Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Trinity
Abba Elias the minister said, “What can sin do where there is penitence? And of what use is love where there is pride?”
On the level of knowing our vocabulary, the distinction beteween pride and humility is straightforward. They are each other’s polar opposites: pride is a self-centered focus on one’s own accomplishments and merits while humility is to know and admit one’s limitations. On the spiritual level, the difference between pride and humility is one of the most important forks in the road on our journey with Christ. Humility can and must be attained as we move onwards and forwards as Christians. Before destruction the heart of man is haughty, and before honour is humility (Prov 18:12) This is because humility in the Christian sense is more than merely knowing our faults and limitations, it is a way of relating to God, to other human beings, and to creation at large. Humility is life. The true realization of our own limitations compels us to rely for our righteousness on the merits of Christ. Only with humility in our hearts do we see the necessity of having Christ as our advocate before the judgment seat. It places us on par, as absolute equals, with every other member of the human race. Pride, on the other hand, is the death of the soul. It hides form us our relationship to God and the world around us. It tells us that we are the authors of our own fortunes and destinies; owners rather than stewards of Creation; that we are competitors rather than neighbors to others.
By focusing on our own achievements we push ourselves further away from God, but by honoring Him as the source of all the good that we do and all the blessings that we have, we are able to draw closer to Him. A reliance on our own abilities will always cause us to fall short of our spiritual target, while a focus on the boundless mercy and grace of God, and a focus on how we can reflect that divinity in the world despite our limitations, raises us up and assures us our victory. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted (Mat 23:12).
These are movements of the heart and soul, entirely interior to ourselves. For this reason, humility cannot be faked. Well, we can pretend, put on a show of humility, but to no avail. What’s the point? The world doesn’t value humility anyway while, as the psalmist writes, Shall not God search this out? for he knoweth the secrets of the heart (Ps 44:21).
Today’s Gospel reading is perhaps the best-known Scriptural passage speaking about the life-and-death difference between pride and humility. The parable of the Pharisee and the publican is right up there with the parables of the prodigal son and the Good Samaritan as Scriptural corner stones; messages that we have heard and read more times than we could possibly remember. But have we listened properly? Have we “inclined the ear of our heart,” as St Benedict calls us to do? And this is crucial: what is our heart’s response to the text? What happens to us when we hear it? Does the text pierce our heart or does it merely prompt us to have some selfgratifying emotional response? There are really only these two options. Both recognize the surface meaning of the text—that pride will get you nowhere—but only one response recognizes the text’s deeper spiritual meaning and implications. Let us discern the difference.
Firstly, we can hear this parable and frown at the pride of the Pharisee, look with favor at the humble publican, and say to ourselves, “man, that publican’s a moron”—or words to that effect—“he really doesn’t get it. Clearly the publican is the one doing it right.” We see what is going on, we take sides and stake our claim against that wicked Pharisee. But, my friends, this response is dangerously close to offering up our own prayer of thanks: “thank God that I am not a spiritually blind as that Pharisee.” And what is this other than an exact replica of the error of the Pharisee himself?
To recognize what goes on we must first realize that this parable holds up before us two images of ourselves as worshippers. Scripture is almost never about “them.” It is about us, you and me. We must always read Scripture as participants, as if we are in the text—because we are. The characters described are, in a spiritual sense, us—especially in the parables. The Pharisee and the publican are no different.
So we read or hear about these two characters. One of them is agreeable to us, the other one not and our natural impulse therefore is to point fingers at the Pharisee in a “aha! I know the answer!” sort of way. But again, this parable is not about “them.” We don’t get to point fingers at anyone… other than ourselves. Friends, we all want the publican. We want him to be the image in which we recognize ourselves but once we do, we are the Pharisee.
This is the paradox: we cannot be the publican, the one whom Jesus says went down to his house justified (Luke 18:14) unless we recognize ourselves in the Pharisee. Unless we recognize that his faults of pride represent our faults; that his smug satisfaction with himself is a filler for our shortcomings; that his self-righteousness is ours—and that this does violence to our relationship with God. Only when we realize that we are the Pharisee, not the publican, are we able to earnestly pray with that publcan: “God be merciful to me a sinner”
Some may object: “this does not at all describe me.” But, friends, herein lies the problem: the moment we defend ourselves as more righteous than this Pharisee, we are the Pharisee. There is none righteous, no not one (Rom 3:10). That is the realization that we are pushed towards; that this parable, read carefully, tricks us into. We are not more righteous than the Pharisee. We may not suffer from his specific defects, but we have others, and plenty of them. This may be something to pray and reflect on in the coming week.
