February 6, 2017 Length: 18:27
The parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. Life is simple. If you know a few simple things, and do them, you will be saved. A description of the complex ways of sin, modeled by the verbosity and judgment of the Pharisee, and the simplicity of righteousness, as shown by the publican.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we are beginning the Lenten Triodion, so in four weeks we begin Great Lent. There’s really a lot that goes on in Great Lent, but it’s really very simple, because life is simple. There’s really not much you need to know to succeed in life. You just have to do what you know. Great Lent is all about repentance, so we start with the gospel for the publican and the Pharisee, this parable, but although this is a parable, the Church treats it as [though] it is real, because it is real. These are real people. The parable is obviously a fictional story, but there are people just like this.
So for the Church this is not fiction; for me it’s not fiction. I’ve read this now for 30 years as an Orthodox Christian and preached on it for 22 years, and it’s completely real. There’s nothing fictional about this story, because this is about how we can save our souls. The punchline is pretty easy for people to know: you should not be proud and you should not judge others. It’s pretty simple. If it’s pretty simple, I don’t know why we don’t do it, and why we judge and why we don’t humble ourselves, but it’s really simple. Don’t judge others, and humble yourself.
So that got me to thinking. Why is it that we are so proud? And why is it that we judge others? Judging others is a very complex thing, because there’s lots of things you could judge. You could say this person is lazy, this person is a thief, this person is a liar, this person is uncultured. There’s a lot of things you can judge people for. But if you’re a Christian and you love, it’s very simple: you just love.
Evil is very, very complex. Passions are complex. Somewhere there’s a listing of them I’ve found, in the Philokalia, I believe. It’s over 200 passions, but there are not 200 virtues. There’s only a few virtues, and that’s all you need. Love really covers all virtues. So we should simplify our lives, and I think that this gospel, if you delve into it and find another kind of position to take, sort of regarding a different angle, to try to see if I can get people interested and somehow have something pierce your soul. If you take a different angle, you could say it’s about being simple.
The Pharisee was not simple at all, because he had all kinds of things to say. The publican had one thing to say. Before I tell you that, I’ll do something I normally don’t do too much. Supposedly all good sermons have this in them, but I don’t generally do it, so maybe I need to improve—this idea of a sort of vignette, sort of an example, sort of a story. There was something that really touched me recently, and you might think, “Why is he talking about this?” I think it’s completely related, and maybe I’ll be able to convince you.
There was a story about a soldier, a Navy SEAL—a true story. He lives in southeast Texas on a ranch now. He and his four men—there was a four-man Navy SEAL team—because of just bad luck were discovered in the mountains in Pakistan, because they were come across by some goat-herders, and they decided not to kill the goat-herders, because they were non-combatants. Then, of course, the goat-herders told where they were, and it was on. And this is a true story. This is the greatest naval loss on ground forces since World War II. I don’t remember when it was; a few years back.
He was the only one that survived about a day and a half of pitched fighting, I think it was, or maybe a only full day. He was thirsty and was looking for water, and he was shot up, literally—he had been shot in three places and [had] broken bones in his back, and was going to die if he didn’t get help. But at least he was going to get some water. When he went to get water, there was another tribesman that saw him. This was not a Taliban tribesman; this was a Pashtun tribal elder. According to their code of ethics, according to their code of hospitality, when you see a man in trouble, you must take care of him and take him into your own home as if he is your brother. This is a Muslim tribesman from Pakistan who took care of a total stranger at great risk to himself and his family.
The Taliban came and of course they tried to do what most people would do when they’re corrupt: tried to bribe him. He didn’t want any money. He wouldn’t give him up. Then they threatened him in many, many ways. This man—his name was Marcus—he survived. After five days, those that were trying to rescue him found him. To this day now, Marcus and this Pashtun tribesman, this elder—he had a name that was too hard for me to remember—they’re good friends. He comes to Texas twice a year, and although they can barely understand each other’s language, they understand each other because they’re brothers.
The reason I give that illustration is because that man, that Pashtun tribesman from Pakistan, put everything on the line—his whole life, even his village, his family, his children—because of something very simple: because according to his code of life, this is the right thing to do. And he did it. That’s what I mean by simplicity, and we should be more simple.
We are Christians. We are sinners, but God loves us and we are destined for perfection. So let’s be simple. I’m a sinner, but I’m going to struggle. I’m not going to give up. Even when I fall, I’m going to get up. Even when I sin grievously, I’m going to confess and I’m going to move on. It’s very simple. And as a sinner, I know that I have no right, no competence, no ability to judge others—so I’m not going to do it. It’s very simple. Life is simple.
Now, Great Lent is fundamentally simple. A lot of people see it as complicated and a lot of people see it as difficult and long and hard and everything. I find it to be like the spring. I find it to be where I’m finally free; the freest time of the year is Great Lent, because I can just say, in all the prayers that we say, “I’m a sinner!” I don’t have to fool anybody, least-ways myself. I’m a sinner, but God will save. It’s a very simple message, and it’s true, and we should live by it. And if we live by it, then we don’t judge others.
