Two Pieties - On the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 17, 2008

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today's Parable is about the meeting of two distinct pieties: one a piety of ego and one a piety of the heart. But first let me tell you a story, at least the first part of the story.

You may have heard this before from me or read it in Metropolitan ANTHONY Bloom's excellent book BEGINNING TO PRAY. Right after Sayidna ANTHONY'S consecration an elderly woman approached him with a burning question. "Vladyka," she cried, "I've been praying the Jesus Prayer for thirty-five years yet I am still the same mean, old woman I was thirty-five years ago. What is wrong?" Sayidna ANTONY replied, "You must stop praying!" Very surprised she asked, "What should I do instead?" Please remember her last question. I will get to the answer in just a bit.

The piety of the Pharisee looked for all the world like the real thing. Few could claim to be more religiously observant than Pharisees. The word "Pharisee" comes from the Hebrew word meaning "separate" which, in their case meant, separation for the sake of purity. The Pharisees believed that righteousness was achieved by a strict observance of the hundreds of laws in the Torah and Talmud. Tithing, fasting, ritual cleansings, Temple observances and, particularly, observance of the Sabbath were to be done with strict, unwavering attention to detail. And yet, what kind of fruit did this fastidious religiosity produce in our dear Pharisee? Arrogance and judgment! Lovely! Such narrow-minded and ego-centric legalism is a blight not only on Orthodoxy, but on all religion these days. Had the Pharisee been more spiritually awake he would have seen his poverty and asked God the same question the woman asked the Bishop, "All these laws I have observed and yet I am no better for it. What is wrong?" I suggest that the Pharisee and the woman were doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons.

The Pharisee would certainly have known the words of the Prophet Micah that encapsulate the law so beautifully in one verse, "He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." Where in this verse does God require that the Pharisee examine and judge the life of the humble Publican? The Pharisee managed to break all three "requirements" in one fell swoop! No mercy, no justice and no humility.

The religion of the ego is insidious and sly. The ego disguises itself as an "angel of light", a spiritual expert, a master of prayer, theology and piety, but when it is exposed as a fraud its little voice cries, "Nope! No egos in here. Just us saints!" The ego points fingers, but cannot bear to be exposed. It delights in insisting that it is always right and attempts to prove it by insisting that everyone else is wrong. It calls upon authority (if it can find one to agree with it), but cares nothing for authority unless it can be used for its own purposes. It judges viciously, but cannot bear the slightest criticism. It hides, but at the same time craves attention. The ego is hyper-sensitive about itself, but completely insensitive to its effect on others. Does this not describe the Pharisee? What a terrible judgment comes to those who judge.

St. James writes: "For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy." (2:13)

Two verses in today's Gospel reveal the ego in the man. Verse 9 reads, "He (Jesus) spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others." The Pharisee is the Lord's example of the man who "trusted in himself and despised others." Verse 11 reads, "The Pharisee stood and prayed thus to himself..." He prayed "to himself", that is, to the ego in him masquerading as God. The fruit of this kind of spiritual practice is evil because it is idolatry. It would have been far better if the Pharisee had abandoned his religious practice altogether and become a prostitute than continue as he was. Didn't the Lord say to the Pharisees, "The prostitutes and tax collectors will get into heaven before you." The ego cannot enter the kingdom of heaven so we best get rid of it here and now. The self-righteous doom themselves to everlasting self-torment.

The Publican represents the other kind of piety, the piety that pleases God, the piety of the heart. This is a man with no agenda other than to seek forgiveness for his own unworthiness. He did not look to the right or to the left at his neighbors. He would not even lift up his eyes to heaven. He looked within and found himself. This is a man without ego, a man who had no accusations to make, no finger to point, no position to prove, not one ounce of defensiveness and no need for self-justification. The demons could not touch him because the voice of his ego had been silenced by humility. The ego and humility cannot exist together. This is a man who knew himself and who was able to approach the throne of grace without hindrance and without arrogance. The Publican knew how to repent because he sincerely knew he needed to.

What is the antidote to the religion of the ego exhibited by the Pharisee and the woman in the Bishop's story? It is simply this, to stop practicing the cold, legalistic piety of the ego and to begin to practice the piety that comes from the warm heart of God and His Word. Self-righteous piety only strengthens the enemy within. That is why we don't get better! What was Bishop ANTHONY'S advice to the woman? What did he prescribe as the cure for her stony heart?

Sayidna asked her, "Do you knit?" She answered yes. "Then go to your room, put a sign on the door that says, 'I am not here', close the shades, turn off the radio and knit in the presence of God saying absolutely nothing." In other words, follow the scripture that says, "Be still and know that I am God." As Thomas Merton so wisely wrote, "I know what freedom is. All I have to do is sit down and be quiet." Stop listening to the interior voices, be quiet and look within. What will happen? The ego will be exposed for what it is and true repentance can begin. The difference between the demonic voice of ego and the beautiful voice of God will become clearer and clearer. True spirituality will be born. The narrow path to the warm heart of God will reveal itself within. As long as we listen to and follow the voice of the ego all spirituality will be vain and counter-productive. So it is imperative that we learn how that egoic voice sounds, what it does and how it operates. Only silence and stillness reveal these things.

How will we know we are on the right track? When the desire to judge and compare becomes impossible for us, when the peace that passes understanding increases in us, when we see all people as ourselves, when we no longer feel the need to interject our own opinions and start minding our own business, when the fear and turmoil within begins to melt away and there is no longer a need to be "right" and when the passion of love swells in us until our hearts break. On this path we will "be able to comprehend with all the saints the width and length and depth and height - to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge" and "be filled with all the fullness of God." (Eph. 3:18-19).