On the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 24, 2013
The heart longs for Truth. There is no other route to freedom. But often the Truth is too much to swallow. We resist especially if it challenges tightly held systems of beliefs that support our view of ourselves and the world. Thomas Merton writes that, “Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false Self. We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves.” The point of much of the Lord’s teaching was to break the illusory shells of his listeners, to allow the pure light of the Truth that lay within them to break free. “You,” Jesus says, “are the light of the world.”
So, Jesus told stories. He loved to tell parables. They have the power to disarm the listener. They begin with words like, “Once upon a time,” or “the kingdom of heaven is like this” and all of sudden defenses drop and people start paying attention. That gave the Lord the chance to sneak some reality in through the back door in a way that his listeners did not expect. The fact that parables do not come with ready-made explanations is also deliberate. The author of the Mahabarata says that if you listen closely to a story your life will never be the same. They are meant to make us think, to wonder, to explore.
For two weeks we have heard Gospel stories of things that actually happened – not parables. Jesus did eat in the house of Zaccheus to draw out of him the pure gold of the kingdom. The Lord tested the Canaanite Woman to draw out of her the amazing faith that stifled the sexism and prejudice of his apostles and healed her daughter. We do not get from these stories dogmas, belief systems, or instructions for moral living. What we get is two examples of what happens when people wake up and recognize God. What happens is faith, for faith is not about dogmas, beliefs, or moral standards; it is about recognition and encounter.
Jesus draws out of Zaccheus and the Woman the beauty that is within their souls, the beauty of the image. His love pierced their hearts and the kingdom of heaven flowed out. He helps them (and those around them) see themselves as they truly are. He helps uncover in each of them the “still, small point, untouched by illusion, inaccessible to the fantasies of the mind, the point of absolute poverty which is the glory of God” (Merton) that resides in every human being. But not just that.
The encounter with God is always a mutual exchange. Zaccheus, the Woman, and Jesus look at each other and enter into communion. He with them and they with him. He looks at them and sees himself. They look at him and see themselves. They draw out of him power and compassion. There is between them a spark of recognition. They mirror one another. They recognize each other and faith is born. Not belief, but recognition. Here we learn something about faith. Belief is always about something; faith is always in something or, better yet, in Someone.
Today the reading starts, “The Lord spoke this parable.” He wants us to listen, to let go for a few moments and fall under the power of story-telling, so he weaves a parable. Remember that parables are like our dreams. Every character in our dreams is us and every character in a parable is us. Every one.
We are like the Pharisee sometimes. Trapped in illusions of grandeur sometimes. Too busy judging to be of any good to anyone. Keeping the poor slobs that people our lives at arm’s length so we can be about more important things, like fasting twice a week and tithing, you know, religious stuff that makes us feel so godlike and often turns us into devils. Hopelessly lost in egoic fantasies with our noses so high in the air we can’t smell that strange, unpleasant odor we haven’t yet realized comes from our own rotting souls. Staring into a mirror made by our own hands we recognize no one but ourselves, we have faith in nothing but ourselves. And what we see is mere illusion.
We are also sometimes like the Publican. It is inevitable because the divine true self within cannot forever endure the charade we try to pull off and we become depressed, confused, sick at heart; and in the dark somewhere, behind a pillar in some temple, we confess, “I am not who I say I am.” Then that mirror made by Ego breaks and we see behind it another mirror. The mirror of the soul and there in that mirror is a face, our true face and also the face of God who was there with us all the time and , in fact, is us. The mystic is like a sponge. The sponge looks into itself and sees the ocean. The sponge looks outside itself and sees the ocean. “In him we live and move and have our being.” He is the vine and we are the branches, but the branch doesn’t see itself as separate from the vine. It sees itself as all vine. And that is what it is! Apart from the vine the branch dies. The mystical union between vine and branch and sponge and ocean is the primary truth of existence.
Faith is born when the False Self shatters, when defenses come falling down like the walls of Jericho, and we recognize the pure gold of the Image of God inside of us. We recognize Him, we recognize ourselves and we see at last that when Jesus said, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he was not joking. It is and always has been “at hand” in the very fiber that makes up the fabric of who we really are.
The holy fool Nasrudin once went into a bank to draw some money from his account. The clerk asked him, “Do you have any identification?” Nasrudin pulled out a mirror, held it up before his face and said to the clerk, “Yep, that’s me.” Only those who have the divine gift of self-knowledge can say that with a straight face. Everyone has it, but not everyone is aware of it.
Faith dawns when we let go of what is false in us and that, my friends, is the whole point of the Great Fast we are about to begin. What we are asked to give up is everything that is false; first about ourselves, then about our neighbors, and then about God. Then it happens. We become all light.