A Prayer for Sinners and the Lost

“I beg and beseech You, Lord,

grant to all who have gone astray

a true knowledge of you,

so that each and every one

may come to know your glory.

In the case of all who have passed from this world

lacking a virtuous life and having had no faith,

be an advocate for them, Lord,

for the sake of the body which you took from them,

so that from the single united body of the world

we may offer up praise

to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

in the kingdom of heaven,

an unending source of eternal delight.”

(The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, pg. 354)

Images of the Ladder to Heaven

The Publican used humility as a ladder and was raised to the height of heaven; but the  wretched Pharisee was lifted by pride onto rotten emptiness, and fell into the trap of hell.

You are the beauty of Jacob, holy Virgin; the divine ladder he saw in days of old, stretching from earth to heaven, for you bring down the Incarnate God from on high, and bring mortal men up to heaven.

(Both of the above hymns are from Matins of the Publican and Pharisee)

Pondering the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee

Typikon DecodedIf the pre-Lenten Sunday Gospel lessons are meant to be a preparation for Great Lent it is worth thinking about some of the themes suggested by the pericope.  Below are a few hymns taken from the Matins Canon for the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, the first of the pre-Lenten Sundays in the Orthodox calendar.  According to historians, this Gospel (Luke 18:10-14) was in an older tradition read on the 3rd Sunday of Great Lent.  In  Constantinople’s 11th Century Typikon this Gospel was read toward the end of the Sundays after Pentecost but before Lent began.   Only in the 12th Century does it become more universally accepted as part of the Lenten cycle being fixed before Lent begins.

Let us hasten to follow the Pharisee in his virtues and to emulate the Publican in his humility. Let us hate what is wrong in each of them: foolish pride and the defilement of transgressions.

In the above hymn the probity and faults of both characters in the parable are noted: the Pharisee is praised for his virtuosity which we are to imitate as the Publican is honored for his humility which we are called to emulate.  Then the faults of both are noted: the foolish pride of the Pharisee and the transgressions of the Publican.   They hymn keeps the Gospel lesson in perspective.  Neither the Pharisee or Publican is all good or all evil.  Both have virtues worth imitating and faults which we should despise.  The balanced approach helps us to appreciate the parable better: even the virtuous can sin and even the sinner can attain virtue.

The righteousness of the Pharisee proved to be vanity, and was condemned, for it was yoked to pride; but the Publican gained humility, which goes with the virtue exalting men on high.

One of the great faults and temptations of the righteous is vanity – the Pharisees righteousness if humbly practiced is right for everyone.  When righteousness is yoked with pride it is sinful self-righteousness.   The Publican on the other hand though despised by the public humbled himself before God.    The parable has its limits – it is directing itself to the topic of prayer and self-righteousness.  The parable is not saying it is OK to be evil as long as you are humble about it!  But it condemns self-righteousness and the wicked, accusing “pointing of the finger”  (see Isaiah 58:1-10 which condemns the kind of piety represented by the parable’s Pharisee).

The Pharisee thought to drive swiftly in the chariot of the virtues; but the Publican on foot outran him, for he yoked humility with compassion.

Chariot racing was a very popular sport in Roman antiquity and one can see in the Fathers references to lessons learned from chariot races.   (For other blogs with a chariot racing theme as used by Patristic writers see Sin vs. Virtue and Humility vs. Justice)  In the above hymn humility and compassion will beat virtuously following religious rules in any Christian race.   Even if you ride in a chariot (perhaps the fastest vehicle of the ancient world) of following all the rules of fasting, the person using humility and compassion will win the race to the Kingdom of God.

Pondering with our minds the parable of the Publican, let us all emulate him with tears, offering God a contrite spirit and seeking the remission of our sins.

The bottom line is Christianity speaks to our hearts and calls us to a change of heart – not just to slavishly following rules and regulations, but truly repenting of our sins and learning to love God and neighbor.

