Today, we begin the period of the Lenten Triodion. This Sunday is known as the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, and it is the first of three preparatory Sundays before Great Lent begins. Each of the three preparatory Sundays has its own theme, all of which are related to Great Lent and which are intended to help us prepare for our Lenten journey, the holy season of intense prayer, fasting, and works of charity. The theme of this morning’s Gospel is concerned primarily with prayer, self-righteousness, and humility.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men: robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ I tell you this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
In Jesus’ time, the Pharisee would have been considered the good guy, he wore the white hat. He was a synagogue leader in his town. All Pharisees were super-religious men who were extremely careful about obeying the Torah, which is basically the first five books of the Old Testament. They also followed the Mishnah, which explained how to obey the Torah. There might be several chapters in the Mishnah devoted to one single verse in the Torah. In addition, they followed the Talmud, which was a commentary on the Mishnah. These guys lived by the book!
A tax collector, on the other hand, was considered the scum of the earth, the very bottom of the religious food chain in Israel. Hired by the pagan Romans, he could charge exorbitant taxes and keep most of the money for himself. He was considered the villain, he wore the black hat. If you had been a good Jew listening to Jesus, when he mentioned the Pharisee, you would have cheered, “Yeah! Hurrah for the good guy!” When He mentioned the tax collector you would have cried, “Boo! Hiss! Boo!” But Jesus is always full of surprises. He introduced a good guy and a bad guy, and by the time He finished the parable, the good guy had become the bad guy and the bad guy became the good guy!
In case you still do not get the picture, I have written a modern paraphrase of this parable. I call it “The Parable of the Priest and the Gang-Banger Drug Dealer.”
As Father John walked into church one Sunday morning to prepare for Divine Liturgy, he was disgusted to see Larry Lowlife there, for Larry was a notorious local gang banger and drug dealer who had just gotten out of prison. Father John warned some of the ushers to keep a close watch on Larry because he was a no-good crook.
After finishing the vesting prayers and before beginning the Liturgy of Preparation, Fr. John, as was his custom, began to pray using his religious tone of voice, “Heavenly Father, I thank Thee that I’ve been a priest in this church for 20 years. I even remember when I built this building using my own two hands. And I thank Thee that I haven’t missed a single Sunday for over ten years. There were times, O Lord, when I was sick, but I came anyway. And Father, thou knowest I used to sing in the choir until I was persecuted by the choir director who simply just didn’t like me, but I can endure persecution just like Thou didst. Thou hast blessed me financially so I’ve been able to give you much more than 10 percent. I Thank thee that I’m morally pure for I don’t drink, and I don’t swear, I faithfully keep the fasts, and I don’t use drugs or sell them–like someone who is in this church today. Lord, continue Thy blessings upon me, that I may show the way of righteousness to Thy people. Amen.”
After pontificating for about 15 minutes with a homily that took great pains to point out his theological knowledge, Father John strolled out of church feeling good about himself because he made it through another Sunday. He liked leaving the church because he did not have to think about God again until the next Sunday.
Meanwhile, Larry Lowlife was slouched in the back pew. After hearing the message about God’s forgiveness, he slipped to his knees and began to pray. Holding his face in his hands he sobbed quietly, “God, I’m the dirtiest sinner in this town. I’m so sorry. I don’t deserve it, but is there any way you can wash away my filthy mistakes? Please, God, I need you!”
I tell you, it was Larry Newlife, not Father John, who went home that day right with God. For he who struts his stuff before God will eventually be slapped down. But when you admit you are like dirt compared to God’s purity, He will pick you up and clean you up.
So, I ask you: Are you more like Fr. John or Larry in that story? As we reflect on this morning’s Gospel, I encourage you to answer three important questions:
First, why did you come to Church? In the parable, both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector went to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. But when you examine their actions and attitudes, you discover they went for two different reasons. Why did you come today? To be seen?
Obviously, the Pharisee was at the temple for others to see how good he was. To him, it was a public performance and his behavior at the temple was just part of the script. He had given much thought to what he would wear, and where he would stand, and what he would say because there was an audience. When he arrived, he walked up to the front and stood before the people in his flowing robe with the ornate prayer shawl the Pharisees wore. It was just all part of the religious show for him. The words he prayed were not really directed toward God. He prayed to himself. He was there to be seen and to be heard by the other worshipers. Jesus warned about this kind of behavior in Matthew 6:5, “But when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.”
When you are preparing to come to church, are you thinking more about who will be there to see you than you are about worshipping and adoring God? Do you choose what you are going to wear based on what other people will think about you? I know you will not believe it, but some people actually come to church because they think it will help them in their business, or in politics, or will improve their social standing. Answer honestly: Why do you attend church?
We all struggle with the temptation of trying to please other people rather than pleasing God. Even during our time here, I constantly try to focus on just speaking to God rather than using Divine Services as merely an opportunity to “preach” to you. Do not get me wrong, I love to preach, but preaching is not about me, it is about teaching and speaking God’s heart. In other words, preaching is about Christ speaking to you through me.
