The Publican and the Pharisee

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
We conform ourselves to Christ
Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee
8 February, 2009
2 Timothy 3:10-15 ; Luke 18:10-14

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

The words that the Apostle is speaking to the Apostle Timothy today are important for us all to remember all the time because living the Christian life is not easy. The Apostle makes it clear that there is going to be opposition from the outside. However, he also says that there are people amongst the believers whose minds are led astray, whose hearts are led astray, and who allow themselves to become twisted, distracted and distorted. They perhaps actually make things worse for believers because from within the community of faith they are making confusion. They are putting clouds of fog over the eyes of people who are trying to be faithful.

The Tempter is always playing with us in this way, trying to help us forget or to think that we have a better idea. Very often it has been Christian experience that there are those who are infected by one philosophy or another or some worldly idea or another, who think that they can remake Christ into their own image, as it were. As a result, we might say that most of us, in the course of our life, tend to pass through many “heresies” because we choose “our own thing”. We do not listen to the Lord. We know better. We make a choice that is different from what is the will and the truth of the Lord. In making a choice for something else, we may try to remake Christ into some sort of holographic projection or some sort of creature or nice-guy philosopher, or something like that. We do that instead of accepting Who He is.

If we are going to be serious Orthodox Christians, we have to be prepared to live according to the psalm that we are repeating at Matins which says : “The Lord is God, and He has revealed Himself to us”. He has shown Himself to us in His fulness in the Incarnation of Christ. This revelation of Himself in love, in suffering love, is that to which we, in the course of our lives, must always respond in similar fashion. We cannot make Christ into someone other who would be more convenient and more comfortable for us.

How can we actually presume to do such a thing when we, ourselves, are always objecting when people do not understand us and do not accept us as we are. They try to make us into something different from what we are. They sometimes actually speak about us in such a way that we do not even recognise ourselves. They do not accept us for who we are or comprehend who we are. We complain all the time about this, ourselves, so how can we behave like this to our Saviour who is incomprehensibly more than we ?

It is important for us to pay attention to who we are, and Who is the Lord to us. Who is He ? Therefore, how do we live ? I am saying all this because, in my opinion, this is directly connected to the parable about the publican and the Pharisee that the Saviour is teaching us today. The Pharisee is defending himself, and also making himself out to be something that he is not. He says to the Lord : “I thank you that I am not like all these other people around here – this riff-raff, and these various sorts of sinners – especially not like that publican back there”. (A publican was a tax collector, like Zacchæus, about whom we heard last week.) We remember what sort of person he was, in terms of how he had been living his life. The Pharisee pretends that he is not like this tax collector. He says : “How much better I am”. By talking like that, he already condemns himself out of his own mouth, because he considers himself to be better than anyone else. Anyone who thinks he is better than anyone else has his eyes on himself, not on the Lord.

If we are truly following in the footsteps of Christ, we do not exalt ourselves. We do not make ourselves out to be anything more than what we are – which is, a servant of God, a lover of God. We are not something great. The Saviour Himself, who is the Lord of the whole universe after all, came in our midst, washed the apostles’ feet, and said : “‘I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you’” (John 13:15). This means that we have to be servants of each other, as He continues to be our servant to this day. We are not greater than God. We are not greater than this Master who served all the time that He was amongst us in the flesh.

The Lord continues to serve to this day amongst us in love, caring for our needs, fixing our “boo-boos”, straightening us out, protecting us, supporting us and helping us. We have to keep the same disposition, ourselves. We are not greater than anyone else. We are the Saviour’s servants. If the Lord has given us gifts, it is our responsibility to use them for the benefit of everyone else. Those gifts are not only for me. I am not the centre of the universe. I am a co-worker with the Lord who created me.

In the Greek text of today’s Gospel reading, the publican says : “God, have mercy on me the sinner” (there is a definite article in the Greek), and not : “Have mercy on me, a sinner”. This is the way the Jesus Prayer works : Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, the sinner. If I say a sinner, I am therefore calling other people sinners by implication when I do not know anything about them. I can only speak about myself as the sinner. If I say : “I am the sinner, I am not saying anything about anyone else except me”. If I say : “a sinner”, I am saying that I am one among many ; there are greater, and lesser. I am already getting into the category of this Pharisee by saying : “a sinner”, because I am already saying that everyone else is a sinner, and I am no worse and no better than everyone else.

