Above All Virtues

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (18:10-14)

Fr. Thomas Hopko once spoke about Lent as a time where we refocus our efforts and our energies on doing all of the things that we should do and being all that we should be as Christians. In that sense Lent is nothing special. It is a reminder of what our life should be like. It is true that during the lenten season we abstain from certain food and drinks but that is not the heart of lent. The heart of lent is to cultivate our own hearts or rather, to allow our hearts to be open to the cultivation that God would like to do within us.

During this pre-lenten period we hear poignant and powerful gospel readings each week. And each week we receive a glimpse or an angle regarding what it means to be a true Christian. What it means to be a true human. What it means to have a human heart.

Today we hear the familiar parable of the two men who went into the temple to pray. One man was a pharisee and the other was a tax collector. We had previously learned about tax collectors from the gospel passage about Zacchaeus. We learned that tax collectors were often greedy and immoral men. They took more than their fair share and used the threat of force to enrich themselves at the expense of the common people, even their own countrymen. We know that the Jews considered the tax collectors to be the worst of the worst of society. Men who took advantage of them and even worked hand in hand with the Roman empire, the sworn enemy in the mind of the Jews of that period.

On the other hand we have a pharisee. We see this term often in the gospels but what is a pharisee?

“The Pharisees were an influential religious sect within Judaism in the time of Christ and the early church. They were known for their emphasis on personal piety (the word Pharisee comes from a Hebrew word meaning “separated”), their acceptance of oral tradition in addition to the written Law, and their teaching that all Jews should observe all 600-plus laws in the Torah, including the rituals concerning ceremonial purification. The Pharisees were mostly middle-class businessmen and leaders of the synagogues. Though they were a minority in the Sanhedrin and held a minority number of positions as priests, they seemed to control the decision-making of the Sanhedrin because they had popular support among the people.

Among the Pharisees were two schools of thought, based on the teachings of two rabbis, Shammai and Hillel. Shammai called for a strict, unbending interpretation of the Law on almost every issue, but Hillel taught a looser, more liberal application. Followers of Shammai fostered a hatred for anything Roman, including taxation—Jews who served as tax collectors were persona non grata. The Shammaites wanted to outlaw all communication and commerce between Jews and Gentiles. The Hillelites took a more gracious approach and opposed such extreme exclusiveness. Eventually, the two schools within Pharisaism grew so hostile to each other that they refused to worship together.

The Pharisees accepted the written Word as inspired by God. At the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, this would have been what we now call the Old Testament. Unfortunately, the Pharisees gave equal authority to oral tradition, saying the traditions went all the way back to Moses. Evolving over the centuries, the Pharisaic traditions had the effect of adding to God’s Word, which is forbidden (Deuteronomy 4:2). The Gospels abound with examples of the Pharisees treating their traditions as equal to God’s Word (Matthew 9:14; 15:1–9; 23:5; 23And in vain they worship Me,

Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’(Mark 7:7). (Source: http://www.gotquestions.org/Pharisees.html)

As we turn back to the parable we see this tax collector doing the same thing that the pharisee is doing. They both go to the temple to pray. What differentiates them? Is it their jobs? Is it their politics? What makes them truly different from one another? It is clear from the prayers that they spoke. The Lord Jesus tells us that “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’”

And likewise Our Lord Jesus tells us about the publican or tax-collector’s prayer. He says “the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’”

So what separated these two men really? What was the thing that distinguished them from one another? What separated them was the contents of their hearts. Not their titles, not their jobs, not the groups that they were associated with. Their hearts. And this is something that should strike us with some fear. God looks past the outward and straight into our inner being and reality.

He hears our words, but He also hears past our words to the intents and the contents of our hearts. What is God looking for? What does He desire from us? What pleases God? In a word, Humility. Humility means that we see ourselves without an inflated sense of importance or false self-esteem. Humility means that we view ourselves as lower than all the rest and that we see that in and of ourselves, without God’s help, we are nothing at all. If we believe in our hearts that we are something then it means that our hearts are self-sufficient and that means that God’s grace won’t be energized within us. It is as if God will not hear us and that is a terrible thought.

Many of the saints and fathers of the Church spoke about this virtue of humility. St. John the dwarf wrote “Humility and the fear of God are above all virtues.” That is a really amazing statement when you think about. But St. Tikhon of Zadonsk goes even further. He says that Humility is actually the evidence that we are true disciples of Jesus Christ. He writes, “From humility it is known that a man is a true disciple of Jesus, meek and humble of heart. If we wish to show evidence that we are true Christians, let us learn from Christ to be humble as He himself enjoins us, ‘Learn of Me; for I am meek, and humble in heart (Mt. 11:29)’”. -St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

I pray that as we prepare to rededicate ourselves to the life of prayer during Lent, we will make sure to build our prayers on this most beautiful foundation of the Christian life.

Source: Sermons