Wednesday, February 11, 2009

He who humbles himself...

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee and learn humility from the Publican's tears. Let us cry to our Savior: Have mercy on us, O only merciful One.
(Kontakion of the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee)

At Sunday's Divine Liturgy, we heard the first of four pre-lenten Gospel readings: The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (LK. 18:10-14). A parable is a story, and therefore is not based on an actual event, but who would deny that it reveals to us the truth about our relationship with God? That is why, in some of our prayers, we ask the Lord to grant us the spirit of the Publican and the Prodigal even though they were not individual historical characters. And yet these characters - the positive and the negative - are representative of all humanity. The parables are thus timeless sources of revealed Truth. They challenge us today, as they challenged our Lord's contemporaries.

This short parable describes "Two men" that "went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector (or publican)." (LK. 18:10). The Lord continues:

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God , I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get. (v. 11-12)

The primary sin of this man who would have been considered "righteous" among his fellow Jews, is that of self-righteousness. True righteousness is God-sourced; but the pharisee's righteousness was self-sourced. Perhaps it is significant that Christ specifically says that he prayed "with himself." His "prayer" to God was a concise formulation of self-praise. He trusted in himself more then he trusted in God. He did the "right things," but in the wrong spirit. The sinners that he encountered on a daily basis only served to affirm him in his own perceived righteousness. The comparisons and contrasts were always to his advantage. He "needed" the sinners that surrounded him! His pride was his downfall. If pride leads to the self apart from God, then pride is the bitter road to nowhere. "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled." (v. 14)

Of the publican, the Lord offers this short but moving description:

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!' (v. 13)

Aware of his sin, the publican manifests deep, heartfelt repentance. This humble recognition of his sin is, paradoxically, the publican's road back to fellowship with God based on forgiveness and restoration. Empty of pride, there is now "room" for God. Humility is the "mother of the virtues" according to the saints, and this is not the way of the world. Humility demands great trust on our part, for the humble suffer reproach in this world, and our fear of being taken advantage of works against nurturing a humble spirit. Humility is the beginning of God-centeredness as opposed to self-centeredness. "He who humbles himself will be exalted." (v. 14)

We all know the temptation toward self-righteousness and pride. The "rewards" are meaningless, for the exalted self ultimately experiences loneliness and emptiness. The proud person lives and dies alone. Yet, we still find it diffiicult to avoid such temptation. The "world' has driven the thirst for autonomy and its pride-based assumptions into our minds and hearts. To follow the Lord in His humility demands a total reorientation of our accumulated worldly "values" and worldly "wisdom." It means trusting in God, and not in oneself. Great Lent creates the environment wherein we can focus our attention on this never-ending battle for the heart's loyalties and final place of rest. The parable is a wonderful reminder of how we should approach this battle.

Fr. Steven

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