not the second… and you would be completely wrong. Why? Because thereis one aspect of each man’s character that I have not mentioned and it is the most important aspect of all. Listen to the parable.
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘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.’ But 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!’ ”
So what was the characteristic that the tax collector had, which the Pharisee did not? Humility before God. Right here at the start of the preparation period we are reminded that neither fasting nor almsgiving nor prayer will help us, if they are self-centered and full of arrogance and judgment towards others. Woe to those who go around and point out the deficiencies in the practices of others.
The ascetical practices like fasting,mustbe undertaken, but they must be undertaken with the right spirit and attitude. We are not practicing these religious behaviors to fashion a weapon to use against others or in order to grow in pride and feel that we can now judge others as God does. We practice them precisely because we know our infirmities and are in need of the mercy of God and these exercises help to defeat our flesh and energize us towards Christ, when they are done with the right attitude and demeanor.
One of these men prayed as if he was something special. The other prayed as if he was nothing. Yet, the Lord accepted the prayers of the one who prayed as if he was nothing. He proves that truly God creates out of nothing. When we offer ourselves up to God as nothing, He, according to His good pleasure, makes us into something that pleases Him.
One of the men looked around and compared himself with others. The other man, would not so much as look up, but stared at the ground and prayed that God would be merciful to him. And the Lord Jesus who is rich in mercy towards us, has taught us that this is what He desires from us. This is the way that we should pray.
The noted Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol writes “Condemnation begins with pride, and pride is nothing other than the absence of love. A proud man does not love his neighbor. And when we condemn our brothers, it means that we don’t love them. If we loved our brother, we wouldn’t condemn him. Even if we clearly saw some flaw in our neighbor, we would find a justification for it and cover it.”
“The saints never condemned, not because they watched themselves closely, but because they had great love.” “When we notice that we’re condemning our neighbor, we have to understand that we’re suffering from spiritual immaturity.” He then writes, “How can a man learn to produce good thoughts (about others)? Above all, he must sit and think: “Lord, how many sins I have!”
Instead of praying like the Pharisee, we come andpray as people who are very poor and filthy and very sick. We think of ourselves asif we are coming to the King in this awful, dirty condition. We come in prayer, knowing our own sinfulness, and hoping in God’s ability to have mercy on us and cleanse us. Instead of coming to the Lord imagining the best in ourselves, we come to Him with the belief that we are the worst of all men. He will then transform us into much better than we could ever imagine.
St. Nikolai Velimirovich once said “Do the healthy go to hospital, to boast of their health to the doctor? But this Pharisee did not come to the Temple with a whole and healthy soul, to boast of his health, but as a man seriously ill with unrighteousness who, in the delirium of his sickness, no longer knows he is ill.” He continues with a story, “Once, when I was visiting a mental hospital, the doctor took me in front of a wire screen across the cell of the most seriously ill of his patients. “How do you feel?”, I asked him. He immediately replied: “How do you think I feel, among all these madmen?”
I pray that the Lord will allow us to see the extent of our own sicknesses, and to genuinely, humbly, seek out the one Lord, who alone can redeem and heal us completely. Glory be to God, AMEN.
Used with permission.