Preparing to Prepare: The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee

Job; Luke 18:10-14; 2 Timothy 3:10-15

Our King comes in majestic glory.
Let us light our lamps and go forth to meet Him.
Let us find our joy in Him, for He has found joy in us.
He will indeed rejoice us with His marvelous light.
Let us glorify the majesty of the Son and give thanks to the almighty Father
Who, in an outpouring of love, sent Him to us, to fill us with hope and salvation.
When He manifests Himself, the saints awaiting Him in weariness and sorrow
will go forth to meet Him with lighted lamps.
The angels and guardians of heaven will rejoice
in the glory of the just and upright people of earth;
Together crowned with victory,
they will sing hymns and psalms.
Stand up then and be ready!
Give thanks to our King and Savior,
Who will come in great glory to gladden us
with His marvelous light in His kingdom.

This week I had a mild altercation on Facebook with someone whom I do not know personally. I had posted, in gratitude and joy, a video of Metropolitan Tikhon, joined by Orthodox of all jurisdictions, praying at the March for Life, and had pulled out some of the highlights of the liturgy —prayers for the babies, the moms, the aborting doctors, our hardened society. Amidst the many appreciative comments that I received from Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike, this gentleman posted a curt rebuke: Mat. 6:5-6 (“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

With that brief comment, something beautiful that the priests and people had done was characterized as something arrogant, showy and ugly. True to character, I could not simply leave the rebuke unanswered, and responded in this way:

The prayers were a natural part of the March. In today’s atmosphere, NO ONE is applauded by the general public for praying in most North American contexts today–there is no fear of hypocrisy in our situation. Jesus was speaking about the motive for praying, in the context of a religious society where value was measured by how religious you were. To take him literally would mean that Christians never gather together and pray, but always pray individually in the closet. BTW, Jesus himself prayed publically many times, and not simply alone with his Father. For example, in public, outdoors, before raising Lazarus, he prayed, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that you did send me.” (John 11:41-43). When Christians pray and sing together in the earshot of others, sometimes people get a glimpse of God and His love, for we are transported in our worship to heaven. And so we can pray earnestly, knowing that God hears us, but also hoping that others will see and hear HIM.

Though my FB friend launched an unwelcome challenge to me, when I was in a hopeful mood because of the Metropolitan’s courage, he did get me thinking about humility and showiness. And this, of course, is apt, because we now are coming to the beginning of the Triodion. Just now, as the beautiful prayer from St. Ephrem of Syria puts it (and we celebrate him this weekend!), we are to be “watchful” and “make ready” for the Lord. This time is a preparation for Lent, which itself is a preparation for Holy Week and Pascha. We prepare to prepare. This may seem like overkill, but indeed it is full of wisdom, for a training period is hard, and we have to get ourselves ready for it. The wisdom is that these three weeks prepare our mind, Lent prepares our body, and Holy Week prepares our spirit. The preparation of the mind, then, is an apt preparation for the larger preparation of Lent. It is psyching up for a spiritual battle. If this is a preparation for the mind, then, we have a lot of thinking to do. And the first exercise laid down for us is to consider the question of humility.

Our two readings for this Sunday lead us directly to this question. What IS the humble life? St. Paul lays this out for his disciple, Timothy, directing him to look at the apostolic life as a model:

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 in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:10-15)

Humility, then, means looking to others who are more experienced than we are in the Way, and especially to the sacred Scriptures, who highlight the Godly Man who suffers, as a matter of course, at the hands of the world. Interestingly, we can see from this passage that a “firm belief” is not arrogant—as some in our post-modern world might suggest—but truly humble. For it means to hold on to an authority that we trust, onto something or someone beyond ourselves!

