The Publican and Me

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One of the lessons of the Gospel Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14) is that humility is a virtue needed as a precondition for further spiritual growth.  It isn’t a goal that we strive for and hope to achieve in some distant future after years of Christian maturation, but it is part of the foundation we need for further growth.

6995565225_d498f6e3a7_mThink about Moses, that mighty hero of the Old Testament who defied the mighty Pharaoh of Egypt and led a slave rebellion against the Egyptian Empire.  God speaks to Moses face to face the Scriptures tell us (Exodus 33:11)and God even backs down when challenged by Moses who intercedes for Israel.   Yet, God calls Moses the most humble man who ever lived (Numbers 12:3).  Certainly, we see in Moses that being humble does not mean lacking courage.  But it is Moses own humility which God finds so virtuous in Moses.  Moses was not arrogant, did not seek things for personal gain, and served both God and the people faithfully even when the people and God were displeased with him.  In all of this, Moses is a Christ-like figure.  But humility was the virtue at Moses’ heart.

And Jesus Himself tells the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee to extol the virtue of humility.  We’ve all been told endless times that the Pharisee in the story is the religious zealot.  He does everything he boasts of doing.  He is not lying nor exaggerating but telling the truth about his piety.  He is laying claim to the reward he assumes God must bestow upon him for his virtue.  The Publican is the notorious sinner of the parable, who admits before God that he is a sinner and begs God’s mercy.  As even St. John Chrysostom notes it is not particularly humble to admit you are a sinner when in fact you are one – you are just acknowledging the truth of the matter.  The Publican has little to commend himself to God, and yet it is he not the pious and self-righteous Pharisee that is favored by God because God rejects the pride of the Pharisee and embraces the humility of the Publican.  The Publican goes beyond admitting to the truth and accepting the judgment that is laid on him.  Therein lies his humility.  He cannot lay claim to any reward for virtue, but opens himself to the mercy and love of God.

Now we can retell the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee so we perfectly understand it by putting our self in the Parable in the place of the Pharisee and then picking whomever we consider to be the most loathsome, despicable kind of sinner for the Publican.

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Almost everyone has a kind of person or sinner they particularly despise and wish evil on.  When I visit inmates in prison, the murderers despise the child molesters.  Everyone seems able to imagine a sinner worse than themselves, someone else who is the foremost of sinners and perhaps beyond God’s grace.

One inmate I visited in a prison told me a story which really was his living out the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.  He was in prison for having been involved in the manslaughter of his pregnant girlfriend and the baby she was carrying.  One day in prison, he learned he was being assigned a new table place at meals – directly across from a child molester.  He despised child molesters.  He was seething with anger that he would now have to sit across from this pedophile at every meal.  This ruined not only that day but threatened to ruin every meal he would eat.  As he sat at table with his food in front of him, stewing in his anger and hatred, the child molester sat across from him, and not even looking up, he humbly bowed his head and quietly said grace over his food:  “God, thank you for the food you have given me and for providing for me every day though I am a terrible sinner living in prison where I deserve to be.  Forgive me, Lord, for my sins are many.”   Sitting across from this man, shame came over the inmate.  For he had started eating without giving thanks to God or saying any prayer, and found himself consumed with hatred.  He felt total embarrassment that he was being so judgmental because he felt himself to be a Christian, and yet here was this man praying and confessing his sins at the table while all he did was internally rage with anger.   It is easy to be the Pharisee.

So, now retell the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee.  Who is the Publican in your life – the liar, the murderer,  the child molester,  the homosexual, the criminal, the adulterer, the thief, the user of pornography, the drug pusher, the abuser, the angry, the greedy, the narcissist, the obese, the person who doesn’t use their turn signal, the driver using their cell phone?   Who is the kind of person you really despise?  Now tell the parable:

7305699938_68e888fb39_mTwo people went to our church to pray.  I was one, and the other was . . . (name the worst sinner you can imagine – whether by name or by sin they commit). . .

