On the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican

by Fr. Antony Hughes

Sermon Preached by Father Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 1, 2004

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Pharisee stood before God and prayed, as the Lord himself puts it, "to himself." "To himself." He came to give thanks that he had achieved perfection by fulfilling the law, but give thanks to whom? Giving thanks for the Pharisee was an exercise in marveling at his own magnificence. He did not need to ask anything of God. He did not need to approach with fear and trembling because he had no need of God. He had achieved righteousness on his own. A preacher once came to my grandmother’s house and knocked on her door. When she opened it he said, "I have not sinned in twenty years." The reply of my unflappable grandmother was, "You just did!" Obeying the law made the Pharisee a just man, but it did not make of him a godly man. It made him great in his own eyes, but pride had blinded him. Pride is the denial of and contempt for God.

The proud never stop at praising themselves. In order to exalt themselves they must degrade others. The Publican became the object of the Pharisee’s attack. How can you properly give thanks to God and then turn to attack another? See how the Lord exposes to us the heart of the proud, but also of the humble?

St. John Chrysostom thought that the Publican must have heard the Pharisee because, lacking in the modesty department, his demonstration of greatness was not only meant for God, but for anyone in earshot. But notice that the Publican does not mount a counter attack. He does not seek to defend himself. Perhaps the Pharisee’s words moved the Publican’s heart to make an even greater confession! Thus do the Scriptures and Fathers teach us to welcome humiliation. The humble do not feel sorry for themselves. Self-pity and defensiveness is a sign of pride.

The Publican was not a just man, like the Pharisee. He most probably was a great sinner. But he was humble. He knew his weakness; he knew his fault. Pride had not blinded him to himself. The humble have clear vision. Remember what the Lord said to the Pharisees, "The prostitutes and tax-collectors will enter the Kingdom ahead of you." This does not mean that we should not strive to be just. Of course we should. But more than that we should be strive to be humble.

Do we not often say things like, "I am not worthy" or "I am ashamed" to approach God? Many Orthodox have been taught over the ages that we should only go to Holy Communion when we are "worthy". Does this Gospel not argue against this? St. John Chrysostom said as much preaching on this same Gospel he compared those who teach such things to the devil because, "The devil wishes to close the approaches to God." Unworthy? Sure! But we must not be ashamed of our unworthiness. It is a shame born out of pride. A priest once was speaking to a man who was facing death. The man asked him, "What do I need to do to prepare?" The priest replied, "First of all, you need to know that God is prepared for you. All you need to do is embrace Him."

When we choose humility we become submerged, we become lost in God, we are transformed into Him. "Without humility," says Holy Scripture, "it is impossible to please God." To be with us is His pleasure. Without humility we will not offer Him that opportunity. The way of repentance has as its ultimate goal, the transformation of human life. All other goals are distractions. Everything else is imperfect and unnecessary.

What is the end of humility? It is to become nothing. It is to come to know absolutely the depths of our own insufficiency. The Publican knew this. He did not come to God believing in himself, demanding his rights, claiming any power or faith. He would not even lift up his eyes to look at God face to face. Do we misunderstand the end of our labor? Do we believe it to be anything other than to be emptied of everything and stripped naked of the clothing of our self-understanding? Self-actualization is not the goal of our life. It is the self that must die. "A broken and contrite heart He will not despise."

The goal of the Christian life is spiritual poverty, emptiness, total and complete abandonment; it is to fade away, like St. John the Baptist said, so that God might become in us all the more visible. In fading away we find the true self, the child, the dependent one whose heart and mind is always open, who does not know the lie of self-sufficiency. This one is perfectly free, unburdened of care, unaffected by praise, unmoved by criticism, concerned only that God's will be done, because to care for one’s own will is to be the slave of one’s own will. To love God's will is to love freedom, for God is perfectly and absolutely free. And that is what He desires for us.