Friday, February 19, 2016

Who Do I Resemble?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The Gospel reading at the Divine Liturgy for February 21, 2016—the first of the four pre-Lenten Sundays—is Luke 18:10-14.  In it we discover our Lord’s parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.

As with all of the parables of Christ, we can understand this parable in two very different ways.  We can listen to it carefully, reflect upon it through the course of the week, and discern what in the parable “speaks” to us today.  Or we can take a “ho-hum” attitude—essentially forgetting the parable by the time we return home from the Liturgy—while moving on to the next distraction on our busy schedules (which now includes Sundays), and conclude that the parable does not really apply to us anyway.  Presented in such stark terms, I am not leaving you much of a choice!  But even with the best of intentions, we need to remain vigilant.  The mind strays ...

For those who actually “hear” the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, the first question that may arise is very basic: Do I resemble the Publican or the Pharisee in my attitude toward God and my neighbor?  Other questions follow: Am I also afflicted with self-righteous pride, as was the Pharisee of the parable; or is my goal at least the slow and patient road of learning and practicing humility?  Is the Church a society reserved for the pious; or is it a healing center for sinners? Then there is a blunt but honest question: Do I even care?  Somewhat unusual for the parables is that the intention of this parable is clearly stated before Christ actually delivers it: “He also told this parable to some who trusted themselves that they were righteous and despised others” [Luke 18:9].  Is this a fair description of me when I enter the church on any given Sunday?  If so, what could I possibly do to change such an attitude?

Even with the best of intentions, we could turn this great opportunity for “self-examination” into the ho-hum approach of selective forgetfulness or selective remembrance, wherein we forget the parable but remember the score of whatever game was on television later in the day or evening.  That would be a colossal example of a missed opportunity.  Perhaps one way to spare everyone from the ho-hum approach would be to provide the insights of others during the week – Church Fathers or contemporary writers – on this parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.  This way, at least the material that lends itself to meditation will be present, and then we can choose to avail ourselves of it – or not.  Can we focus our internet surfing to the search for precisely such edifying material that can further open us to us the depths of meaning contained in this parable and others?  There are countless Orthodox websites that are easily accessed and which post a great deal of just such material.  We have to take some time and do the necessary searching. 

A good beginning could be this passage from the Blessed Augustine:  “How useful and necessary a medicine is repentance.  People who remember that they are only human will readily understand this.  It is written:  ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble….’  The Pharisee was not rejoicing so much in his own clean bill of health as in comparing it with the diseases of others.  He came to the doctor.  It would have been more worthwhile to inform him by confession of the things that were wrong with himself instead of keeping his wounds secret and having the nerve to crow over the scars of others.  It is not surprising that the tax collector went away cured, since he had not been ashamed of showing where he felt pain.” 

From a time closer to our own, we read this from St. John of Kronstadt:  "When taking into account our own virtues, do we include self-love or other unseemly motives that were in fact the true reason for our good deeds.  The poison of sin has penetrated deeply into our souls, and, unbeknownst to us, its poisons almost all of our virtues.  Is it not better to scrutinize oneself more often and more closely, and to notice our faults in the depths of our soul in order to correct them, rather than to display externally our virtues?"

When we contrast pride and humility; self-righteousness and honest self-examination; false piety and heartfelt repentance - which of these describes us the best?