I went to the front of the church and stood before the icon and prayed:  God I thank you that I am not like those who sin against You.  I fast most of the days during Lent, I pretty often remember my prayers, I donate some money to the church and to charity.  I am especially thankful that I am not like … (name that sinner or kind of sinner you hate the most) because he/she commits the most horrible kind of sin.

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The … (name that sinner or kind of sinner you hate the most) … knelt in the back of our church, bowing his head before God, wringing his hands and quietly weeping in his heart, he prayed, “God be merciful to me the sinner.”

 

Jesus said:  “I tell you, this person went down to his/her house justified rather than the first; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:14)

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The Virtue of a New Year

As we have made it through one complete week of the New Year, we can consider our spiritual renewal – whether or not we made New Year’s resolutions, the beginning of a year is a good time to reflect on our spiritual life and commitment.    Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  We Orthodox engage in evaluating our lives in the sacrament of confession, in our daily examination of conscience, in meditating upon the Scriptures and spiritual writings, in our liturgical services, in our talks with our Father confessors and with our fellow Christians.

Here is a meditation from St. Francis of Assisi  on how virtue drives out vice.  We might use this to combat both sins of commission and sins of omission.  

“Where there is charity and wisdom

There is neither fear nor ignorance.

Where there is patience and humility,

There is neither anger nor disturbance.

Where there is poverty with joy,

There is neither covetousness nor avarice.

Where there is fear of the Lord to guard the house (cf. Lk 11:21),

There the enemy cannot gain entry.

Where there is mercy and discernment,

There is neither excess nor hardness of heart.”

(Francis and Clare, the Complete Works, p. 35)

Never Repay Evil with Evil

Another brother asked him: “what is the meaning of ‘Never repay evil with evil’?” [cf. Rom 12.17].

Abba Poemen said to him: “This passion works in four ways: first, in the heart; second, in the sight; third, in the tongue; fourth, in not doing evil in response to evil.

If you can purge your heart, it does not come to the sight.

If it comes to the sight, take care not to speak of it.

If you do speak of it, quickly prevent yourself from rendering evil for evil.”   (Give me a Word, p. 233)

The Desert Fathers did not hold to a “one-size fits all” spirituality.  They were realistic about the capabilities of different people and allowed for the fact that no everyone would be perfect in following Christ.  They did not have a total “black and white” viewpoint of people or of sin.  They recognized rather that in spiritual warfare, sometimes one gets only a partial victory.  They did not think that if you fail on one point that everything is lost.  As in the words above, they saw the battle for the heart as a war of inches, difficult battles with sometimes small victories, a war of attrition in which gains and loses might occur on small levels.  One might even suffer some defeats, but one would keep fighting against sin and evil wherever one could.

The Rich Ruler Considers the Value of Poverty

There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world;

but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.   (1 Timothy 6:6-11)

In Luke 18:18-27, we are given a record of a conversation between a wealthy man who also had some political influence and Jesus Christ.  It is a rare Gospel lesson in that it does directly mention the man’s inner, emotional reaction to a teaching of Christ.

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”

In Luke’s version of this story, we are told that the rich man became very sorrowful when told to give away his wealth.  We are not told whether he ever acted upon what Jesus told him.  The man in Luke’s Gospel is not referenced again.  We can surmise based on the other Gospel versions of the narrative (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31) that the man walked away from Christ grieving.  Mark additionally notes that Jesus  actually loved the man for keeping the commandments and spoke to him out of love for him.  Be that as it may, the man still walks away from Christ.  Luke, however, does not have the man walk away from Christ.  Whatever the man’s inner grief was in thinking about giving up his wealth, we aren’t told what he actually did.   Did this rich man actually think about the value of poverty or the spiritual bankruptcy of wealth?  Luke does not tell us.  It is possible the man grieved but then did what Christ directed him to do.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann at one point in his writings considers the phrase from this Gospel lesson, “It is difficult for the rich…”

“It is quite obvious that at the center of Christianity is the renunciation of wealth, any wealth. The beauty of poverty!–there is also, of course, the ugliness of poverty, but there is beauty. Christianity is enlightened only by humility, by an impoverished heart. Poverty does not consist always of lacking something–that is ugliness–but in being content with what there is.”   (The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, p. 50)

The rich ruler of the Gospel lesson was not sure he could be content with having nothing.  His contentment was based on his wealth.  His spiritual dilemma was that in being told to give away his possessions, he thought this was giving away his contentment and his self worth.  Without his wealth, he couldn’t see himself as having any value.