Confession: of Thanks and of Sin

The Gospel Lesson of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14), so St. Luke tells us, is a parable that Jesus told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others”  (vs. 9).  As a pre-Lenten Sunday it is a warning to all of us who are about to enter into Great Lent, that strictly adhering to the letter of the law of fasting will do us no good, as it did the Pharisee no good, if we think that fasting shows or proves how righteous we are and entitles us to judge those who don’t keep strictly Great Lent.  Christ teaches:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men-extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. ‘I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Christ’s lessons from this parable include a warning against self-righteousness and warnings that all prayer is not equal in the eyes of God.  There is good prayer and bad prayer, right prayer and wrong prayer.  We who are renewing our spiritual lives through Great Lent need to pay attention to these lessons.   We are to pray rightly and for good reasons and with good intentions.    Great Lent is a time of spiritual renewal, a time to get back to the basics of being Christian.  When we are catechumens and new converts to Christianity, we are attentive to our prayer, but it is easy through time to turn our prayer life into a justification for judging those who don’t pray or behave like we do.  Great Lent is a time to get back to the fundamental purpose of prayer, to the foundations of our Christian life: namely to love God and to love one another.  Prayer is to put us into a right relationship with God and neighbor.  Right prayer teaches us to be humbly thankful to God for all blessings received, and to humble ourselves in contrition before God for sins we have committed.  St. Maximos the Confessor says a very similar thing about confession:

MaximosConfessor“Every genuine confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence.  Confession takes two forms. According to the one, we give thanks for blessings received; according to the other, we bring to light and examine what we have done wrong. We use the term confession both for the grateful appreciation of the blessings we have received through divine favor, and for the admission of the evil actions of which we are guilty. Both forms produce humility. For he who thanks God for blessings and he who examines himself for his offences are both humbled. The first judges himself unworthy of what he has been given; the second implores forgiveness for his sins.”  (St. Maximos the Confessor, The Philokalia , Kindle Loc. 18272-80)

Thus we come to understand that the lesson of the Publican and Pharisee is a Gospel lesson about prayer and about keeping the spirit of Great Lent.   We are to be humble – fasting is not the goal, however, humility is a goal, as is repentance and love for God and love for neighbor.  Fasting is to help us learn humility so that we can humbly love like Christ did who though He was God humbled himself and died on the cross for us in love.  Fasting and Great Lent are lessons in humbling ourselves so that we don’t trust our own righteousness and don’t boast to ourselves, to others, or to God about how our spiritual achievements or  how pious we are when we strictly keep Great Lent.  The real strict keeping of Lent is not in avoiding certain foods but in truly humbling ourselves before God and our fellow human beings.   Humility tells us not to trust in our own righteousness but to thank God for all things including a willingness to obey Him.  We are humble when we credit all good – even our self-denying efforts – to God Himself.  We also humble ourselves when we admit to our sins and seek forgiveness in the sacrament of confession.  As St. Maximos says there are two ways to confess both of which achieve: to admit to sins while putting forth the effort to amend our lives and to give thanks to God for every blessing received including an ability to fast or obey God.  So in confession we can positively give thanks to God for the spiritual blessings we have received.

The sinful Publican understood the role of repentance in confession.  The righteous Pharisee failed to credit God and give thanks to Him for the blessings of an Orthodox life.

The Gospel lesson of the Publican and Pharisee finds its fulfillment at the end of Great Lent on Pascha night when we hear the homily of St. John Chrysostom:

If there are any who are devout and love God, let them enjoy this beautiful and radiant feast of triumph! If there are any who have been wise servants, let them enter the joy of their Lord! If there are any who have labored long in fasting, let them now receive their wages! If there are any who have worked from the first hour,let them receive their fair compensation today! If there are any who came at the third hour, let them celebrate the feast with thanksgiving! If there are any who arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings;they will not be deprived because of that! If there are any who delayed until the ninth hour, let them approach and not be afraid! If there are any who tarried even as late as the eleventh hour, let even them not be alarmed by their tardiness! For the Lord, Who is jealous of His honor, will accept the last as well as the first. He gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour just as He does to those who work from the first hour. He is merciful to those who come last, even while He cares for the first ones. … So then, all of you, enter the joy of your Lord! Receive your reward, whether you came first or last! Rich and poor, dance for joy together! Sober people with the heedless, honor this day! Whether you kept the fast or disregarded it, rejoice today! The table is fully laden: feast sumptuously! … Let no one weep over transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the tomb! Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free!


