Humility that is Heard In Heaven: The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee

2 Timothy 3:10-15; Luke 18:10-14, 4 Kingdoms 19:9-20; Phil. 2: 5-11.

This week, especially on February 2nd, we concentrated upon that poignant story of Jesus’ presentation at the Temple, when he is brought by St. Joseph and his Holy Mother at 40 days after his Nativity to be received by the elder Simeon. Here we see the infant Lord and his Mother in a display of deep humility: for they came, according to the Law, to submit to the Law’s rite of purification, even though his mother Mary had borne him, as we celebrate, “without defilement.” Some contemporary women have been offended by what they have inferred from this song—that the usual course of womankind IS to be defiled by childbirth. Alternatively, the Western church, in following Augustine’s teaching on original guilt, has suggested that the corruption of the fall is passed on in the act of sexual intimacy and conception, even by Christian parents. If that is believed, then the song is taken by some to suggest that this corruption was not passed on to Jesus—without corruption, conception and birth took place.

Neither interpretation of the song, though, quite hits the mark. First, the Eastern Church has never had this mechanical understanding of sin being passed on by procreation. Certainly, we are all bound up together “in Adam,” and so the original fall has weakened every member of the human race, rendering us vulnerable to sin, and certainly in the process of dying from the moment we are born. Mary, we know, did fall asleep in the Lord—but was saved from corruption when she was glorified! As for the idea of childbirth being defiling, this surely may be the case for many women, as they experience fear, pain, and an event that is, even still in the twenty-first century, dangerous—if not to the body, then certainly to the imagination and soul. The ancients were wise in heeding God’s law, that after such a dramatic moment, purification was in order, indeed, beneficial. So, too, we imitate this OT rite in our Churching ceremony.

But with holy Mary it was otherwise. So close was she to the Lord whom she bore, to the God to whom she had said “Yes,” that no mark had been made upon her for ill, either in her confinement or in her exceptional birth-giving. And so, she had no personal reason, it seems, for the purification offered, at least so far as her spiritual needs were concerned. As for Jesus, He is righteousness itself, and so absolutely has no need for cleansing. But, as with the baptism, this infant God, along with his mother, stand in solidarity with God’s own people, and fulfill righteousness by obedience to the Law. Outwardly, it is the common presentation of a poor Jewish couple, who could not afford a lamb, but only two birds, as allowed for the poor (Leviticus 12: 8).

But the righteous Simeon knows that something remarkable is here, as does Anna the prophetess. The elder receives this tiny gift from the arms of the Theotokos, knowing that all the hopes of the ages have been fulfilled, and looks forward to that remarkable time when Jesus will enact the “falling and rising of Israel.” Nor will his mother escape, for she must experience the sword that will pierce her own heart. Here is utter humility: the incarnate God lying in a woman’s arms, who offers a sacrifice for purification that is not even necessary, and who hears that fall is to come before exaltation. The whole Incarnation, indeed, is a condescension into our realm, so that God may raise us up. He becomes what we are, that He may make us what He is. With St. Simeon, we have seen Humility personified, in the arms of His mother!

This week we sang, as we remembered this event, “As a light of revelation for the nations hast Thou appeared, O Divine Sun of Righteousness; for Thou hast shined forth, O Lord, seated on a swift cloud, perfectly fulfilling the shadow of the ancient Law, bringing to light the beginning of new Grace; and when he had beheld thee, Simeon the Elder cried out to Thee: From corruption let me depart, for, O Lord, I have seen Thee now.”

The song is, of course, a riff on Simeon’s words as recorded in Scripture: “Now let your servant depart in peace.” As we recall his age and his long waiting for the Messiah, we usually construe this to mean that he asks to be allowed to leave this present life. But, of course, since this world is fallen, and he was going to God, that also meant that he would be set free from corruption— from the process of spiritual and physical dying. From corruption, we also long to depart! And so it is fitting that the first lesson that we should hear after the presentation this year, as we approach Lent, is that of the humble tax-collector:

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, extortioners, 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!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

(Luke 18:10-14)

The tax-collector, or “publican,” is set alongside other humble penitents in the Bible in one of our hymns. We also sing:

Almighty Lord, I have known the effectiveness of tears; for they snatched Hezekiah from the doors of death, and saved the sinning woman from her chronic iniquities. And as for the Publican they justified him more than the Pharisee. And so, I implore You to number me among them, and have mercy upon me!

What does the song mean by ranging the tax-collector alongside the good King Hezekiah?
Let’s go to that story to find out. The great King of the super-power Assyria is at the door of Jerusalem, threatening to destroy the land. When King Hezekiah, who has repented in sackcloth and ashes before God for his people’s sins, defies him, and says that the Lord will protect his people, the King of Assyria responds in scorn. In 4 Kingdoms, we read:

[The King of Assyria] sent messengers again to Hezekiah, saying,
“Thus shall you speak to Hezekiah king of Judah: ‘Do not let your God on whom you rely deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. Behold, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, destroying them utterly. And shall you be delivered?
Have the gods of the nations delivered them, the nations which my fathers destroyed, Gozan, Haran, Rezeph, and the people of Eden who were in Telassar? Where is the king of Hamath, the king of Arpad, the king of the city of Sepharvaim, the king of Hena, or the king of Ivvah?’” Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it; and Hezekiah went up to the house of the LORD, and spread it before the LORD. And Hezekiah prayed before the LORD, and said:
“O LORD the God of Israel, who art enthroned above the cherubim, thou art the God, thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; thou hast made heaven and earth. Incline thy ear, O LORD, and hear; open thy eyes, O LORD, and see; and hear the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. Of a truth, O LORD, the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands, and have cast their gods into the fire; for they were no gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone; therefore they were destroyed.
So now, O LORD our God, save us, I beseech thee, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou, O LORD, art God alone.” (2 Kings/4 Kingdoms 19:9-20 RSV)

