Homily 31st Sunday after Pentecost

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.  Glory to Jesus Christ!  Glory forever!

We just heard some remarkable words spoken by a man who could say, and did, though reluctantly, that he had been to the third heaven and had seen spiritual things which no man could utter.  He could say of his own life, “I have run the good race.”  He could speak with peace about his impending death, and yet he also wrote concerning himself, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”  Saint Isaac the Syrian asks the question, “when did he say this?” and then answers his own question, “After great struggles, after mighty works, after the preaching of the Gospel of Christ which he preached throughout the whole world….He saw himself as still making a beginning.”  St. Isaac describes how St. Paul was reluctant to count himself as an Apostle; that he  was not worthy of this name since he  had persecuted the Church (1 Cor. 15:9). 

Why would St. Paul count himself as chief of sinners even after he had done so much good in his life; even after attaining such spiritual heights, heights that stagger those of us who follow in his footsteps….those of us who honor him as one of the greatest Saints of the Church?  St. John Chrysostom in his commentary on this passage explains, “As a man that has acquired wealth, with respect to himself appears rich, but upon a comparison with the treasures of kings is very poor and the chief of the poor; so it is in this case. Compared with Angels, even righteous men are sinners…”

It is a great spiritual truth that the closer a seeker comes to the source of Holiness, that is, to God, the more he truly sees himself as he is and more importantly as he is in comparison to God. With Our Lord Who is infinite in His goodness, Who is uncreated and eternal, there is no comparison.  We are clay.  We were shaped from the dust of the ground.  We cannot compare to God.

And yet, by this very comparison, we can begin to receive an inkling of the magnitude of what it is that Christ did for us by becoming one of us, dying for us, and rising again…even placing the deified nature of man at the right hand of God the Father.

Even though we have been told this, even though we know it in our hearts, even though we can scarcely comprehend just a bit of this, we find it hard to believe something this wonderful.  St. John Chrysostom wrote, “The favors of God so far exceed human hope and expectation, that often they are not believed. For God has bestowed upon us such things as the mind of man never looked for, never thought of.”  He then continues, “It is for this reason that the Apostles spend much discourse in securing a belief of the gifts that are granted us of God. For as men, upon receiving some great good, ask themselves if it is not a dream, as not believing it; so it is with respect to the gifts of God.”

Keeping in mind that Paul had been an active persecutor of the Church of God and if not an outright killer of those in the Church, at least an accomplice (remember he was at St. Stephen’s martyrdom), we hear that God has forgiven him.  He has received God’s mercy.  It amazes Paul, too, that he has obtained such mercy despite being an enemy of the Lord, “However, for this reason I obtained mercy,” he wrote to Timothy, “that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.”  Paul saw himself as chief of sinners pardoned so that others might understand that God was truly going to forgive them too.  Paul might have been thinking, “If they believe I can be saved, maybe this will prove to them that they can be saved too.”

There is more to this, though, than simply seeing that if someone who was bad can change and be forgiven, so could we all.  As in most cases we can take the Scriptures and apply them to ourselves.  Indeed, that is one of their purposes, the fathers teach.  We must make the words of Scriptures our own.  The words don’t just relate to someone in the past who has long since gone on to his rest.   It is for this reason that we pray at home and at every liturgy as we prepare to take communion, “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”  In this prayer we combine the statements of the two Chief Apostles, Peter and Paul.  With Peter we confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and with Paul we confess that he came to save sinners, “of whom I am chief.”  We declare ourselves to be the chief of sinners.  We say it, but do we really mean it?  This is, perhaps, one of the most important spiritual struggles we have.  It is the struggle against pride and against judging others.  The fathers tell us that pride is one of the last of the vices to be shed in our spiritual struggles.

Surely, though, calling ourselves the chief of sinners is an exaggeration, we might counter.  We would say that this is true…only if we are still proud enough to compare ourselves with others….only if we are proud enough to try to judge the motivation of others.  If I look at a man in prison and say, “he is a murderer.  I’ve never committed murder, so I must be less of a sinner than he is,” then I’ve missed the point.  “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” we are told by the Lord.  By comparing myself with another, not only have I raised myself above my brother, but I have put myself in the place of God as the judge.  Now, that is pride!  If we judge ourselves, though, as St. Paul tells us (1 Cor. 11:31) we will not be judged a second time.

Our spiritual life, our yearning for God, occurs from the depths of our very being.  It is how we were created to be.  If we live our lives on that deepest of levels, yearning for God from our very being, then, the fathers tell us, we stop comparing ourselves to other men,  but we see ourselves “in the light of our creator”[1] When we live on this deep level of our being we find that there is “no end to repentence.”[2]  “Repentence is the means by which we cleanse the mirror of our soul, the image of God in us, and this eventually brings us to the likeness of God.”[3]

One could say then, that by judging only ourselves, not others, and by truly seeing ourselves as the chief of sinners, and meaning it (that’s the hard part…and meaning it), this is the path towards coming into the likeness of God.  Humility will raise us up, not drag us down.  If we raise ourselves up, then we will be dragged down.

Let us not, then pray for lofty things.  Let us not pray for visions and dreams or great spiritual feats.  Let us rather pray for repentance, which is also a gift of God.  Let us pray that we can see others as all being saved and that we can only judge ourselves and no one else.  Within this spiritual mourning we will find relief and we will find comfort as our Lord said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  There is a reason that these phrases are repeated every week at every liturgy.  We need to be reminded.

If we ever wonder about the power of not judging others, let us listen to the entry for March 30th from the Prologue of Ohrid a collection of saints’ lives and rejoice:


This monk was lazy, careless, and lacking in his prayer life; but throughout all of his life, he did not judge anyone. While dying, he was happy. When the brethren asked him how is it that with so many sins, you die happy? He replied, "I now see angels who are showing me a letter with my numerous sins. I said to them, Our Lord said: `stop judging and you will not be judged' (St. Luke 6:37). I have never judged anyone, and I hope in the mercy of God that He will not judge me." And the angels tore up the paper. Upon hearing this, the monks were astonished and learned from it.

May we all learn from it as well.

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.  Glory to Jesus Christ!  Glory forever!

[1] Archimandrite Zacharias p. 101 The Hidden Heart of Man

[2] ibid. p. 101

[3] Ibid. p. 116



©2009 Fr. Philip Kontos