Overcoming Our Sins

Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos muses:

Christians often say: “if my fellow men behaved to me differently, if I had better children, if my spouse did not do this or the other, if…,if…, I could probably live a Christian life”. We have the impression that the cessation of external problems would make us better. However many times I say that external problems will never cease. Now we have troubles with our studies and later we are full of anxiety about our career or marriage. Bringing up our children will raise new problems. Afterwards we will be concerned about the future of our children or even finally of our grandchildren…I leave all other problems caused by work and social dealings. Problems will never end. We must overcome them. (The Illness and the Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition, p. 71)

Anger is Another Kind of Drunkenness

Brethren, there is another sort of evil satiety and drunkenness which does not result from indulging in food and drink, but from anger and hatred towards our neighbor, remembrance of wrongs, and the evils that spring from these. On this subject Moses says in his song, “Their wine is the wrath of dragons and the incurable wrath of asps” (Deut. 32:33). So the prophet Isaiah says, “Woe to those who are drunken, but not with wine” (Isa. 29:9)

This is the drunkenness of hatred which more than anything else causes God to turn away, and the devil attempts to bring it about in those who pray and fast. He prompts them to remember wrongs, directs their thoughts towards harboring malice, and sharpens their tongues for slander.

He prepares them to be like that man who wishes for evil whom David describes with the words, “He deviseth mischief continually, his tongue is like a sharp razor” (Ps. 51:2 Lxx), and from whom he prays God to deliver him, saying, “Deliver me, O Lord, from the evil man: preserve me from the violent man; they have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders’ poison is under their lips” (Ps. 140:1, 3). (St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 49 & 50)

Better Sleep Than Slander

“Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”  (Philippians 2:3-4)

Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth. (Numbers 12:3)

In Orthodoxy, humility is a highly valued virtue.  It is opposed to judgmentalism which is born in the sin of pride.  Judgmentalism leads to self-vaunting self-righteousness – considering oneself better than others.  Humility is what allows us to see our own sins and not to judge our sisters and brothers.   It doesn’t mean being blind – we are not taught to be blind to what is really going on – we are to see clearly even the sins of others.  It is what we do with what we see and how we react to what we see which shows us whether we live in love.  

The wisdom to love rather than judge is found in many spiritual traditions, here is a story from the Islamic tradition:

Sa’di of Shiraz tells this story about himself:
When I was a child I was a pious boy, fervent in prayer and devotion. One night I was keeping vigil with my father, the Holy Koran on my lap.

Everyone else in the room began to slumber and soon was sound asleep, so I said to my father, “None of these sleepers opens his eyes or raises his head to say his prayers. You would think that they were all dead.”

My father replied, “My beloved son, I would rather you too were asleep like them than slandering.” (Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, p. 107).

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But 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!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:9-14)

Practice Hearing God

For a holy and disciplined spirit will flee from deceit, and will leave foolish thoughts behind…”  (Wisdom of Solomon 1:5)

There is a bit of wisdom that I’ve seen even on a bumper sticker which says: “Don’t Believe Everything You Think“.   One can find similar warnings in Orthodox spiritual literature where one’s constant buzz of thoughts are sometimes compared to a swarm of bees, or worse, a swarm of flies (and we know what attracts flies!).  Or this from Sirach  – “The heart of a fool is like a cart wheel, and his thoughts like a turning axle” (33:5).   Our minds are always busy – always turning, but the spiritual literature says we can learn to discern our own thoughts better by slowly, gently ignoring some of them until we are able to hear another voice – that of God.  Especially if we have allowed God’s Word to enter into our hearts and minds through attending liturgical services, reading scripture and through prayer.   Fr. Meletios Webber writes:

