The Publican and the Pharisee
A Homily on Luke 18:9-14 (16th Sunday of Luke)
As often happens in our society, people who big-note themselves are often the ones who suffer the greatest humiliation. There's a very simple correlation between how far up you put yourself and how far down you come — simply as a result of being human; simply as a result of being a human being in a fallen world.
Today's Gospel reading teaches us many things. It teaches us about attitude to prayer — on how we should pray. It teaches us about self-righteousness, and not to be self- righteous. But let's look at something else...
Two men went up to pray, One was a Pharisee, a respected member of his religious community; one who did all the right things — externally. And yet, when he stands before God, he stands before a mirror. Because, if you noticed, the Gospel says to us "and he prayed to himself thus". So he wasn't praying to God — he was justifying himself. He was justifying his own existence. He was trying to make himself look good, He was trying to convince himself that he was superior to others, and why did he do that?
Simply out of pride. Often we act like that because of low self-esteem. Often we try to convince ourselves that we are something beyond what we are, not only because of pride, but often because we don't have what is good and fruitful self-esteem.
The other man in the parable is a tax collector. Now, a tax collector in first century Palestine collected taxes for the occupying power — the Roman oppressors, Being a Jew himself, you can imagine how this man was treated. He was an outcast, The Jewish community considered him a traitor. Not to mention, that what the tax collectors would do, was that if it was their authority to collect fifty dollars for the Roman authorities, they would collect seventy from you and pocket the other twenty! So, not only did they collect for the enemy, not only did they collect from the people that oppressed your people, but they also stole from you as well!
Now, this tax collector goes up and prays; and he doesn't stand at all close to the altar, He stands far away. (You see, this man has self-esteem, but we'll talk about that later). Then he beats his breast and he wouldn't even look toward the heavens. He doesn't have to convince himself of anything because he knows who he is; and so he talks to God. And he asks God, out of the sincerity of his heart, a simple request that is intimately related to how he sees himself. He says, "Lord God, have mercy. I do these things. This is what I am. I'm fallen. I'm sinful. This is what I am."
Yet the Pharisee looks at the tax collector and says, "Lord God, thank you that I'm not like all these other people: adulterers, murderers, etc." As if this is not bad enough, he doesn't leave it at that general level, but he has to personally attack the person praying behind him. "And thank you, Lord, that I'm not like that man over there - that tax collector."
There's a two-edged sword in this story.
People walk away and say, "See why I don't go to Church? The Pharisee is like the people in Church. They fast, they pray, etc." But, Jesus doesn't say not to come to Church. He doesn't say don't pray. He doesn't say don't fast. He orders those things. Jesus is talking about the attitude with which we do all these things. The other side of this, of course, is the people who don't come to Church and are doing the same kind of things as the people who are. The attitude is the issue. "I don't need to go to Church, I don't lie, I don't steal, I don't do anything to anyone, I say my prayers" (I'd love to listen to them!), You see, hypocrisy is within and without the community. Within the group that always goes to Church, and within the group that never goes to Church. Thus, nobody is justified.
Now, people like the Pharisee may say things like: "I'm not like this tax collector", or "I'm not like the people that go to Church" or "I'm not like the people that don't go to Church".
One may wish to ask the Pharisee, what's the difference between you and the tax collector? Have you got three legs instead of two? He's got two hands, you've got two hands, He's got two legs, you've got two legs. He's got a brain, you've got a brain. He's got emotions, you've got emotions. He's got hardships, you've got hardships. Your life's a mess, his life's a mess.
But, do you know what the Pharisee's real problem was? Beyond the fact that he is talking to himself; beyond the fact that he is trying to convince himself what a great Jew he is; even beyond the fact he's judging another human being - there's something deeper. There's a raging subconscious river here. "I'm superhuman," he thinks. He's trying to convince himself that he's something beyond the human. He's trying to convince himself that he has self-esteem.
What is self-esteem? Self-esteem is to know what you are. Self-esteem is to be at peace with what you are, knowing that through prayer, through the grace of God, it is being transformed, it is being developed, it is being saved, and being made into something beautiful - and knowing that it is the grace of God that is performing this miracle in your life.
Thus, the tax collector has self-esteem — he knows what he is. He doesn't pretend he's anyone else. The Pharisee is the one with low self-esteem. Because, not only does he have to prove himself against everyone else, but he's standing before God talking to himself, trying to prove something to himself.
So, why does the tax collector have humility? Is humility walking around beating ourselves on the chest, throwing ashes over our heads, and putting ourselves down? Is that what humility is? No. If we look at the experience of the saints, none of them talked about putting yourself down. They talked about being what you are, They talked about being real. That's the aim of Orthodox Christian life — to become a human being. What a paradox! We think that we are! But, we are not yet in the image and likeness of God There's a shadow of it there, but we should be aiming to become truly human. To become honest, sincere, and genuine human beings. That's what our aim is. And what it means to have humility, is simply to know what you are.
The word "humility" comes from humus, the Latin word for "soil". "Human" is the creature that comes from the soil. Humility means to know that you are human - that you come from the soil. You don't need humility to put yourself down. Your sins will do that for you, if you're genuine.
So, to stand like the tax collector before God (but not to stand there trying to convince ourselves we're something we're not) is the hardest thing to do in life - it's easy to say, but it's the hardest thing to do. And what should you say when you stand before God? Say what the prophets of the Old Testament always said to God who called them by name, "Here I am, Lord!"
by Fr. Dimitri Tsakas
Parish of St George, Sth Brisbane,
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia