In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, this morning at matins, after the recitation of the 50th psalm, we all knelt down and began the Triodion. “Open unto me the gates of repentance.” Yesterday I called Hannah, and I said, “Let’s make sure we do that during communion tomorrow as well: Open to me the gates of repentance.” This little hymn-snatch signifies that the Church begins the season known in the East as the Triodion, which consists of the Great Fast and the three Sundays just prior to the Great Fast. Until recent times, this period was known in the West as Septuagesima, which also consisted of the Great Fast and the three Sundays just prior to the Great Fast. They stopped calling it that some time back in the ‘60s, I believe—at least the Roman Catholics did; the Episcopalians persevered for another ten years, and then they petered out.
In English-speaking countries, but only in English-speaking countries, the season of the Great Fast came to be called Lent. The Church actually knows nothing about a “Lent.” It’s a term derived from the Old English expression, lencten, which means, simply, “spring.” The purpose of the first part of the Triodion, or Septuagesima, as it was called in Latin, is to get our hearts and minds ready for the Great Fast. Now, one would think it’s enough just to do the Great Fast just to get ready for Pascha. You would think that would be enough getting ready. No, that’s not enough getting ready. You’ve got to get ready for the Fast, too. At least if you’re going to take it seriously, you’ve got to get ready for it!
Consequently, the gospel readings for these three Sundays were chosen with great care, because they are directed at themes central to the purpose of the Great Fast. It may be said that the gospel story we just heard—the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee—goes to the very heart of the matter by introducing the Pauline theme of justification. Indeed, let us make this idea, justification, the first of today’s three reflections on the gospel reading.
Here, once again, the first sentence of that reading says that Jesus spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were just and despised others. Observe here the word “just” in the plural form this morning is dikaioi. We recognize in this adjective a basic concern with the theology of St. Paul. Beginning with the Galatian controversy in the early 50s and going on to its full elaboration in the epistle to the Romans about five years later, the Apostle Paul was preoccupied with the question: How do human beings become just, dikaios, in the sight of God?
This question came to the fore in the mind of Paul when certain Christians arrived in Galatia in the early 50s, claiming that Christians were obliged to observe the Mosaic law, all the prescriptions of the Mosaic law, just as Jesus had observed the Mosaic law. This was the claim that Paul himself felt obliged to refute. He contended that God’s eternal word did not come to earth simply to reinforce the claims of the Torah; he came, rather, to elevate human beings into the divine life and to transform them by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. That is to say, Paul insisted that one does not become a child of God by observing the Torah—now, that’s a Jew saying that: one does not become a child of God by observing the Torah—but by the transformation of the heart and mind, by the energy of the Holy Spirit.
In the epistle to the Romans Paul wrote that
There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, for as many as were led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out: Abba, Father! The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit (he says) because we are the children of God.
Now, in today’s parable, just what was wrong with the prayer of the Pharisee? Luke indicates the problem when he declares that Jesus spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves. It is with this verse that we commence the period of the Triodion, that Jesus spoke this parable to those who trusted in themselves. The first parable of which we are warned in this season, brothers and sisters, is the real danger of self-reliance. As we prepare for Lent and for this great celebration that follows it, our first concern must be not to trust in ourselves. So important is this message in today’s parable that it appears again at the end of the story where Jesus says of the publican: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” Here is a man who did not trust in himself.
Once again, notice the modifier: the just man (dikaios) is the justified man (dedikaiōmenos). The former is the perfect passive participle: we become just by being justified, and we are justified only if we rely on God and not on ourselves.
We don’t fast because the man in this morning’s gospel is standing up there bragging that he fasts—twice a week! He was a Jew, so it was Monday and Thursday, but for us it means Wednesday and Friday—but not this week! I’ve always had a feeling—but I must be hesitant to say this, I think—that the chief purpose of Lent is to prove to yourself that you have got the guts to hurt yourself, but maybe that’s not right.
Ironically, one of the normal aspects of the annual observance of Lent is the experience of failure. I say it’s a normal aspect simply because it happens a lot. Indeed, the rigors of the lenten discipline are so severe that arguably most Christians fail to observe all of them. Somewhere along the line they’re going to inadvertently going to eat peanut butter or something, which certainly none of the early Christians would have touched. Even now, the fast we have is so modified. Now, I do not find this view written down anywhere as a point of principle, but I have not failed to observe over the years how many Christians feel like failures during Lent. And, you know, that’s not the American way. America is the country of winners! So it’s very hard to have this experience of failure. We’re supposed to win.
Recently, I was visiting the grandchildren down in Georgia, and they’re all into sports. It seemed to me, my impression was that no matter where you appeared in the standings in the league, everybody got a trophy at the end of the year, because America’s a country of winners! It’s very difficult, with that kind of mindset, to appreciate the Cross. If you find this to be the case in your own lives, I ask you to remember this parable we heard today. The evangelist tells us that Jesus spoke this parable “to some who trusted in themselves.” Perhaps the most important lesson that we may learn in this annual “spring cleaning” of our souls is not to trust in ourselves, but in the God to whom we plead, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” I don’t believe it’s going to be possible to become a saint at all unless we find some way of dealing with a sense of failure, incorporating this sense of failure into our experience of the Christian life. And that’s what the Cross means.