As a hard case, we might turn to the book of Job. Here is Job, contra mundum, insisting that reality is reality. His dire circumstances, three friends, and then a fourth, and even his wife, tell him not to be so obstinate, but to give up his firm stand. Job may not be perfect, but he won’t twist reality to match what these people and things are telling him. Instead, he cries out, in the midst of pain, that phrase which Handel so beautifully co-opted for his oratorio, The Messiah: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the latter days He shall stand upon the earth, and in my flesh I shall see God!” It would have been so easy for Job to doubt what he knew to be true. Yet he did not, and for that God commended him, saying that the others “have not spoken what is right about God, as has my servant Job” (42:7). Job, you see, had followed the great recipe laid down for a sane mind and explained by C. S. Lewis. Regarding having a settled mind, which includes a reasonable attitude towards authority, he said this:

Don’t be scared by the word authority. Believing things on authority only means believing them because you’ve been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine per cent of the things you believe are believed on authority. I believe there is such a place as New York. I haven’t seen it myself. I couldn’t prove by abstract reasoning that there must be such a place. I believe it because reliable people have told me so. The ordinary man believes in the Solar System, atoms, evolution, and the circulation of the blood on authority -because the scientists say so. Every historical statement in the world is believed on authority. None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Armada. None of us could prove them by pure logic as you prove a thing in mathematics. We believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority. A man who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life.

And elsewhere he comments that a stable person will continue to believe what he or she has been told by wise authorities until some compelling evidence shows that this is mistaken. This is not naivety, but a reasonable and human approach to life and truth that everyone follows in practical matters, for not all of us have experienced everything in life. Job, we might say, had plenty of circumstantial evidence that God did not care for him: despite his personal circumstances and the nay-saying of those around him, he clung to what he knew to be true, realizing that none of these things outweighed what he had learned about the Mighty One. And he was vindicated.

In the same vein, St. Paul tells his prodigé Timothy, “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 in Christ Jesus.” Timothy had been given an excellent foundation to stand, even if many around him were falling, and being harmed for the faith. All that he had learned from Scriptures and godly parents and teachers were for the purpose of “salvation”—not a salvation that is a bare escape from hell, as some popular preaching might suggest, but a full and complete salvation, a bringing to HEALTH, as the word “salvation” really means. This, the complete health of the human being, created in the image and likeness of God, is God’s purpose for us in His Son. This is grave and astonishing business! And so we prepare to be prepared, guided by those who know Him better, in full humility and honesty about our own lack of knowledge.

Our gospel reading, Luke 18:10-14, is of course very well known, and gives us insight into our Lord’s teaching on humility.

“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 every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

I wonder if there is anything to say about this passage that we have not already heard, year by year, as we prepare for Lent. But of course, knowing is not the same as doing, and even knowing intellectually is not the same as knowing with the heart. Our faith does not give us any opportunity for spiritual arrogance, does it? For every week before communion, we Orthodox pray, with St. Paul, a prayer that mirrors that of the Publican, asking for mercy, for each one of us takes on the role of “the chief of sinners.” This may not make strict logical sense, because in grammar there is only ONE superlative. Several things can be good, several things can be better, but only one can be best. Similarly, several things can be bad, several things can be worse, but only ONE can be the worst. We know, however, of the possibility of ties for first-place, and of several students, for example, equally failing, if through different weaknesses. And in the spiritual realm, it seems it is even more complicated, for we are instructed to always reckon others better than ourselves—no doubt because it is all too easy to excuse our sins because we have become inured to them, and do not know all the circumstances of the lives of others. The only honest and receptive stance before the Holy One is “I am the chief of sinners.” We can be sure that the Lord will not then soften our humility by saying, “Oh, actually, you aren’t—look at Martha or Joseph over there!” But He will forgive, and transform.

