The Savior said, “He who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” These words speak directly to each of us, for we all follow in the path of our first parents in refusing to live in a manner worthy of people created in God’s image and likeness due to our pride. Our great dignity means that we will become more fully ourselves only as we become more like God in holiness. True humility requires recognizing how far we are from fulfilling such an infinite goal. It is only through humility that we will be able to participate in the joy of the true exaltation of our Lord’s glorious resurrection.
It is certainly possible to use religion, or anything else, to distract us from humbling ourselves before God. Like the Pharisee in today’s parable, we can make prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other virtuous actions ways of blinding ourselves to the truth. How appealing it is to magnify our own accomplishments in contrast to what we see as the failings of others. When we engage in that kind of self-congratulation, it becomes impossible truly to offer our lives to the Lord. Instead, all that we say and do becomes simply an act of self-worship, a form of idolatry. The Pharisee in the parable may have used the word “God,” but he was really praying only to Himself.
Anyone who has ever tried to pray in a focused way will understand why he did that. We usually find it extremely difficult to be fully present before the Lord, whether during services or in our private prayers. Profound humility is required to open our hearts to the One Who is infinitely “Holy, Holy, Holy.” When even a glimmer of the brilliant light of the Divine Glory begins to shine through the eyes of our souls, the darkness within us becomes quite apparent. The temptation is strong to shift our attention to whatever we think will hide us from that kind of spiritual nakedness. To focus on how good we think we are, especially in comparison with others, is an appealing way of changing the subject as we become ever more blind to the true state of our souls.
The Publican was an easy target of criticism for the Pharisee. Tax collectors were Jews who collected money from their own people to fund the Roman army of occupation. They collected more than was required and lived off the difference. Consequently, the Pharisee believed that he was justified in looking down on someone who was both a traitor and a thief. Ironically, this tax collector would not have disagreed. He knew he was a wretched sinner, and his only apparent virtue was his humble acknowledgement of this true spiritual state. Standing off by himself in the temple, this fellow would “not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.’”
Despite his miserable way of life, the tax collector somehow mustered the spiritual strength to expose his soul to the blinding light of God in prayer from the depths of his heart. He knew that this was not a time for excuses or changing the subject. No, it was time simply to accept the truth. Christ said that the Publican, not the Pharisee, went home justified that day. The difference was not who had done more good deeds or obeyed more laws; it was, instead, who had the humility that is absolutely essential for opening our souls to the healing mercy of Christ. Without such humility, pride will destroy the virtue of everything that we do. With it, there is hope for us all.
In just a few weeks, we will begin the spiritual journey of Great Lent, the most intense period of repentance in the life of the Church as we prepare to follow our Lord to His Cross and empty tomb. There could be no greater sign of the folly of exalting ourselves and condemning others than the Passion of Christ. He brings salvation to the world in a way completely contrary to prideful self-congratulation that hides from the truth. What could be more humble than for the eternal Son of God to empty Himself, take on the form of a servant, and become obedient to the point of death for our salvation? (Phil. 2:7-8) St. Paul wrote, “Therefore God also has highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-11)
It is only by knowing the depths of our brokenness that we will be able to embrace personally the heights of the Lord’s humble, suffering love, which is well beyond our full rational comprehension. That is why we need to devote ourselves to prayer, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, and other forms of repentance in the weeks ahead. If we do not, we will likely fail to gain the spiritual clarity of the tax collector, who was aware only of his sin and need for God’s mercy. We will never enter into the deep mystery of our salvation if we do not open the eyes of our darkened souls to the light of Christ so that we may see our true state before Him.
The Church calls us to pray daily and with special intensity during Lent. Instead of congratulating ourselves for whatever apparent success may have in doing so, it is better to remember that our struggles in opening our souls to God reflect our weakness and need for strength that we cannot give ourselves. They provide an opportunity to pray the Jesus Prayer or otherwise simply to turn our attention back to the Lord the best we can with a sense of our need for His mercy. In contrast, the worst thing we could do when struggling in prayer would be to become like the Pharisee who reminded God of his good deeds and condemned the tax collector. It would be better not to pray at all than to do so in such an idolatrous way.
Our struggle to pray provides great opportunities for growth in humility, as do our difficulties in fasting, forgiving, showing generosity, and otherwise reorienting our lives to God. Given our spiritual brokenness, we will usually find it much easier to eat whatever we want, hold grudges, be selfish, and otherwise serve only ourselves than to resist our self-centered desires as we open our lives to Christ in humility for healing. To do so, however, is simply a path to greater blindness and weakness. It is a way of degrading ourselves, of refusing to live according to the truth of who we are called to become in God’s image and likeness.
Likewise, it is possible to perform all spiritual disciplines in a corrupt way that serves only our pride, especially when we use them to condemn others. As we begin our preparation for Great Lent this year, we should all be on guard against the temptation of self-exaltation in any form. For if anything we do could earn God’s favor and make us so much better than others that we would be justified in condemning them, there would be no Lent because there would have been no need for our Lord to conquer death through His cross and resurrection. The weeks of preparation for Holy Week and Pascha are necessary because we cannot save ourselves by religious or moral practices. Our only hope is to participate in Christ’s exaltation by uniting ourselves to Him in humble faith. The coming season will provide us with many opportunities to do precisely that. If by the end of Lent, we see ourselves as clearly before God as did the tax collector and ask only for mercy from the depths of our souls, we will be well prepared to follow our Lord to Jerusalem, where He showed, once and for all, how humility leads to exaltation.