Let’s take a look at the conduct of the Pharisee and of the publican and see how one was very complex—and he was lost—and the other one was very simple—and he was justified. So the Pharisee comes in to pray, and the translation of the gospel that we have I think is a very good one, and it gives a very real sense of what the Pharisee is doing. Most gospels would say, “He stood there.” That’s not true. I’m standing here. That’s not what he did. He assumed a stance. In other words, he was cocky, he was self-sure, he felt he was better than other people, because he of course was a religious leader, and he was externally pious, and he was doing the right things. So he assumed a stance. Already, he’s lost, because already all the simplicity is gone. Just by assuming a stance, he’s showing that he thinks he’s better than other people. Once you think that, you’re lost; God will not hear your prayers.
Then he begins to pray, and he prays, St. Luke says, with himself. St. Luke’s a very, very careful author. You have to pay attention to every word that St. Luke writes, because they all mean something. He was a doctor, and he was a very detailed person. His gospel is really the most detailed of all the gospels. So he says the Pharisee “assumed a stance” and prayed “within himself.” You can’t pray within yourself; you’re supposed to pray to God. You’re supposed to pray out of yourself. You’re not just supposed to be so sure of yourself.
So he prayed within himself, and then he said all these foolish things. “I thank thee I am not as other men are: extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.” So he came up with four things. Probably his mind was thinking of 10 or 20, but he just came up with four that were representative of his superiority to other people—and was lost, because he was full of judgment. Of course, when he judged the publican, that was the worst judgment of all, because then he looked at another manservant, that is, God’s manservant—we’re all his servants—and he judged him. We have no right to judge another man’s servant.
So he then talked about how good he was. He’d already said he was good by the fact that he didn’t do all these terrible things that all the “other people” do: “I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” And then maybe he prayed a little more, and then he went home happy, thinking, “I’m a good guy.” But he wasn’t a good guy. None of us are good guys, not one of us. And if we understand that, then we start to make some progress.
So what does this publican do? The publican won’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, because he knows his sins. He doesn’t tell the Lord even all of his sins, because he is so touched by his sins, he’s so full of compunction, he can’t even get them out. Probably he wasn’t even particularly thinking of them; he was only thinking, “I’m an unworthy person.” So he says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Something very simple and very powerful and very true. Then the Lord says this parenthetical comment: “This man went to his house justified rather than the other.”
If you know what justified means, this will be a very powerful parable for you. For some, justified, justification is when God declares somebody good. That’s not what justification is. Justification is becoming good. So this man, God’s grace was filling him, and he wasn’t fully justified; that’s not the meaning of these words, but he was brought along so that he would find his way and the grace of God would fill him, and eventually there would only be the grace of God within him and there would be no darkness, there would be no reason for him to bow his head down with tears and say, “Be merciful to me, a sinner,” because he would know God intimately and personally. This is what it means by “He went to his house justified.”
All of us should be going to our houses today justified—still with our sins, but with a profound, deep sense of humility about ourselves that washes away all things we would think about others or say about others—God forbid we’d say the things we think—and would wash away all these attitudes that we have, that we’re somehow better than some people because we do this and they do that, etc., etc. Life is very simple. It’s very simple.
We are made in the image and after the likeness of God. That’s all we really need to know, because the application of that is that we are to live like God, we are to become like God. Anything that’s not like God is not good enough. In fact, it’s death. We just have to say, “I am a sinner. I am made in the image of God. I am unworthy of God, but I am going to try.” And God will help. So try to make your life simple.
I could put in—I usually do; I’ll try to avoid it this time—my pitch for which things you should be doing during Great Lent. I think you’ll know them, and you’ll do them if you understand what this parable is saying to your heart today. You’re a sinner; I’m a sinner. We’re not worthy to lift up our heads to God, and yet, what are we going to do today? Well, I’m going to tell God to bring down the Holy Spirit, and he’s going to do it. The bread and the wine will become the body and blood of Christ. I wouldn’t dare do this except that I’ve already been told I’ve got to do it, because this is the task of a priest. And you, many of you, having prepared for the holy mysteries, are going to approach the chalice—being unworthy of it, but with hope in God, that he will cleanse you and will justify you. That’s what’s going to happen today.
Everybody should be praying with their heart in the liturgy, being aware of how unworthy they are, of even knowing about God, and unworthy of their station in life and that probably everyone in this room doesn’t go hungry or is not under persecution. We’re unworthy of these things. There are giants in our days that are living without homes, without safety, because of their faith. So we’re unworthy, and we should be well aware of that. Because of that unworthiness, we should have a great thanksgiving to God, thankfulness in our hearts, but not just a thankfulness where we say, “Thank you”—that’s not very useful—the thankfulness where we, because of our code of honor, we will live as Christians, no matter what. And if we have that code of honor, then we will be saved.
So life is simple. Of course, we’re not supposed to be proud. We’re not supposed to judge others. We’re supposed to be humble. But if you don’t understand who you are, then you won’t be able to understand that. Only with your mind will you understand it. God help us to be like the publican, to be simple, to say, “God, help me. I’m unworthy.” And he will. God bless you and help you in all things.