“For those who do not have access to spiritual direction, please allow me to attempt to describe such an exercise in staying present (and avoiding the pitfalls of ego-boosting) in spiritually neutral terms. It goes something like this:

Stop listening to your thoughts–not the thoughts you have, but the thoughts that have you. They have nothing beneficial to offer you, and besides you have heard them all before. Brush them aside, and gently continue to brush them aside. Beyond their clamor and din there is available to you a level of greater awareness–a place of love, joy, peace, and compassion. At first, it is difficult to “hear” it (since it is expressed in silence) but with practice you will start recognize its voice, and a deeper state of presence will be yours.” (“When Taking Cover Is Not Enough”, In Communion, p. 14).

Spiritual directors warn that if we only read those passages of Scripture which we like or agree with, then we aren’t listening to God but are only listening to ourselves.  If we read the Scriptures through our political bent, we shaped the Scriptures into a text that agrees with us.  It is much harder to allow the Scriptures to speak to us and far easier for us to read into them what we want them to say.  So the Lord Jesus teaches:

“You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40)

People who have memorized a text and repeat it often, sometimes don’t even notice when the written text has been changed, even when it is right in front of them.  They are not reading the text, but rather saying what their mind has already believed the text to say.   Sometimes they literally can’t even see the change in the text because their brain expects the text to say what it has memorized.   So the person has to slow down their mind, and actually pay attention to the text which is before them.  Sometimes they stumble over the words, sometimes the different words appear and they suddenly realize what they are saying is different than the text before their eyes and they feel the cognitive dissonance as they say one thing but read something different.  Sometimes they have to stop and actually read the printed words carefully and intentionally.  That is the experience that Fr Webber is describing: how it is necessary at times to slow our thinking down and filter some of the thoughts so that we can actually hear that voice from God who speaks to us but who we drown out with all the other things to which we want to pay attention.

We might consider the experience of the Holy Prophet Elijah who didn’t find God in the explosion winds, earthquake or fire, and all the thoughts that resulted from them.  Rather, only when all else had been cleared from his mind did Elijah hear the “still small voice” which was God speaking to him.

And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 19:11-13)

HE Must Increase, Not I

“He must increase, but I must decrease.” (St. John the Forerunner speaking about Jesus, John 3:30)

“You say that you have no success. Indeed, there will be no success so long as you are full of self-indulgence and self-pity. These two things show at once that what is uppermost in your heart is “I” and not the Lord. It is the sin of self-love, living within us, that gives birth to all our sinfulness, making the whole man a sinner from head to food, so long as we allow it to dwell in the soul. And when the whole man is a sinner, how can grace come to him? It will not come, just as a bee will not come where there is smoke.

There are two elements in the decision to work for the Lord: First a man must deny himself, and secondly he must follow Christ (Mark 8:34). The first demands a complete stamping out of egoism or self-love, and consequently a refusal to allow any self-indulgence or self-pity–whether in great matters or small.”  (St. Theophan the Recluse, Heavenly Wisdom from God-illuminated Teachers on Conquering Depression, pp. 55-56)

Resisting Self-Indulgent Passions

The Triumph of Dionysus

Self-Indulgent: What is meant is the appetites of the self, an unhealthy individualism that serves evil and leads to idolatry (Gal. 5.9). When self-indulgence is at work the results are obvious:

fornication, gross indecency and sexual irresponsibility; idolatry and sorcery; feuds and wrangling, jealousy, bad temper and quarrels, disagreements, factions, envy, murders, drunkenness and similar things (Col. 3.5 adds evil desires and greed, spitefulness, abusive language, dirty talk and lies).

What the Spirit brings is the opposite of self-indulgent (Gal. 5.22). By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self control….

If the Spirit is the source of our life, let the Spirit also direct its course. We must stop being conceited, provocative and envious (1 Cor. 2:21-3:3).”

(The Divine Liturgy of the Great Church annotated by Paul N. Harrilchak, p 58)