2 Timothy 3:10-15; Luke 18:10-14
One of the greatest challenges that we all face is to learn to see ourselves, our neighbors, and our world truthfully and clearly. Typically, we do not. Our first parents were cast out of Paradise due to their prideful choice to satisfy their own desires instead of fulfilling their calling to become like God in holiness. We have all followed them in seeing the good things of God’s creation with distorted spiritual vision. When God rejected their son Cain’s offering and accepted Abel’s, Cain murdered Abel out of resentment. Cain turned his attention away from discerning the state of his own soul and perceived his innocent brother as only a threat to his wellbeing. He killed him in a futile effort to distract himself from confronting and correcting his own failings. If we are honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that we do something very much like that whenever we judge, condemn, hate, or ridicule others in our own thoughts, words, and deeds.
Today the Church reminds us of the great dangers of approaching the spiritual disciplines of Lent with such a corrupt attitude. It is entirely possible to distort prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other spiritual disciplines according to our passion-driven spiritual blindness such that these tools of salvation become nothing but instruments for murdering others in our hearts. Contrary to what we would like to believe, embracing these practices with integrity is not a way to impress God, ourselves, or our neighbors. Doing so in no way justifies us in having any negative opinion whatsoever about anyone else. As we prepare during the three weeks of the Lenten Triodion for the year’s most intense period of spiritual discipline, we must recognize that even our most feeble attempts at pursuing them will reveal the weakness of our souls. At the very least, they will bring to the surface how disinclined we are to be fully present to God, how addicted we are to satisfying our various appetites, and how much more we care for our resources and possessions than for the wellbeing of our neighbors. We will then face the choice of how to respond to these brutal revelations. If we want to pursue Lent for the healing of our souls, we must refuse to fall prey to the common temptation to distract ourselves from facing such uncomfortable truths by following in the way of Cain, as did the Pharisee in today’s gospel reading.
The Pharisee was right to fast, tithe, pray, and live a morally upright life. The problem is that he did so in ways that served his passions and manifested his spiritual blindness. Instead of pursuing these disciplines in humility so that he would gain the spiritual clarity to see the truth about where he stood before God, he used them as justification to look down on the failings of a neighbor. In doing so, he revealed only his own distorted spiritual vision. We can easily fall into the same trap this Lent, for it is terribly tempting to turn our attention away from the brokenness of our own souls by obsessing on how poorly we imagine others are doing. We simply cannot know the state of their souls, of course. As those who confess that we are each “the chief of sinners” before receiving Communion, we must cry out humbly for the Lord’s healing and not attempt to become the self-appointed judges of our neighbors. When we embrace such proud delusions, it becomes simply impossible for us to follow our Lord to His Passion in a true spiritual sense. Even as we think we are being holy, we are actually worshiping ourselves, committing idolatry, and denying Him. Like the Pharisee, we will use the word the word “God,” but in reality we will pray only to ourselves as we wander even further from the path to His Kingdom.
The more we seek to devote ourselves to prayer, the greater the temptation will be to distract ourselves from the struggle to become fully present to God, stripped naked of all our pretensions and usual efforts of self-justification. He surely sees through all of them. To do so is very hard, whether during services or in our private prayers. We need profound humility to become fully present to the One Who is “Holy, Holy, Holy” as we “lay aside all earthly cares” to focus on the one thing needful. 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 becomes obvious. The temptation is strong to shift our attention to whatever we think will hide us from that kind of spiritual vulnerability. To focus on how much worse someone else is provides a convenient way to change the subject as we turn away from serving God and toward serving only ourselves.
The Publican was certainly an easy target of criticism for the Pharisee, for 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. The Pharisee believed that he was justified in looking down on someone who was both a traitor and a thief, even as we think that we are justified in condemning those we love to hate. Ironically, this tax collector would not have denied the charge. He knew he was a wretched sinner, and his only apparent virtue was that he knew he had none. Standing off by himself in the temple, the man would “not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.’”
Despite his miserable way of life, the tax collector somehow mustered the spiritual strength to do something the Pharisee could not: He exposed his soul to the blinding light of God from the depths of his heart without trying to distract himself from the truth. Christ said that the Publican, not the Pharisee, went home justified that day. That was not because he had done more good deeds, obeyed more laws, or been more conventionally religious or moral, but because he had the humility to encounter God honestly as the sinner that he was. Such humility is absolutely essential for opening our souls to the healing mercy of Christ. Without it, pride will destroy the virtue of everything that we do and plunge us into even greater spiritual darkness and delusion. But with it, there is hope for us all.
In just a few weeks, we will begin the spiritual journey of Great Lent, 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 is no greater sign of the folly of exalting ourselves and condemning others in the name of religion than the Passion of Christ. Those who rejected Him and called for His crucifixion were highly religious people who had blinded themselves spiritually with their pride and lust for power. In contrast, there is no greater humility than that of the eternal Son of God emptying Himself, taking on the form of a servant, and becoming 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 devote ourselves to prayer, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, and other forms of repentance in the weeks ahead if we are to open the depths of our brokenness to the healing of our Lord’s humble, suffering love. That can be a terrifying thing to do, for it requires refusing to be distracted from seeing the truth about ourselves; nonetheless, it is the only way to become like the tax collector in spiritual clarity. Our struggle to pray provides great opportunities for growth in humility, as do our difficulties in fasting, forgiving, showing generosity, and otherwise reorienting our lives to God. We must use our failings as reminders to stay on guard against the temptation to exalt ourselves in our own minds. We must open ourselves in humility to Christ’s gracious healing so that we will return through Him to Paradise, seeing ourselves and our neighbors clearly in ways not distorted by our own passions.
Above all, we must not allow the ways of the first Adam to corrupt our participation in the life of the Second Adam, Who shares with us His fulfillment of our vocation to become like God in holiness. We must not treat or think of our neighbors according to our passions as Cain did Abel. When our pursuit of Lenten disciplines reveals our brokenness, we must not distract ourselves by pointing to the failings of others as did the Pharisee, but instead like the Publican we must call out persistently from the depths of our hearts: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” We must embrace the spiritual clarity of that plea not only with our rational minds, but also with our hearts, if we like him are to return home justified. As the Savior said, “He who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Now is the time to prepare for a spiritually beneficial Lent that will help us grow in the humility necessary to see ourselves and our neighbors clearly as we reorient our lives toward the great joy of Pascha.