Homily 34th Sunday after Pentecost: Publican and Pharisee

Luke 18:10-14

 In the Name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Glory to Jesus Christ!  Glory Forever!

“Brethren, let us not pray as the Pharisee; for he who exalts himself shall be humbled.  Let us humble ourselves before God, and with fasting cry aloud as the Publican:  God be merciful to us sinners.”  These very words sung last night at vespers in all of the Orthodox Churches; and today in the Gospel we heard of the Publican and the Pharisee.  We heard of two men who told the truth:  one of his utter and complete wretchedness, the Publican, and the other of all of his good deeds, the Pharisee.  It’s interesting to note that both of them were telling the truth about themselves, but only one of them was justified, that is, counted righteous before the Lord....that was the one that told the truth about his sins, not the one who boasted of his virtues and who put down his fellow man.... “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  It appears that to humble oneself is the better option than to let the Lord do it for you.  What does it mean, though, to humble oneself?  We are given the image of the tax collector, the publican, beating his breast, unable even to lift his eyes to heaven.  He is only able to say, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”

          This is not the image we want to see in today’s world.  We live in a society which says we must be happy.  If we go to Church we’ve got to be smiling and bubbly.  We are afraid of sorrow, and yet in the beatitudes we hear, “blessed are they that mourn...” and the beatitudes begin “blessed are the poor in spirit....”  These don’t sound very happy.  Later, we hear that those who are persecuted for righteousness sake are also blessed.  Looking at today’s Epistle reading we also heard that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.”  Our culture doesn’t know how to handle this.  Where’s the self-esteem in all this? Thankfully, it isn’t there.  The Pharisee had plenty of self-esteem, but “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.” 

Self-esteem seems to be the “catch-phrase” these days.  We’ve all got to have self-esteem so that we can achieve our goals in life.  First of all by this it is evident that we do not have the right view of what self-esteem is and second, perhaps we have got the wrong goals in mind if self-esteem is needed to reach them.  The Fathers say that self-esteem leads to pride which is the downfall of a man.  In the Philokalia it says that self-esteem is the gate that the demons use to gain entry to the soul.  A man’s intellect with some small spiritual progress will “mount the horse of self-esteem and immediately rides off into cities, taking its fill of the lavish praise accorded its repute.”  (Evagrios the Solitary, Philokalia V.1 p. 46-47)  This is a fairly good description of the type of person the Pharisee was.  He was proud of all his good works and they were good works.  His self-esteem, though, let in the demons that led him to condemn others and exalt himself.  In Matthew we find another description of the Pharisees that says “But all their works they do to be seen by men.  They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments.  They love the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, Rabbi, Rabbi....”  The passage ends with the same warning that is in the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee, “And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matt. 23:5-7, 12) Self-esteem is just self-exaltation, and the self-exalted will not receive God’s exaltation.

Many people think, though, that the opposite of self-esteem is self-hatred.  This is not the case.  The opposite of self-esteem is humility.  Self-hatred is the product of despair and is a sin in and of itself.  Why would one hate someone that God loves?  God loves us; therefore if we hate ourselves, then we hate someone that God loves.  When we hate someone beloved of God, we have made God our enemy...and we have fallen to Satan’s trap.  Humility, fearlessly seeing ourselves as we truly are, sins and all is, therefore, the better option.  When we see how we are totally dependent on God for everything, when we see how our sin forms a barrier between us and God (but never from God’s love), we will not exalt ourselves.  We should daily make a reckoning of how we have passed the day and examine our conscience.  We will see both our sins as they are, and, hopefully, some good that we have done by the Grace and help from God.

Some might say that the description of the Publican seems to be the image of one who does hate himself:  “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.”  That looks like despair to many, but look closer.  Is it?  The parable begins, “Two men went up to the temple to pray....”  The publican goes to pray.  He has not given up on himself.  He sees a need to pray for mercy.  The despairing, the truly self-hating, give up.  They have lost hope, they would not even see the benefit of praying for themselves.  “God be merciful to me a sinner.”    The Publican did have a glimmer of hope that would make him cry out for mercy rather than simply give up.  He made the effort to come to the temple, to pray.

Let us return to the beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  The poor in spirit are seen by the Fathers to be those who are humble and contrite in soul.  As Christ says, “he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  What is that exaltation then?  It is receiving the kingdom of heaven which is far greater than the praise a man can heap on himself.  “Blessed are they who mourn.....”  The Fathers say that those who mourn are those who mourn for their sins.  The blessing continues, though.... “for they shall be comforted.”  Blessed Theophylact writes that they shall be comforted, “both in this life, for he who mourns for his sin rejoices spiritually, and even more so in the next life.” (p. 45, Explanation of the Gospel of Matthew)

 Our Lord said,“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other....”  What greater joy could there be than to know that by humility, by lowering ourselves, we gain eternity, the kingdom of heaven.  The Publican may not have raised his eyes to heaven, but he did raise his heart to heaven and cried out to the Lord of mercy, and he received that mercy and much more.  He gained everything.

In the Name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Glory to Jesus Christ!  Glory Forever!








2009 Fr. Philip Kontos