Saturday, February 11, 2006

Homily (02/12/06) The Pharisee and the Publican

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

In our Gospel Lesson this morning, the emphasis is on humility as our Lord concluded the story of the Pharisee and the Publican by saying, “Every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted”.

God is humble, and nowhere is this revealed more completely than in the Incarnation of the Son of God. By His voluntary self-emptying to assume our humanity forever, Jesus becomes the very embodiment of the perfect humility of God. God shows His humility by becoming a man. Man, on the other hand, shows his arrogance by imagining himself to already be a god. He does not pray, he does not repent, because he does not believe that he will answer to any god greater than himself. Humility does not come easily to such a “little god” as this.

I thought I knew something about humility—at least in theory—until I went to Mt. Athos and met many monks who truly were humble and reflected God’s humility so well in their own lives. I felt something like the guy who got dressed in the dark, and only when he got to work discovered that his shirt was badly wrinkled, his pants had stains on them, and he was wearing mismatched socks. Whatever had passed for humility in my life previously was exposed as little more than an outward affectation in the light of such truly and deeply humble men.

But this was not a bad experience entirely; it was actually a very good one. It helped me to again realize that we live in a world in which people habitually tend to define themselves by externals. By what we own, where we live, how we dress, we present a carefully crafted illusion to those around us of who we imagine ourselves to be. But it doesn’t end there. Also by many outward mannerisms that we have adopted, we create a public version of our personality, displaying virtues or characteristics that may not even belong to the real person on the inside.

Sometimes we know that we’re faking; sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we succeed in fooling ourselves into thinking that we really are the person we appear to be on the outside. This is why we often come to confession and say, “I don’t know why I did that!” Could it be that we don’t really know the person we truly are?

It isn’t that we are malicious in this, like wolves in sheep’s clothing. It just may be as simple as the fact that we don’t particularly like the person on the inside that we have seen in glimpses now and then. That guy is lazy. He doesn’t love God very much. He likes to go to In-N-Out on fast days. He doesn’t pray enough for the people he loves, and in fact he often acts mean toward them far too much of the time. He isn’t very spiritual. Why would anyone want to admit to being someone like that? It’s better if that one is kept locked in the basement with the windows boarded up and the much better Mr. Phony takes his place in the outside world.

In the monastic environment, there are no In-N-Outs. If you sleep through Matins, everyone knows about it. You can’t avoid confession just because you might prefer to. It is much harder to live an illusion there, and thus you are left with facing the reality of who you really are. By contrast, we have far too many escape routes available to us; far too many ways to hide from the truth. And we run to these over and over again to avoid the hard work of repentance and of facing and reforming the person inside by God’s grace.

What shall we do on that Great and Terrible Day when all else is taken away and that sorely neglected inner person is left standing naked before the Judge? Will Mr. Phony come to his defense saying, “Judge me! I’m the good person that everyone saw!” It is that hour of our death, when there is nothing between the sinner and God, which the monastic life so well recreates on earth. That desperate, restless, sometimes even bored feeling that often overtakes visitors to monasteries is exactly due to the fact that there is so little there to satisfy the soul, except for God. Stripped of illusion, like a soul stripped of its body, the monk is able to see himself as he truly is before God. This leads to the deepest kind of humility, the deepest repentance, even as it leads to the deepest communion with Christ Himself.

You can see what we are up against. Because we desire so much to flee from the truth about ourselves, and have so many opportunities to do just that, our Orthodox life, our repentance, our communion with Christ in fact, can become very spotty. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can begin to acknowledge that the relative independence we eagerly allow ourselves from accountability to the Orthodox life, to our father-confessor, even to one another in this community, is in fact death to our souls. When we try to keep a comfortable distance from such accountability, what we are really doing is keeping a comfortable distance from ourselves and refusing to repent, refusing to change. There is no humility in such an action as this.

You don’t have to be self-righteous like the Pharisee to be arrogant. You can be fully aware of your sinfulness, yet unrepentant, and be equally as arrogant. Such unrepentance is a slap in the face to the humility of God, and the complete opposite of it. It might even be worse than the sins of the Pharisee.

We love the Publican in this story because we think that we can identify with him. He saw his sinfulness as we see our sinfulness. He beat his breast as we do, and he said, “God be merciful to me the sinner” just as we also do so many times each day. But these actions alone did not justify him, just as they alone cannot justify us. If this was just a story about a man who had a momentary twinge of guilt before God and then hurried home to put it out of his mind later, it wouldn’t have been a story worth telling. Lots of people do that every Sunday.

Instead, the implication here is that this man finally decided to do something about his life. He decided to hold himself accountable to God and submit to Him, rather than just live any old way he pleased. Do you see the essential humility in this action? He abandoned the arrogance of living like a “little god” and began to answer to the big God. It’s as if he said, “This day, O Lord, I will no longer pretend to worship You, while secretly I worship myself. I will offer you the true worship due to You alone, by offering You my true self, and bettering my way of life with Your help.”

Can there be anything greater in this old world than the man or woman who makes this self-renunciation and submits fully to God in His Church? May this be our prayer, and our choice as well, that we may return to our homes justified and full of grace.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 2/15/2006 12:17 PM , Blogger sara said...

Thank you for posting this...didn't get to hear it on Sunday. Glad to find your blog!

At 2/16/2006 1:29 PM , Blogger Aaron said...

Welcome to the blogosphere Father!

At 2/17/2006 9:51 AM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Thanks to you both!

At 2/17/2006 10:03 AM , Blogger The Scrivener said...

Thanks, Father. I look forward to visiting your blog in the future.

At 2/17/2006 5:49 PM , Blogger papa herman said...

I echo Aaron... welcome to the blogworld.

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