2 Timothy 3:10-15; Luke 18:10-14
There is no doubt that we live today in a celebrity culture in which we idolize people whose images are available to us through the various forms of mass media. Whether through social media or simply in the imagination of our own minds, it is tempting today to see ourselves as people who should be celebrated and praised by others. Of course, the more we think along those lines, the more anxious and miserable we become. The more we engage in fantasies about how great or beautiful we are, the less we are able to know the truth about our souls.
The Savior said, “He who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” True humility requires accepting how far we are from fulfilling the true calling of our lives, which is to become like God in holiness as “partakers of the divine nature.” Unfortunately, there is a powerful and subtle temptation to use religion in a completely different way. Like the Pharisee in today’s parable, we can distort even the best spiritual practices such that they bring only darkness to our souls. The sobering truth is that our pride may so profoundly pervert prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other virtuous actions that they end up doing us more harm than good. Pride so easily turns piety into self-worship, which is a form of idolatry. The Pharisee in the parable thought he was addressing God, but in reality he was simply talking to himself.
I would be surprised if we do not all do the same thing more often than we would like to admit. It is certainly not easy to open our hearts fully to God during services or in our daily prayers. When even a glimmer of the brilliant light of the Divine Glory begins to shine through the eyes of our souls, the darkness within us will become quite apparent. We often let our minds wander to just about anything that will distract us from exposing our spiritual nakedness. It is much more appealing to congratulate ourselves on how much better we think we are than others than to encounter the truth.
The Pharisee could easily do that with the publican. Tax collectors were Jews who collected money from their own people to fund the Roman army of occupation. They collected more than was required and lived off the difference. Consequently, the Pharisee believed that he was justified in looking down on someone who was both a traitor and a thief. The tax collector would not have disagreed because he knew he was a wretched sinner. His only virtue was his humble acknowledgement of his true spiritual state. Standing off by himself in the temple, he would “not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.’”
Despite his corrupt way of life, the tax collector somehow possessed enough spiritual strength to open his dark soul to the blinding light of God from the depths of his heart. He did not make excuses or change the subject. He simply accepted the truth in humility. That is why the Lord said that the publican, not the Pharisee, went home justified that day. The difference was not who had done more good deeds, obeyed more laws, or was more conventionally religious; it was, instead, who had the humility to open his soul to the healing mercy of God. Without such humility, pride destroys the virtue of everything that we do. With it, there is hope for us all, no matter how low we have fallen.
We will begin the spiritual journey of Great Lent in a few weeks. It is the most intense period of repentance in the life of the Church as we prepare to follow our Lord to His Cross and empty tomb. There could be no greater sign of the folly of exalting ourselves and condemning others than the Passion of Christ. He brings salvation to the world in a way completely contrary to prideful self-congratulation that hides from the truth. What could be more humble than for the eternal Son of God to empty Himself, take on the form of a servant, and become obedient to the point of death for our salvation? (Phil. 2:7-8) St. Paul wrote, “Therefore God also has highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-11)
We must open the eyes of our darkened souls to the brilliant light of Christ in order to see ourselves clearly. We must know the depths of our brokenness if we want to gain the spiritual clarity necessary to embrace our Lord’s humble, suffering love. That is why we must pray, fast, give, forgive, and otherwise reorient our lives to Him during Lent. If we do not, we will miss the opportunity to become like the tax collector, who was aware only of his sin and need for God’s mercy.
The Church calls us to pray daily and with special intensity during Lent. Instead of congratulating ourselves for whatever success may have in doing so, we must recognize that our struggle to pray reflects our weakness and need for strength that we cannot give ourselves. When our minds wander, we should pray the Jesus Prayer or otherwise simply turn our attention back to the Lord in humility as best we can. The worst thing we could do when struggling in prayer would be to become like the Pharisee who reminded God of his good deeds and condemned the tax collector. It would be better not to pray at all than to do that.
The struggle to pray provides great opportunities for growth in humility, as do our difficulties in fasting, forgiving, showing generosity, and otherwise repenting of our sins. It is much easier and more appealing to eat whatever we want, hold grudges, be selfish, and serve only ourselves than to resist our self-centered desires as we grow in the life of Christ. To do so, however, is simply a path to greater blindness and weakness. It is a way of refusing to live according to the truth of who we are called to become in God’s image and likeness.
As the Pharisee did, it is possible to abuse even the best spiritual disciplines such that they serve only our pride, especially when we use them to condemn others. In preparing for Great Lent this year, we must remain on guard against the temptation of self-exaltation in any form. The weeks of preparation for Holy Week and Pascha are necessary because we cannot heal our souls or conquer death by religious or moral practices. We must humble ourselves before the Lord if we are to participate by grace in His exaltation through the Cross and empty tomb. The coming season will provide many opportunities to do precisely that, and we should take advantage of them all for our salvation. The disciplines of Lent are tools to help us see ourselves as clearly before God as did the tax collector. We must use them to learn to ask only for mercy from the depths of our souls without condemning anyone for any reason. Surely, there is no better way to prepare to enter into the joy of our Savior’s glorious resurrection on the third day.