In some ways, the Publican had it easy, actually. For everyone despises tax collectors, and his very well-being depended upon the custom of skimming off the top—they were expected by their employers to collect MORE than was due, and this was their wage. Of course, folks like Zacchaeus knew that they were collecting far more than a living wage, and publicans frequently became wealthy off the pain of others. Given the hatred of their countrymen, for tax collectors collaborated with the Romans, it is easy to see why such a man, wealthy or not, might be aware of his failures. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were by nature separatists, those who were scrupulous for the Torah, and who tried to put it into place in every area of their life. For them, religion was not reserved for the Temple, but was a central matter of their home life—what they ate, how they tithed, what they touched, how far they walked on Sabbath, and so on. They had, we could say, a “rule of life.” And if it is hard for the one who is wealthy to enter God’s presence honestly, how much harder it is for one who thinks he or she is spiritual to do so.

As confessing Christians of the ancient Church in North America, it would seem that we have both the weakness of the Publican and the Pharisee conspiring to tie us up in knots. We are in the wealthiest nation of the world, and in fact the Orthodox Church has the wealthiest Christians in North America, as well. We are so used to our standard of living we hardly notice it. On top of that, we hold as a tenet of our faith that this is the Church of the apostles, and that others who name Christ are not fully in that Church. These two things in themselves are simply facts of our existence. But they could surely conspire to create a weird cocktail of Pharisaic Publicanism in us if we do not take care. “Look at me, Lord. I am pro-life, I do not believe in same-sex marriage, I go to Vespers twice a week and keep the hours, fast on the appointed days, regularly go to Confession, and know how the fathers have interpreted the Scriptures. I am not like that secular progressivist ‘Christian,’ nor that crazy fundamentalist who thinks that he sees the signs of the Anti-Christ in the Middle East.” And we can say all this even as we sit at ease in our warm homes, like an unrepentant Publican.

My point is not to induce false guilt. It is just to point out that those of us who care deeply about Holy Tradition, and who have been blessed beyond measure in our life circumstances, have a double Achilles’ heel. “The Enemy is subtle,” as Bob Dylan put it, “sobeit we are deceived.”

This time that is upon us, then, is health-giving. We are not play-acting when we place ourselves in either the role of the Publican or the Pharisee. The case of the wealthy Job, stripped of all his support and wealth, clinging to the hope of God and the resurrection, shines for us as an emblem of the man with faith—and God requited his longing for glory and light, despite his flaws. Few of us are either as blessed as Job was, at the beginning or end of his story, nor as destitute as he was in the central drama. But Lent brings a time for us to sit more lightly to the props of this world, as we can bear that discipline. So, with the words of Paul to Timothy, about holding firm to what we have been taught, and the words of the Lord challenging us to humility, and forbidding our spiritual cockiness, we make a beginning.

In the words of St. Ephrem the Syrian,

Let us light our lamps and go forth to meet Him.
Let us find our joy in Him, for He has found joy in us.
He will indeed rejoice us with His marvelous light.
Let us glorify the majesty of the Son and give thanks to the almighty Father
Who, in an outpouring of love, sent Him to us, to fill us with hope and salvation.
When He manifests Himself, the saints awaiting Him in weariness and sorrow,
will go forth to meet Him with lighted lamps.
Amen.

4 comments:

  1. “Humility, then, means looking to others who are more experienced than we are in the Way, and especially to the sacred Scriptures, who highlight the Godly Man who suffers, as a matter of course, at the hands of the world. Interestingly, we can see from this passage that a “firm belief” is not arrogant—as some in our post-modern world might suggest—but truly humble. For it means to hold on to an authority that we trust, onto something or someone beyond ourselves! ”

    That’s it in a nutshell. Thank you for making it so clear. Doubt or unbelief stems from pride, not humility, and firm belief in what the Church teaches comes from “leaning not on your own understanding.” The world would have us think it is the other way around!

    1. I am glad that this insight was helpful. We can thank the fathers who set up the lectionary, and placed the apostle’s words to Timothy alongside the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, so that we can see the connection between humility and guarding the faith given to us. Thanks!

  2. Thanks a lot for your article concerning humility and prayer in the public sphere. I fully agree that there was nothing pretentious in the public prayer given by His Eminence. It is a sad reflection of the modern person when a gathering of Christians in the public square is met with criticism from another believer. May these timely words be light on the Lenten season

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