The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (18:10-14)
In each of the weeks that lead up to great and holy Lent we receive a different gospel passage and each of these passages is like a piece of a greater puzzle. As we begin to listen and reflect on the passages we put them together and we find that what the Church has actually given us isn’t so much a puzzle as it is a mirror that allows us to look at ourselves. If we have only one of these stories we have only one part of the mirror and other parts are left unexamined, yet with enough time and honest reflection, we get all of the pieces to the mirror and it allows us the opportunity to go deeper in our self reflection and examination to see our deficiencies and our deep need for the Lord.
In today’s piece of the puzzle we hear the familiar story of the Pharisee and the Publican (tax collector). It is well known that the pharisees were a deeply religious people however we learn from the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ that their religious nature was not ultimately motivated by love for God. They were quite exact at the keeping of the laws given to them through Moses but they were usually way off the target and misguided in their understanding of how they should genuinely love God and translate that into love for others. Consequently they used their exact precision in keeping the law to become arrogant and prideful in all of their dealings. Indeed, this particular pharisee could not even pray in the temple without making his prayer a sort of resume of his achievements and his own perceived accomplishments. Imagine coming to God in prayer and starting with a list of your greatest attributes or successes! What could you possibly say to the Lord that would impress Him? Not much.
Not only did he bring his silly attitudes before God. This wicked pharisee went a step further, he judged another man who was also in the temple to pray. Imagine being so confident in yourself that you can easily and effortlessly make pronouncements on others. Let me tell you that if you are ever that confident in yourself, you’re probably “doing faith” wrong. Because it means that you not only don’t have the ability to look at your own sins and failings honestly, meaning you lack humility and discernment, but that you also lack love and mercy since you judge your brothers and sisters.
Every time I have the privilege of reading this passage I am struck by the evil thoughts and prayer of the pharisee, but I am much more struck by the humility of the tax collector. Each of us has moments when we are like the pharisee. In our hearts we often compare ourselves to others. We often judge others and condemn them. We are reminded that the Lord Jesus teaches us saying, “judge not, lest you be judged.” Each of us has moments like the pharisee, but how often do we have moments where our hearts are soft and vulnerable like the heart of the tax collector? It really causes us to marvel. We know that the pharisee fasted and prayed and gave tithes. But what did any of this do to soften his heart and make him a more merciful and loving human being? We can’t see that it bore much fruit if any.
Yet the tax collector never mentions doing any of those things, and he doesn’t have to. What the pharisee could not achieve with all of his “religious” devotion and empty practices, the tax collector achieved through a humble mind and a broken heart. We are reminded that as lent approaches, it is not how much you fast or tithe that will justify you before God. What justifies us before God is our willingness to acknowledge our brokenness and our deep need for His mercy. This alone justified the tax collector and caused the Lord’s face to shine upon him.
Our fasting and tithes and prayers should be vehicles for softening our hearts and increasing our hunger for God’s mercy not only for ourselves but for our fellow brothers and sisters who are also struggling in this life. We shouldn’t look at others struggles or misfortunes or sins and use this as a weapon against them. We should be like our Lord Jesus Christ who refused to cast a stone against the sinful woman but instead pardoned her out of mercy. But we can’t possibly treat others this way unless we are humble and know our own brokenness and our deep need for God’s mercy.
How amazing is humility among the virtues? Let’s listen to this word from one of the Church fathers, St. Dorotheos of Gaza, who said,
“In the mercy of God, the little thing done with humility will enable us to be found in the same place as the saints who have labored much and been true servants of God.”
And I will leave you with one more quote that I believe perfectly sums up the disposition of the tax collector in today’s gospel. St. John of San Francisco writes,
“God’s grace always assists those who struggle, but this does not mean that a struggler is always in the position of a victor….What is important is not victory or the position of a victor, but rather the labor of striving towards God and devotion to Him. Though a man may be found in a weak state, that does not at all mean that he has been abandoned by God. On the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ was in trouble, as the world sees things. But when the sinful world considered Him to be completely destroyed, in fact He was victorious over death and hades. The Lord did not promise us positions as victors as a reward for righteousness, but told us, “In the world you will have tribulation — but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). The power of God is effective when a person asks for the help from God, acknowledging his own weakness and sinfulness. This is why humility and the striving towards God are the fundamental virtues of a Christian.” AMEN.