An Act of Mercy in a Heartless World

Luke 18:10-14

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men-extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  ‘I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’  And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom writes the following about the parable:

 “I would like to remind you of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The Publican comes and stands at the rear of the church. He knows that he stands condemned; he knows that in terms of justice there is no hope for him because he is an outsider to the kingdom of God, the kingdom of righteousness or the kingdom of love, because he belongs neither to the realm of righteousness nor to the realm of love. But in the cruel, the violent, the ugly life he leads, he has learnt something of which the righteous Pharisee has no idea. He has learnt that in a world of competition, in a world of predatory animals, in a world of cruelty and heartlessness, the only hope one can have is an act of mercy, an act of compassion, a completely unexpected act which is rooted neither in duty nor in natural relationships, which will suspend the action of the cruel, violent, heartless world in which we live. All he knows, for instance, from being himself an extortioner, a moneylender, a thief, and so forth, is that there are moments when for no reason, because it is not part of the world’s outlook, he will forgive a debt, because suddenly his heart has become mild and vulnerable; that on another occasion he may not get someone put into prison because a face will have reminded him of something or a voice has gone straight to his heart. There is no logic in this. It is not part of the world’s outlook nor is it a way in which he normally behaves. It is something that breaks through, which is completely nonsensical, which he cannot resist; and he knows also, probably, how often he himself was saved from final catastrophe by this intrusion of the unexpected and the impossible, mercy, compassion, forgiveness. So he stands at the rear of the church, knowing that all the realm inside the church is a realm of righteousness and divine love to which he does not belong and inot which he cannot enter. But he knows from experience also that the impossible does occur and that is why he says ‘Have mercy, break the laws of righteousness, break the laws of religion, come down in mercy to us who have no right to be either forgiven or allowed in’. And I think this is where we should probably start continuously all over again.” (Beginning to Pray, pgs. 8-9)

The White Rose Society

Noble TreasonRichard Hanser’s biographical book on “the White Rose Society” resistance to Hitler’s National Socialism, A Noble Treason , is a good read about a cause with which it is easy to sympathize.  A few university-aged young people including a brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl, deeply disturbed by what they see happening to their German homeland in 1942-43, quietly take on themselves the task of offering resistance to the Nazi state.  Their resistance is largely their refusal to allow their hearts and minds to be swept away in the mindlessness sweeping their country.  Their actions – a few pamphlets and painted graphic slogans do cause a momentary panic among the Nazis, but they are all soon caught and executed.  Those few who made up what they initially called “the White Rose Society” were an unlikely group of young people to rebel, and yet they never wavered in their determination. They went about fulfilling their social obligations demanded of them by the Nazi state, and they successfully pulled off what was perhaps only symbolic resistance to the totalitarianism which was destroying their country and the world.

Alexander-SchmorellAmong the conspirators was another young man, Alexander Schmorell, a Russian Orthodox, who also was executed for his role in the resistance.

By looking at the lives of a few students who decided to resist the totalitarian state we do learn not only about their life in Nazi Germany but something about the nature of those who abuse power.  A few quotes below from the book:

Adolf Hitler: “We must put a stop to the idea that it is part of everybody’s civil rights to say, write, publish, or paint whatever he pleases”  (Kindle Loc. 823-24)’

When Adolf Hitler came to power, the minister of culture of Bavaria had assembled all the professors of Munich and set the tone for the higher learning of the future. “From now on,” said Hans Schemm, “it will not be your job to determine whether something is true or not, but only whether it is in the spirit of the National Socialist revolution.”  (Kindle Loc. 2240-42)

There was sporadic resistance to the thought control and fear enveloping the minds of the German people like a Tsunami.

