February 13, 2022
As we begin to approach Lent the Church has provided us with texts to lead the way into this holy season of renewal. This Gospel is the first.
Jesus is presenting a parable, a story whose details aren’t meant to be taken literally but whose larger point is meant to be taken to heart. The setting is familiar to His listeners, the Temple in Jerusalem, and the characters involved would be ones they see in everyday life.
The first is a Pharisee, a person whose distinct dress and exacting observance of the Jewish law would stand out in the everyday crowds. While Jesus often has harsh words to say about them, there was a certain admiration for them in the general populace even though most had neither the time nor the inclination to follow the Pharisee way. Despite being rather small in number they were politically powerful and many high positions both in government and religion were held by Pharisees.
The second is a publican, a person contracted by the Romans to ensure the required taxes were paid. They did this, essentially, by bidding for the rights to do the job with the Romans giving the task to those who were able to promise the highest return. Any income above and beyond the required amount they kept for themselves. To Jesus’ followers they represented an evil, two headed, monster as both collaborators with their oppressors and swindlers of their own people.
In the temple the Pharisee’s prayer is basically a rehashing of his own accomplishments, which, as a Pharisee, were probably accurate. His description of his life compared to the publican’s was also accurate. He wasn’t like him, he was ritually pure, observant of the law to the smallest detail and more, and he was apparently okay with reminding God about that in case somehow, He had overlooked it, even giving God something to compare his life to, namely the Publican with his eyes facing the floor and beating his breast.
By the way, the Publican was also correct about himself. He was a sinner and had more than enough evidence to prove it. Having nothing, really, to give God other than to throw himself on God’s mercy he, in his humility, beat his breast in a gesture of mourning with the hope that somehow, somewhere, God could find a way to overlook all that he had been and done.
Guess whose prayer was answered?
The Pharisee left the Temple and went back to his life, but the publican left forgiven.
The American evangelist, Billy Sunday, who ministered in the early part of the last century was once quoted as saying, “Hell is going to be so full of “Christians” their feet are going to be sticking out of the windows.” He was addressing those of his time who were so sure of their religiosity, so confident in their works, that they considered themselves “Shoo-ins” for heaven or at least a few spots in line ahead of their less than like them neighbors. Even Jesus Himself said there would be many at the Last Judgment who would share all the things they had done for our Lord and all their accomplishments only to hear Him say “Depart from me, I don’t know you.”
We must be careful, and the Church was wise to give us this passage as a warning on the road to Lent. We Orthodox can sometimes fall into the trap of spiritual pride. Having been blessed with such great riches of Faith there’s always a strong temptation to see them as our due, our possession, and something which makes us more than others, especially other Christians. This can be a particular challenge for those who’ve journeyed through other communities of faith to this place.
We sometimes forget that everything we have here is nothing about what we deserve or are entitled to but, in fact, a gift given to us by grace, as the Apostle says “Not of works lest anyone should boast…” If we ever think that what we have as Orthodox is somehow about us being special or entitled we put ourselves in grave risk of one day being outside the doors of the wedding feast, desperately knocking while those we never thought would make it walk past us with invitations in hand.
It would be good to also remember there will be those who come to us, to this Faith and to this parish, who like us in more ways than we can imagine, have been made weary and broken by the sin of this world. Here they must find a place of rest and not a court of justice. Here they must find not the “enlightened” condescending to those in darkness so much as those who had been thirsty showing another dry soul where to find the living water. We can and should keep the standards high and the goals lofty, yet essential to that is having mercy for those within and without our community who, like us, can be caught in the jaws of spiritual wolves.
We must also be careful, as well, about our own personal pride, our potential for arrogance, and our willingness to keep our eyes on everyone but ourselves, especially in this coming season of Lent. Outside of the very few who may be gifted with great spiritual insight you and I simply don’t know the heart of someone else and, quite frankly, as the late Fr. John Khoury of blessed memory would say, it’s none of our business.
Are they fasting in a way we approve of? Who cares? Keep our eyes on our own plate and God will honor the humility more than the specifics of the menu.
Is someone else praying or worshipping in a way we don’t think proper? Keep our face and heart directed to the floor in humility and our worship will be accepted, and our prayers heard in the temple.
Does someone have a fault we feel obligated to correct? Look in the mirror a hundred times for each flaw we presume to observe in someone else and we’ll find mercy in the day when all the deeds of everyone will be exposed to the light of the eternal Son.
And, by the way, our life will be happier because one of the easiest ways to become bitter, cynical, and unhealthy in soul and body is to try to correct everybody and everything in the world but ourselves. It’s why we have so many politicians with darkened hearts and pinched faces and Christians who can’t see the Light because their eyes are everywhere but on Christ.
It’s also the way the world we sometimes despair of will be made better as we choose to light our light instead of cursing someone else’s darkness, real or imagined, and, in doing so, start setting ourselves, and by our example others as well, on a better path.
Lent is coming and over the years I’ve come to love it precisely because I’m learning how much I need it and what good it can do for me and my sometimes-weathered soul. Let us all take the words of this parable to heart and find life.
And if I have sinned against anyone here, please forgive.