Second, this morning, let’s speak of prayer. The parable begins: “Two men went up to the temple to pray.” This is the story about prayer. Specifically, it is a story about how to pray. Now draw your attention to the personal nature of this prayer. The prayer in this morning’s parable is not liturgical prayer; it is solitary prayer, which in the gospel stories is chiefly exemplified by Jesus himself. Indeed, there is the major mark to prove that Jesus is a human being: he prays. He prays. On so many occasions, we read that Jesus went out to a solitary place to pray. This is the kind of prayer concerning which Jesus instructs us. “When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to the Father in secret.”
Beloved, let me spare no efforts of rhetoric in emphasizing how fundamental this kind of prayer is. It is absolutely essential that each of us, every day, and if possible several times a day, retire from everything else and pray to the Father in secret, all by ourselves, placing our hearts and minds under the gaze of the Father who sees in secret. Jesus tells us to do that. I sometimes ask people—very often I ask people, in confession—“How often do you pray?” “Well, I sort of pray while I’m doing other things.” Not good enough! You’re supposed to do that anyway. You must retire from what you’re doing and pray exclusively. Praying to the Father in secret: that’s the instruction that Jesus himself gives us.
This kind of prayer, this dialogue with God, is the most important part of the day, and we need to be convinced on this point. There is no life in Christ without this solitary prayer. What do we say to God when we come to him in secret, when we enter into the inner temple and close the door to all distractions, when we lay aside, at least for a while, all earthly cares? What are the words and sentiments that rise in our minds, take shape in our hearts, and are expressed with our lips? It could be all sorts of things, but the one thing we must not do is tell God something we don’t mean, just pray empty prayers, just recite prayers that we really do not mean because they’re just words, they’re just formulas.
In the words of prayer, I believe, we’re not left on our own. Primacy of place belongs surely to those prayers which we know to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. If one cannot pray and mean the psalms, then revert to what we had today—beat your breasts—because there’s something seriously wrong. If you can pray the psalms and not mean them, there’s something seriously wrong with the heart and mind. Beat the breast and pray for mercy.
When we pray those prayers, we are surely praying in the Holy Spirit, because they’re inspired by the Holy Spirit. So we stand before the holy Father and say to him something like this: “Receive me according to thy word, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my expectation.” May I have a show of hands of those of you who would not mean that if you said it?
Receive me according to thy word, that I may live, and put me not to shame in my expectation. Come to help me, and I will be saved, and I will meditate on thy statutes continually. My flesh trembles for the fear of thee, and I am terrified by thy judgments. I have done judgment and justice; leave me not to mine oppressors. Receive thy servant unto good, and let not the proud oppress me. Mine eyes have failed for thy salvation and for the word of thy righteousness. Deal with thy servant according to thy mercy, and teach me thy statutes. I am thy servant; give me understanding that I may know thy testimonies.
Where did I find this prayer? Opened the Bible and put my finger on something. The Bible’s full of such prayers! If you have a better prayer than that, then for heaven’s sake, pray it! [Laughter] But we make our own the inspired prayers of holy Scriptures. Let us try with all our hearts and with the full force of concentration to mean what we say, use great effort to mean it, work at it. Prayer must be worked at. And thereby we become such worshipers as the Father seeks. What we hope for in such prayer is a total transformation of our inner life, keeping our minds fixed on God, and remaining aware that he reads our hearts.
This Triodion, this Lent, let’s be resolved to become people of prayer—but don’t give it up when Pascha comes. Keep working at it.
Third, this parable indicates that we pray from a sense of need. The Pharisee in the story didn’t need anything; he had it all. He was not like other men, and he thanked God for the fact. He practiced tithing; he kept the fast days. Indeed, he needed nothing and he asked for nothing. You might notice that in today’s prayer: the Pharisee didn’t ask for anything. The presumption of Jesus is that we’re praying from a position of need, and therefore we ask for things.
According to St. Cyril of Alexandria, this Pharisee was practicing self-deception. His prayer lacked one of the most essential components of prayer, which is vigilance over one’s soul. The publican, on the other hand, prayed entirely out of sense of need, even desperation. He asked only for one thing, the one thing necessary: God’s mercy. According to the story, this publican, as he prayed, beat his breast. That is to say, he attempted to break his heart, because “a broken and contrite heart, God will not despise.” In this respect, several Church Fathers commented that being a repentant sinner is a better state than not being a sinner at all. I don’t believe I would have the nerve to make such a claim if it had not already been made by the likes of Macarius the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom. I rely on their authority.
Repeated prayer for the divine mercy is, above all, an affirmation of Christ’s redemptive lordship as the defining revelation of God in history. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God”—there is the act of faith: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” It’s a proclamation of faith in the form of address to the Savior of the world. It’s only in the Holy Spirit can we proclaim that Jesus is Lord. It is permeated with the divinizing energies of that Holy Spirit. Furthermore, it is a confession of sinfulness, trapped in a place with a broken and contrite heart, continuously in the presence of the living Christ and under the bounteous mercy of his blood.