But having said all this, Pharisees and publicans are safe because they are historically and culturally distant from us. They function almost as literary types; in a sense, even if we read about them regularly, they are not real to us. They have no contemporary, present-day meaning because none of us have ever met a Pharisee or a publican. Once we are able to overcome the difficulty of recognizing ourselves in the Pharisee and wish for the righteousness of the publican, I would like to up the ante by replacing them with contemporary types. Make it the parable of the pastor and the hooker. Or the churchwarden and the junkie.
A proud and boastful pastor and a humbly penitent prostitute. A self-righteous churchwarden and heroin addict praying God’s mercy. Are we still able to see the relationship: that it is the humility and penitence of the soul that renders merit, not the calling, profession or situation in life? Are we still able to see that all the signs of propriety and status are neither here nor there, that they are neither signs of nor aids to salvation? Is it more difficult to agree that we are not one iota more righteous than a penitent prostitute? Is it less appealing to be told that you have to realize that you are the churchwarden in order to be able to become the junkie?
Of course it is less appealing. But it is also–because these are types of people that we all know of or even know–more real. “I am no more righteous than them!” Can I say that and, in my heart of hearts, mean it? That is what we are called to do. That revelation, when grasped with the heart, is a stepping stone to divinity. In humility lies the realization of the true nature of our relationship with God; the relationship of slave to master, of creature to Creator. In true humility lies also the vision that every repentant soul carries the divine within it. That propriety and social status are neither here nor there, and that we are committing grave sin if we do not take this equality seriously. God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34), and neither is the Christian.
Let me put it somewhat differently: self-righteousness is the absolute opposite of righteousness. When we rely on our own righteousness, we do not need the righteousness bought for us by the shedding of Christ’s precious blood on Golgotha. In this parable, the Pharisee does not really need God. Despite the fact that he is standing in the temple praying, what he is doing is simply to reaffirm how great he is. This is a man who does not need the achievement of Christ on the Cross because he has his own achievements, and his need for God is a need for social ritual. This is why the text says something rather odd: The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself…” (Luke 18:11). St Basil wrote that, “he prayed with himself, that is, not with God, his sin of pride sent him back to himself.” In effect, he worshipped the creature instead of the Creator. And he asked for nothing. He was satisfied with his place and position. It suited him. He was not on a penitent journey with God, his pride had prompted him to settle down and to reduce worship to a status symbols.
Too often we reduce Jesus to someone we are comfortable with, someone who says things that we are comfortable hearing; a Jesus who does not demand anything too outrageously harsh. But Jesus was, as a matter of fact, an uncomfortable person who said exceptionally harsh things and demanded of his followers some extremely difficult choices. This is, after all, why the Jews did not want to listen. He was not what they had imagined he would be, so they put him to death. By refashioning Jesus in our own image, making him into someone we can live comfortably with, we are doing the very same thing. Softening his admonishments to the point where they become feel-good stories is one way in which we repeat his death at the hands of humanity.
But we do so at our own peril. Laying aside our pride and assuming the cloak of humility in a real and tangible way is not negotiable. Yes, it is difficult. Yes, it requires patience, perseverance and grace. And yes, it can only be achieved by absolute abandonment of ourselves to grace. But it is important because, friends, pride kills. St John Chrysostom wrote about this parable that it “represents to us two chariots on the race course, each with two charioteers in it. In one of the chariots it places righteousness with pride, in the other sin and humility. You see the chariot of sin outstrip that of righteousness, not by its own strength but by the excellence of humility combined with it, but the other is defeated not by righteousness, but by the weight and swelling of pride.”
The prayer of the publican is the basis for what the Eastern Church refers to as The Jesus Prayer. It is a constant repetition of the exclamation, “Jesus, saviour, have mercy on me a sinner.” As we continue to pray for God’s grace and guidance, I whole heartedly recommend to you to make use of this prayer often and regularly. Not only is it a prayer that indicates an awareness of our true relationship with God, but it also fosters that awareness by repetition. It keeps the necessity of humility before our eyes.
So we continue to pray, for you, O Lord, to have mercy on us. Amen.