Be merciful to me, a sinner

The Publican and the Pharisee

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

It is fundamental to the theology of the Orthodox Church that without humility we cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. That is, if we do not become humble, then we cannot be saved. We cannot be healed of the wounds of our sins. We cannot be forgiven. We cannot love God. We cannot be transformed by His grace. We cannot walk through the pearly gates and live with Him forever in the life to come.

Humility is critical to our whole project as Christians. Without it, we’re fakes and failures. With it, we are becoming saints. So if you care about really being an Orthodox Christian and not just saying that you’re one, you should care about humility and should be attempting it.

But there’s a problem. Ever since Adam and Eve thought to themselves, “You know what? We like our way better than God’s way,” human beings have not been inclined toward humility. We instead prefer pride. Pride is a really easy concept, summed up in one word: Mine. Pride is the root of all of our sins. Whether our sins are lust, greed, envy, laziness, anger, or gluttony, they all have the same fundamental motion to them: I want something to come to me. I want that person or thing or position to be mine. I want my place and feelings to be secure. I want my opinion, my voice to be heard. I want to get ahead and be Number One. Pride is to put myself first and you second. God may not even come in third.

We do it all the time. We do it when we cut someone off in traffic. We do it when we cheat on our taxes. We do it when we choose entertainment over worship. We do it when we eat more than we need. We do it when we buy bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger TVs, bigger vacations. We do it when we feast our eyes upon the stuff the neighbor has, the wife the neighbor has. We do it when we feast our eyes upon pornography. We do it when we just can’t be bothered. We do it when we look after our own gains without any care for others’ losses. We do it when we get angry because we don’t get our way. We do it when it just feels right, even though it isn’t right. We do it when we gossip or complain. We do it when we spend our time and expertise on what is temporary and not what is eternal. We do it when we tell people that we lead a pretty good life.

All of these things are pride. All of these things are about tending to my wants, about getting my way, about securing things for me, about making me feel better, about making me look good.

So that’s the problem. But there’s another problem. Our whole culture is set up to make this worse, to make it easier to tend to our pride like a piece of prized horticulture. Think about slogans like “Your way, right away” or “Get what you deserve” or “Have it your way.” Or what about “Self” Magazine or the website “MySpace”? Nearly every piece of culture that gets thrown at us in the modern world is about pleasing yourself, about tending to your own feelings, your own wants, your own desires, your own needs. And every year, we find out that we need new things that we somehow had lived for years without, that our grandmothers had never even heard of.

Even our academic culture is based around this idea. College is so you can get what you want out of life. High school, middle school and elementary school are about setting you up to go do that, too. And they all feed in to the quite frankly delusional idea that in America, any kid can grow up to be whatever he wants to be. But let’s be serious: It’s not true. Most of the time, even people who try and try and try and try cannot be whatever they want to be. There are limits.

There are some jobs that only a few people have the talent for. There are some places that only a few people will go. And it doesn’t matter how big you dream your dreams or believe in yourself or whatever. The record shows that only a few people will do it. In the 222 years since George Washington was elected, only forty-four people have become president of the United States. In fifty years of space exploration, only 518 people have actually been into outer space. In forty-eight years, only 267 people have ever made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And I’m sure that there are many who tried and tried and tried at these things, but just didn’t make it. Anyone who does happen to make it to such a level only gets there because of the grace of God, and that means that His will is involved, not just our own. It’s not just a matter of setting your mind to it and working hard.

Human beings are limited. Limits are part of who we are, and we’re fooling ourselves if we think that we are limitless. But our pride keeps us stretching for a kind of cheap immortality. Whatever makes me feel alive, feel good, feel secure—perhaps that will in some sense make me immortal. That’s what we’re after in all of this delusion and sin. Why? It’s because we fear death.

In Hebrews 2:15, St. Paul tells us that it is the fear of death which makes us “subject to bondage.” We have become enslaved because of our fear of death, whether it is in our conscious minds or not. “This sounds strange,” you may be thinking. “I’m not afraid of death!” If we don’t fear death, why do we do so much to put off entering worship, the one thing we know absolutely characterizes the afterlife? If we don’t fear death, why do we do so much to feel good, to feel alive, to feel secure? If we don’t fear death, then why do we always have to put ourselves first?

Why does the Pharisee in today’s Gospel pray “with himself,” “God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men”? It is because he is reassuring himself that he is just fine, that he’s better than other people, that he follows all the rules, that he’s a good man, that he lives a good life. His quest for cheap immortality finds its fulfillment in pride. But it’s a dead-end! When your life is about yourself, then that’s all you get. And because you have limits, you can’t give yourself immortality. You’re going to die.

So what are we supposed to do? All of our coaching and advertising and teaching and even the military are saying, “Be all you can be!” They tell us that we have unlimited potential, if only we will work hard. But it’s clear that the Pharisee worked hard. He thought of himself as someone who was a good Jew, who was tight with God, who was better than other people. He even picked one out nearby: that rotten Publican.

The Publican, a man universally hated in his society, because he was a cheat who stole money while he collected taxes on behalf of the Romans, he shows us what the virtue we started out with is all about—humility. He stands at the back of the Temple, not out in the narthex so he doesn’t have to participate, but just inside. He cannot even lift his eyes up to God. He just stands back there and sobs, praying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He knows he’s a sinner. He is not deluded into thinking he has no limits. He is not deluded into thinking he is immortal and has endless potential, if only he will try hard enough. He just wants mercy, and mercy is not something you ask for if you think you’re doing just fine.

You know, we sing “Lord, have mercy” a whole lot. It is our most basic prayer. We say it and sing it and pray it again and again and again. But what does it mean? Do we really mean it? If you think you’re doing just fine, then you shouldn’t pray it, because you don’t want mercy. You probably want a pat on the back, some sort of recognition, maybe a fancy certificate on the wall.

Mercy is for people who know they’re broken. “Mercy!” is the cry of the convict who knows he’s guilty, that he’s been caught red-handed, that the system isn’t going to help him. “Mercy!” is the cry of the soldier who’s been shot and needs help, who knows he’s going to die and that he can’t do anything to save himself. “Mercy!” is the cry of the sinner, the man who is humble before God, the man who knows that the Lord said “without Me you can do nothing,” the man who doesn’t need any recognition, doesn’t need to have his opinion heard, doesn’t need to be first in line, doesn’t need to get ahead, doesn’t need to have more and more stuff. Mercy is for those who are open, those who are ready to receive.

It’s a curious thing about pride. It leaves us all bound up tight within ourselves. The proud man has no choice but to get defensive. The proud man has no choice but to try to get his way. The proud man has to fight for his rights, fight for his prestige, fight for what we wants. He doesn’t want to be saved, because he’s saving himself. But the humble man is free. The humble man is free to receive with gladness what God has to give. The humble man will walk with his arms open into the embrace of his Creator and Saviour. The humble man will tap into the only true Source of immortality. And there, he really is without limits. There, he can be something much more wonderful than what he wants to be: he can be what God wants him to be, what he was made to be.

As we are now beginning our journey toward and then into Great Lent, that beautiful, poignant and powerful school of repentance, let us remember to humble ourselves before each other and before God, to learn to say from the depths of our souls “Thy will be done” and “Lord, have mercy.”

To our merciful God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

One comment:

  1. “Mercy is for people who know they’re broken.”

    Beautiful, sir. I may ask to quote you on this.

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