Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 8, 2009

Repentance is not only about listing sins and saying “sorry.”  Repentance is really about divesting of the self, about becoming selfless.  It is about becoming empty so that we can come to that wonderful place where we can say in all truth, like St. Paul, “it is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me.”  Repentance is the path to selflessness, to emptiness, to wholeness.

The mystic Angelus Silesius, who lived in the time of the Renaissance wrote this amazing verse, “God whose love and joy are everywhere, can’t come to visit unless you aren’t there.”

The story of the Pharisee and the Publican is about two men in two very different places spiritually.  The Pharisee represents the selfish, egotistical person, arrogant, prideful, deluded and, paradoxically, a man devoted to religion and Scripture, at least on the surface! The Pharisee comes to the Temple for one reason, and that is, to defend himself.  In this state of mind the Pharisee could see no reason to repent because repentance is about seeing a need for growth and change.  The perfect, of course, do not need to grow or change.  As he began to offer his prayer, the Pharisee put up all his defenses.  All the turrets were manned, the gates closed, the moats filled with crocodiles and the arrows were ready to fly!  What he did not know was that he was really defending himself against an imagined enemy the one to whom he had just offered a prayer: God.  And he was too deluded to recognize that there can be no defense, nor is there any need of a defense against the God who loves without limit.

Here is how one writer put it:  “The ways in which we need to grow are usually those we are the most supremely defended against and are least willing to admit even exist, let alone take an undefended, mindful peek at and then act on to change.”

The Pharisee was disconnected with God and with his own heart.  Had the Pharisee been open to hearing that still, small voice within, he would have noticed that under all that gleaming, shiny perfection something was wrong.  Terribly wrong.  He was a man without compassion. A man without a heart!

The Publican represents a man who has come face to face with the truth about his life.  He sees his failings and comes to the Temple to present himself humbly and honestly to God.  The Publican dropped his defenses and did not try to justify himself.  The Pharisee could make a formidable list of his own virtues, but what good did it do him?  The Publican didn’t try to do that.  He went right to the issue at hand.  He spoke with few words not even daring to lift up his eyes to heaven and said, “Lord, forgive me.  I have no defense!”

Repentance is the Great Letting Go of self.  The Pharisee defended himself because he was afraid of dying to self.  What is repentance if it is not a dying to self?  But if we die to self, then what do we become?  What is left?  What is there to hold on to if we let go of all we believe about ourselves?  We are left with the truth, the stark, naked truth of emptiness and of openness to all that God desires for us.  We see that we are vessels meant for one purpose, to contain the uncontainable God and to share His Divine life.  If we try to fill up that space with junk of our own making, we will always remain unfulfilled and unhappy.  But if we empty ourselves and open ourselves, God will fill us with His Life.  Repentance is letting go of the rickety version of ourselves that is woefully inadequate to the truth of who we are.

A Jewish mystic wrote of this emptiness, “Out of emptiness God has made the world, it exists in the heart of God alone. To know our place we must become as nothing, and then what is holy will move through us and illuminate all we do.”

Repentance is waking up from a long, fitful sleep.  When we do wake up our eyes open to a new and beautiful world. About this awakening St. Symeon the New Theologian writes these amazing words:  “We awaken in Christ’s body…I move my hand, and wonderfully my hand becomes Christ…I move my foot, and at once he appears like a flash of lightening…For if we genuinely love him, we wake up inside Christ’s body, whole, recognized as lovely and radiant…We awaken as the Beloved in every last part of our body.”

What an incredible description of what it is like to experience what St. Paul was talking about, “It is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me.”  You see, our usual sense of self simply will not do.  It is too small, too limited to allow for the indwelling of Christ.  So why do we insist on holding so tightly to what hinders us so completely?

What we will discover in that sublime emptiness, in the stillness and the quiet, is Christ.