Bishop  von Galen of Munster “made the breathtaking demand that the high-ranking Nazi officials responsible for the program be charged with murder. “Once it is allowed,” said the bishop, “once it becomes permissible, to put to death ‘unproductive’ human beings, then we are all of us open to being murdered when we, too, are old and feeble and no longer productive. . . . If such things are permitted, then none of us is safe in our lives.” He particularly enraged the Nazi authorities with his warning that if the “unproductive” were to be killed by the state as a matter of policy—“then woe to our brave soldiers who come back home to us from the fronts grievously wounded, as cripples and invalids”.  (Kindle Loc. 1742-47)

Hans & Sophie Scholl, Christopher Probst
Hans & Sophie Scholl, Christopher Probst

Heinrich Heine: “Dort, wo man Bucher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen” (Where they burn books they will also, in the end, burn people).  (Kindle Loc. 2256-57)

Resistance does not always involve weapons.  Mind control can be resisted by humor too.

“What is the difference between Christianity and National Socialism?” “Simple. In Christianity one man died for everybody. In National Socialism everybody dies for one man.”  (Kindle  Loc. 2425-26)

It was put forth as an ideal by the Ministry of Propaganda that every German should be honest, intelligent, and a National Socialist. The dissident wits pounced on this at once. “It can’t be done”, they said. “If a man is intelligent and a Nazi, he is not honest. If he is honest and a Nazi, he is not intelligent. And if he is intelligent and honest, he is not a Nazi.”  (Kindle  Loc. 2427-29)

They chose to lay down their lives for their nation by trying to stop murder and stop war without taking up a weapon.  They did not allow their hearts and minds to be controlled by National Socialism which felt it should and could control every aspect of life.  The members of the White Rose Society were witnesses to a Christian ideal.

The Grace of Aging

“It’s the great mystery of human life that old grief passes gradually into quiet, tender joy.  The mild serenity of age takes the place of the riotous blood of youth.  I bless the rising sun each day, and as before, my heart sings to meet it, but now I love even more its setting, its long slanting rays and the soft, tender, gentle memories that come with them, the dear images from the whole of my long happy life – and over all the Divine Truth,  softening, reconciling, forgiving!

My life is ending, I know that well, but every day that is left me I feel how my earthly life is in touch  with a new, infinite, unknown, but approaching life, the nearness of which sets my soul quivering with rapture, my mind glowing and my heart weeping with joy.” (Fr. Zossima in Dostoyevsky’s THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV)

United to Christ

Chrysostom’s dream was that all human beings, and especially his flock of Christians, would grow in godliness and sanctification together. ‘There is nothing,’ he says, ‘for which God takes so great pains, as this: that we should be united and knit together one with another.’ He saw a profound unity knitting together all members of the human race by virtue of their identically shared human nature. How much greater, then, is the unity of the members of the Body of Christ, the Church! He loved St. Paul’s favorite image for this unity among believers – the human body, miraculously interwoven in all its diverse parts, with each part precious and indispensable, yet abiding in the harmonious order in which it is set in the body:

‘In the human body there is a spirit which holds all together, making the different members into one. So it is also here [in Christ’s Body, the Church]. For this purpose was the Spirit given, that He might unite those who are separated by race and by different customs; for old and young, rich and poor, child and youth, woman and man, and every soul become in a manner one, and more entirely so than in the case of a human body…He is desirous to bind us all together…that in all things we would be one soul…’ – St. John Chrysostom, Homily IX on Ephesians.

(David C. Ford, Women and Men in the Early Church: The Full Views of St. John Chrysostom, pg. 41)

Mystery Incarnate

The Seed implanted, the Sower blossomed forth.
The Gardener enters the womb, the True Vine sprouted.
The Maker of wheat becomes the Bread of Heaven;
The Vinedresser, the sweet Wine of the crushed grape.
The ewe conceived the Lamb, the Good Shepherd was born.
God emptied, and humanity fulfilled.
The gracious Giver of manna by grace is given as Bread.

The Son and Heir conceived, the Servant revealed.
Heaven opened, Hades was emptied.
In the fullness of time, timelessness came to pass.
Life was confined, the dead were released.
The Son of God enwombed, the Lamb of God begotten.
Newness: Adam lives, Eve gives birth to life.
The Creator incarnate, the Theotokos created.