That is how we like to think : I am just like everyone else ; I am just a regular sinner like everyone else. This is not the way it is. It cannot be the way it is, because this is not how the Lord teaches us in everything He is saying to us and doing amongst us. The publican is not making any comparisons with anyone else. He is saying : “Have mercy on me, the sinner”. He is only speaking about himself and his own condition to the Lord, and asking the Lord to save him, heal him, correct him and help him in repentance. That is what his prayer is about.

It is essential that we remember the words of my grandmother, who said : “Comparisons are odious”. That means that comparisons are hateful and really awful. It is important not to compare ourselves with anyone else one way or the other, or to compare anyone else, one with another. We have to pay attention to who they are in themselves, and also to who I am. The game of comparisons is dangerous. It is dangerous to say : “I am better ; I am worse ; I am higher ; I am lower”. We, each and all, have own gifts from the Lord, and our own responsibilities to the Lord. We each have our own service in the Lord, and it is necessary that we know how we measure up to His Gospel. If we see someone who is getting off track, it is important for us not to get busy condemning, but to start supporting that person in intercessory prayer, helping that person to come out of whatever it is that is a pain, a difficulty, a distortion, a suffering, a fall. If we see someone that is obviously flourishing in the Lord, it is necessary that we give thanks to God that this person is flourishing in the Lord, and that this person is doing whatever the Lord has been calling this person to do.

However, it is important, also, that I do not start saying : “I am lower ; I am higher” or whatever other sort of inadequate comparisons, because these comparisons do not mean anything. I do not know anything about the heart of anyone else. I can only see some symptoms. It is essential that I intercede, and that I give thanks for my brothers and sisters in their strengths and weaknesses. It is necessary for me always, in every way, to be supporting and helping my brother and sister come closer to the Saviour, and grow up in the Kingdom of the Lord.

While we are singing (as we have done last night) about preparing for the Fast, we enter this week of no fasting at all. It may look like irony, but it is the Lord, in His mercy, helping us to get ready. We approach the fasting period with all sorts of hymnody saying that it is getting to be time. Then we have a week of zero fasting ; then we go back to one regular week, and then a week with no meat. Finally we get to the full abstinence of Great Lent. Fasting is not exactly the right word because fasting implies that you are not eating anything at all. Not very many of us pass through Great Lent eating nothing at all. Even in monasteries, there are very, very few such persons who have the gift to eat nothing during all the days of Great Lent up until Pascha.

However, we do abstain from all sorts of things. We offer this abstinence to the Lord. The Lord, in his mercy, gives us the blessing of having not to fast for a whole week with the easy adjustment into the fasting period because He is so merciful and so kind to us. It is important for us to remember that. It is not an irony at all that we are talking about Great Lent and the abstinence that goes with it, and now (this week) we have no fasting. It is simply the expression of the Lord’s love and His care for us. He understands that we do like our food, and that we are going to miss during the period of Great Lent all those nice things that we like to eat. So, we have a whole week in which to indulge ourselves by eating what we like to eat (if we can afford it). Then we progress seriously towards the period of abstinence, which we offer to the Lord in gratitude and love.

May the Lord grant you a good, spiritually productive, healing and integrating Great Lent. May the Lord grant that every one of you live to see the Pascha of the Lord, to be able to be in this Temple celebrating the Resurrection of Christ. May the Lord grant you the joy of the Resurrection throughout the whole period of the abstinence of Great Lent. May the Lord grant you the renewal of love for Him and for each other so that you will be able to resist every single attempt of the Deceiver to divide and conquer. Instead, in the love of Jesus Christ, may you be able to hold on to your unity with each other as a Christian family.

May the Lord grant you the heart to increase in love, and increase in your knowledge of your real self as a beloved child of Him, who created you. May you rejoice all throughout Great Lent when it is our privilege to hear all these wonderful readings from the Scriptures about His creation of us, and about His perpetual, saving activities amongst us. May the Lord increase your joy as you pass through these days, and multiply your ability to serve Him. May you be a shining and effective witness of His love, all together, and personally, too, in this city, which in its own native beauty needs to shine with the beauty of Christ in order to be properly fulfilled in itself. May you glorify in your lives our Saviour, Jesus Christ, whole-heartedly, single-mindedly and brightly, together with the unoriginate Father, and the all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.