The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee is upon us, and we stand at the Gates of Great and Holy Lent. It happens every year, but it always seems to surprise me.
It’s also about this time that I make a bunch of resolutions about how I’m going to be super strict in keeping the fast, how I’m going to attend every service without fail, and how I’m going to learn how to walk on water by the end of the 40 days.
And inevitably, I fail at each of these.
But thank God because it keeps me humble.
Could you imagine what kind of monster I might become if I actually did all these things? Can you imagine what manner of pride I might be tempted by?
I may actually begin to think that my righteousness is my own doing.
I have a hard enough problem with thinking too highly of myself as it is, and I would do well to be more like the Canaanite woman we read about last week [link], recognizing how lowly I am, and how much I need God’s great mercy and benevolence.
We don’t always hear about the Canaanite woman due to the timing of Lent (sometimes she gets skipped), but I’m really glad that we do this year, because it has afforded us back-to-back opportunities to reflect on humility.
Humility, however, is often misunderstood.
If we aren’t careful, we can speak about humility as if it were synonymous with simply thinking that you’re a really awful human; but this isn’t right.
It isn’t humble to deny that you’re good at something when someone compliments you on a job well done. It’s obnoxious, and a lie.
If you’re good at painting, singing, thinking, playing football, underwater basket-weaving – at literally whatever – then it’s annoying when you deny it. Just say thank you (or better yet, thank God), and be done with it.
Humility is not a matter denying one’s skill and thinking of oneself to be the scum of the earth. Humility, rather, is an orientation of the heart: an orientation toward God rather than toward oneself.
This week, at the onset of Lent, the Church prepares us for our journey into the heart of repentance by setting before us two examples: the Pharisee and the Publican .
Christ tells us of the two men who go up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee’s prayer…well, it doesn’t really look like much of a prayer at all. It really looks more like a resume: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11-12).
The Publican, on the other hand, won’t even look to heaven and prays, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (Luke 18:13).
As we all know, it is the Publican, and not the Pharisee, who goes home justified in the sight of the Lord. It might be easy to look at the Publican’s example of humility and say, “See! He does think he’s scum! That’s what humility is!” But looking at him next to the Pharisee, I’m not sure it’s that easy.
For the Pharisee, it’s pretty clear that his righteousness comes from himself.
He is not like other men.
He isn’t unjust.
He isn’t like the tax collector.
He fasts and tithes!
And he takes great pride in all of this, and this is precisely his problem. His heart is directed toward himself and his accomplishments.
He is full of himself.
The Publican, on the other hand, exemplifies a heart directed toward God.
He doesn’t go on about what a terrible person he is. He doesn’t enumerate all the ways that he is the worst. Instead, quite simply, he sees himself clearly, declaring himself a sinner in relation to almighty God, Whom he asks for mercy.
The Publican has made room in his heart for God’s mercy by recognizing his sinfulness in relation to God. Conversely, the Pharisee does not have room in his heart to receive God’s mercy; he cannot be filled with God’s love because he is already full of himself and his own righteousness.
He doesn’t think he needs a savior, because he thinks he’s already saved himself.
The true nature of humility, then, is not a matter of seeing oneself as terrible so much as it is a matter of seeing oneself clearly, as a sinner before the face of God.
Too often, we are like the Pharisee, doing all that we can either to appear as righteous before God and others, or by justifying ourselves for every sin.
I’m sorry I yelled at you, but I was just getting really frustrated with how much you were saying my name.
I’m sorry I got mad, but I’m just really stressed with work.
We do this all the time because…well, let’s be honest. Because it is a terrifying to admit that you were wrong! It sucks to see yourself at fault, and to take responsibility for your mistakes!
To see yourself at fault, to see yourself as standing before God and others as guilty is painful! It’s way easier to excuse our bad behavior than it is to simply say, “That thing I said was really awful. I shouldn’t have done it. Forgive me.”
This is why St. Anthony the Great said, “This is the great work of man: to always take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.” It takes work because it is painful and humbling.
To see ourselves clearly is to be humbled before the face of God. It is to admit that we were wrong and to do the only natural thing: beg for mercy.
The problem with the Pharisee is that can’t see himself clearly, trying to present himself as already holy. But the Pharisee’s righteousness is such that it is born completely out of himself, and this is his sin.
Because the truth is that Pharisee actually probably was a pretty good guy; after all, he did a lot of righteous stuff that he’d be happy to tell you all about!
The reality is, too, I’m actually a pretty good guy. And I’m sure you are, too.
But this Lent, the Lord is asking us to be more than good guys, to renounce our own righteousness, to direct our hearts toward Him and to admit our lowliness before Him. Because, as we prepare for Lent, we’re not simply working on ethical self-improvement; we’re not trying to be “good guys” like the Pharisee. We’re preparing to join Christ in the tomb, to reach out to Him as the only source of life.
As Fr. Stephen Freeman has stated multiple, times, “Christ did not die in order to make bad men good – he died in order to make dead men live.” Realizing that starts by accepting the humility of the Publican.
Lent: spbda via Compfight cc
Publican and Pharisee: Wikimedia Commons
Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.