Before I went to prison, I was often asked to lead in prayer at public functions away from the church. Actually, I do not get asked very much anymore, primarily because of the fact I was in prison, but it is also because most people have learned I am going to pray in the name of the Holy Trinity and that is not politically correct in our culture. But when I am asked to pray, I sincerely try to simply talk to God rather than to deliver some kind of cute sermonette in my prayer. We must all guard against praying so others will be impressed with what we say. Prayer should always be directed to God alone.
The tax collector represents another reason you might be here today. Did you come to seek God? The tax collector showed up because he was in trouble and he believed God could help him. His body language revealed his sense of unworthiness; he could not walk to the front of the crowd, instead, he kept his distance. He did not focus on the other people there, he focused on God.
Worship does involve an audience. But it is an audience of one. When we come to church, we should be primarily concerned about seeking God’s face. You may receive the applause of man, but you should be deaf to it. You should be listening only for the applause of the nail-scarred hands.
Why are you here today? Is it just your habit, a part of your weekend routine? Perhaps you came because your parents or your spouse pressured you to come. Or maybe you feel guilty if you do not come. Or did you come seeking to connect with the Almighty God, the Creator of the Universe? God says in Jeremiah 29:13, “‘You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you.’ declares the Lord.”
The next question I would like for you to think about is: What is your attitude in church? In the parable, Jesus showed two totally different attitudes people can display in worship. The Pharisee presented an attitude that said: I’m proud of my goodness.
In some instances, pride can be good. It is okay to say you are proud to be an American, or that you take pride in your neighborhood. But the Bible warns against the dangerous kind of pride characterized by self-love, egotism, and arrogance. This kind of pride is revealed in the prayer of the Pharisee. He wanted others to know about his goodness, so he bragged that he fasted, tithed, and kept all the commandments. Here is how you can recognize if you have pride in your heart: pride loves to talk about “I.”
In verse 11, the Pharisee used “I” and “me” several times. He said, “I thank you that I am not like other men...I fast twice a week, and I give a tithe of all I get.” Those are all good things to do. You should pray, you should fast, and you should tithe. But if you are doing it because you think it will get you into heaven, or make you appear to be a good person before others, those good things become dangerous.
The Bible says, “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18). According to Isaiah 14, once the devil was a beautiful angel named Lucifer. Pride filled his heart and he developed an “I” problem. He said, “I will ascend and make my throne with God, I will be like the Most High. I am going up!” But God said, “No, Lucifer, you are going down!’ That is really what pride is, reflecting the ego of the devil. Here is an acrostic for you to remember what pride is: It is the "Perverted Result of Imitating the Devil’s Ego."
Some people are happiest when they can talk about themselves. That is often a marker that they have a problem with pride. Someone once said that “pride is the only sickness everyone can recognize except the person who has it!” God must get a little weary of listening to proud prayers full of “gimme, gimme, gimme.” When some people pray it must sound like the lyrics to the country song by Toby Keith: “I wanna talk about me, I wanna talk about I; wanna talk about number one; oh my me my; What I think; what I like; what I know; what I want, what I see; I like talking about you, occasionally; but mostly, I wanna talk about me!”
All of us should have an occasional “I” exam. If you recorded your conversation and your prayers for 24 hours, how much of your talk would be centered on the big “I”?
Pride seldom admits a need. Pride gives a person a false sense of self-sufficiency. Have you ever heard the expression, “I’m too proud to ask for help?” When you are too proud to ask for help or admit you have a problem, you are too proud–period! When you ask a proud person how you can pray for them, they will often say, “Oh, I’m alright. There’s really nothing you need to pray for me about.” They say that because they are too proud to admit they have a need. They fear if they tell you where they’re hurting they’ll lose their facade of perfection and goodness.
Pride sees the faults of others. Did you notice the Pharisee was quick to criticize and condemn the tax collector? Pride blinds a person to their own faults and magnifies the failures and faults of others. When you compare yourself to someone else, you are using the wrong standard. God’s measuring stick is not the goodness or badness of another person; His standard is Jesus, how you measure up to Him.
I heard people justify their goodness by saying they have never robbed a bank or murdered someone. Sure, when you compare yourself to some serial murderer, you look like a moral hero. God does not grade on the curve. It does not matter if you are a little better than average. What matters is if you are a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.
I once read a story in which a man described a house in Scotland that was painted white. The house stood out clean and brilliant against the dark green backdrop of the grass-covered hills. One day it snowed, and the entire countryside was transformed into a winter wonderland. When the man looked at the cottage against the backdrop of the pure fallen snow, he noticed for the first time it was dingy and dirty. It was the same house, just a different backdrop. When you compare yourself to a rapist, you may appear to be morally clean, but when you stand up next to the purity of Jesus Christ, you see a different picture.
There was another attitude expressed in church. The tax collector displayed an attitude that said: I desperately need God’s mercy! The tax collector could not even lift up his head, he was so burdened by his own sinfulness. He pounded his fist on his chest, a spontaneous gesture of his agony over his sin. He uttered seven simple words with a voice broken with emotion: “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” He literally said, “Be merciful to me, THE sinner,” as if he considered himself the chief among all sinners. You do not have to pray a long, eloquent prayer full of religious words. If you pray a simple prayer that comes from your heart, God hears you and He will answer you.