King Hezekiah knows his place. And he knows the difference between himself and God. In his plea before the Almighty, he does not suggest that God owes him and the nation of Judah anything! He does not refer to his own faithfulness to the Temple and Torah, or to the wickedness of the Gentile kingdom. Instead, he simply spreads the letter out before God, and asks that God save them so that everyone will know who the true God is. It would be shameful if the kings of Assyria thought, and everyone else thought, that idols had given them the power to lay Israel and Judah waste. For God sits above the cherubim, and He alone is holy.

So, too, with the publican, the tax-collector, who can barely lift his eyes to heaven. As Hezekiah spread the letter before the Lord in the temple, so the tax-collector lays bare his own soul—and asks for mercy. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He models for us the Jesus prayer, the truest prayer that anyone can say. God, the Holy One, the only One who knows all, and can do all, quite remarkably, is put alongside of you and me in this prayer. There is God, the Ruler of All, and there is me, the sinner. What is it that permits the juxtaposition of this Holy One with me and with you? God’s very own mercy! For it is his nature to extend mercy to us. The Pharisee had forgotten that God alone is the one who has a claim to righteousness; he had forgotten that the Torah had been given to restrain evil, and not to give him a chance to boast. The Torah had never been intended to make people righteous, but to point the way, to show their weakness, to restrain evil. Incomplete in itself, the Torah had been given to point forward to the greatest gift of God—himself!

But, with many of the other Pharisees, this boasting man had missed the whole point, and was not allowing the Torah to point to God. Rather, he thought that it had provided him a way of proving that he was righteous. So, here, in the very presence of God, he ridiculously preens, considering himself good, and asking God to recognize his own self-judgment. How absurd! Here he is in the presence of the Light of lights, and he is asking God to reward him for his tiny, unremarkable and distorted reflection of that light. What should be a time of adoration and worship becomes a time of conceit.

God will not be mocked. Jesus, in telling the story, explains the principle of falling and rising, just as Simeon had foretold: the one who humbles himself will be exalted. And, of course, Christ our God does not speak this word to us simply from a high tower; He has followed that very path in taking on human flesh, submitting to circumcision and the rite of purification, submitting to baptism, submitting to mockery, suffering and death. He could have claimed equality with the Father but instead, says that ancient Christ-hymn, “he submitted himself unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-11). And only then is He given the Name above all names, the name of LORD and God. If this is true of Jesus, how much more of us?

But gaining humility is difficult, especially if we are not in a publically humiliated class like the tax collectors. They were hated, you see, even more than the IRS today, because they collaborated with the enemy, the Romans, and because they got their pay from taking more than what was due. This tax-collector, like Zacchaeus, had every reason to know his low position. But, if we are honest, we too can say that we are the “chief of sinners”: in comparison to Jesus—well, there is NO comparison, is there. Any human comparison is not even worth making, for we see our darkness, our feebleness, our sin, the minute that we come into the light. There is no need to play-act in humility, but simply to stop hiding who we are and what we have done from God, and therefore also from ourselves. St. Paul, in encouraging his young protégé, Timothy, includes the humble aspects of his life as he calls upon Timothy to imitate him. He says:

Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, my sufferings, what befell me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra, what persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceivers and deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim 3:10-15)

When we first read this, we might think that the apostle is boasting. Why not just tell Timothy to copy Jesus, without referring to himself? Well, in effect he does. He points not only to his own patience and faithfulness, but also to all the things that happened to him, to his weakness, during his career. And, he doesn’t congratulate himself upon those things that he suffered, but rejoices that the Lord rescued him. He is trying to fortify Timothy, explaining that there will be trials and enemies, but assuring him that he has all he needs to survive and indeed to thrive. He has the Scriptures, and he has faith that is in Christ Jesus—and this has come to him through those who are his older siblings in the faith, including his parents, and his spiritual “father,” Paul. The apostle Paul gives himself as an example of a follower of Christ who has been strongly tested, and encourages Timothy to trust in what he has learned and received. He is to continue,* “knowing from whom you learned it.” From WHOM? From those who knew Christ, and ultimately from Christ himself, who taught the apostles how to read the Old Testament so as to point to Jesus. The first lesson Jesus gave after his resurrection was on reading the Hebrew Bible, so that the disciples could discern that it spoke of Him in all of its parts. The same God who answered Hezekiah’s humble cry for help, and delivered Judah, is the God who eventually would come in person and provide the means for His renewed people—a people that would, astonishingly, include Jew and Gentile. The means for the renewal, the recreation, was also astonishing: Jesus’ humble life and death, by which we can be brought to new life, reconciled to God and to each other. We also know from whom we have received the Scriptures, and we can search them for the path to an ever fuller and deeper life.

The pilgrimage begins with a humble recognition of our needs and failings, and repentance. It begins with not trusting in our own strength, but casting ourselves on God’s mercy, and holding to the faithfulness of Jesus. It begins with echoing the tax-collector, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner,” while also directing our faith towards Jesus himself, as St. Paul directed Timothy. As we do this, we put ourselves in a position to receive the enlivening power of the Holy Spirit. As we do this, we give glory to God, for, like King Hezekiah, we long for those around to see the only true God, the Creator of this world, who wills that all should come to Him.

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