When the tax collector caught a glimpse of the greatness and holiness of God, he realized how dirty and filthy he was. The Bible says, “All our righteousness is as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). Even the good things we do are dirty compared to the stark, brilliant holiness of God. When you see God for Who He is–holy, then you will be able to see yourself for who you really are–a fallen creature in desperate need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. That will humble you in a hurry.
I recall a great line from the movie “Rudy.” Rudy was an undersized kid who dreamed of playing football for Notre Dame. In one scene he was talking to an old Catholic priest. The priest told Rudy, “After all these years, there are only two things I’m totally certain about: (1) There is a God; and (2) I’m not Him!” Is that your attitude? Have you come to a place in your life where you know you cannot make it another moment without God’s mercy, peace, and forgiveness in your life?
C. S. Lewis wrote: “How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with Pride can say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? They theoretically admit themselves to be nothing in the presence of God but are all the time imagining how He thinks them far better than ‘ordinary’ people. They pay a penny-worth of imaginary humility to Him and get out of it a pound’s worth of Pride towards their fellow-men (or women)...The real test of being in the presence of God is, you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.”
The final question I want to ask you this morning is this: How will you leave here today? In the parable, Jesus said only one of the two men went home justified. “Justified” is a great Bible word meaning to be “right with God.” The only way you can be right with God is to receive His mercy and forgiveness. Whenever I read the word “justified” in the New Testament, I rejoice that God treats me “just-as-if-I’d” never sinned.
In verse 14, Jesus summarized the main principle of the parable: “He who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted. The message paraphrase of verse 14 is, “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.” The world says, “Promote yourself, look out for #1.” God says, “Humble yourself, seek Me first.”
Just like in Jesus’ parable, you will go home today basically in one of two conditions. You may go home Unchanged–Religious and proud of it! The Pharisee was so committed to his religious observance that he could be proud of his performance. So, he went home unchanged. Thousands of people attend church Sunday after Sunday, but they leave exactly the way they come in. To them, religious observance is something they DO so they can be proud of their conduct. God addressed the problem of superficial religion in Isaiah 29:13. The Lord says, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.”
Jesus criticized the Pharisees by saying they clean the outside of the cup, but the inside was filthy. He said they were like whitewashed tombs, shiny and clean on the outside, but on the inside, they were filled with rottenness (Matthew 23:25-28). Religion cleans you up on the outside, but only Jesus can clean you up on the inside.
Having religion may give you a little more respectability in your business or in your community, but if you are not careful, religion can make you so proud you may miss heaven. Without a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ lived faithfully and fruitfully in His Mystical Body, the Church, religion leads you to Hell while making you think you are going to Heaven.
I hope you leave here today the same way the tax collector did: Unburdened–Right with God and thankful for it! Jesus said the bad guy, not the respectable, religious Pharisee went home justified in the eyes of God. He entered church so burdened down by his sin he could not even lift up his head. But when he cried out for the mercy of God, he experienced the liberation of forgiveness. He had not done anything to deserve it, so he could not brag about it. All he could do was to thank God for it!
Maybe you are here today and feel a little out of place because you are not really a religious person. In fact, you have done some dumb things and messed up your life in a big way. Congratulations! Like the tax collector, you are the best candidate for salvation! The hardest people to be saved are those religious people who think their goodness makes them VIPs with God. The easiest person to be saved is the one who will admit to God that he has sinned royally and has to have His mercy, or he is a goner.
You must approach God in humility if you want to receive His forgiveness. You cannot strut into His presence bragging about how nice you are. In Bethlehem, the Church of the Holy Nativity is built over the place believed to be Jesus’ birthplace. It is a huge stone complex, but it only has one tiny door through which people can enter. It is called the “door of humility” and it is less than 48" high. Originally, there was a larger door, but when the Muslims first conquered Bethlehem, the soldiers rode their horses into the church to defile it. So, the monks reduced the size of the door so only a person can enter. And every person must stoop and bow and enter alone. What a lesson! The doorway of salvation is open to you today, but it is a door of humility as well. You cannot approach God with an attitude on the basis of your parents’ salvation. You must do it alone, you must work out your own salvation. And to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness you must humble yourself and bow down before Him.
Would you like to experience God’s mercy and forgiveness? Will you humble yourself and admit you are a sinner? 3,000 years ago, another man needed God’s mercy and forgiveness. Even though he was a good, religious guy, he made a huge mistake. He was guilty of adultery and murder. If you need mercy, try praying the same prayer King David prayed in Psalm 50/51:1-2: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions and my sins are ever before me.”
Remember, beloved, that as we approach the holy season of Great Lent, the Church offers us these preparatory weeks to get ourselves together that we may humbly seek God’s mercy and forgiveness and enter the season of repentance and fasting with the right disposition and objectives.