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Homily for 2/1/04 - Publican and Pharisee

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  • David Moser
    Luke 18:10-14 This parable of the publican and the pharisee begins our preparation for Great Lent. It lays the foundation for everything else that follows in
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 1, 2004
      Luke 18:10-14

      This parable of the publican and the pharisee begins our preparation for
      Great Lent. It lays the foundation for everything else that follows in the
      Triodion and so it speaks to us of the most basic and general of concepts.
      Over and over again in the hymns for today we hear the two main
      characteristics of the publican and pharisee compared and contrasted and we
      are encouraged to reject the pride of the pharisee and to embrace the
      humility of the publican. Pride, we are told, destroys every good work, it
      can erase any value from our spiritual efforts. Humility, on the other hand,
      overcomes any sin and can save even the most destitute of sinners. Following
      the example of the parable then, we are instructed to abandon pride and to
      strive to acquire humility.

      The elder Barsanouphios of Optina used the example of a heavily laden
      treasure ship as the example of a good soul full of the virtues. There has
      been long and hard labor to gather the treasure to put into the ship from
      the mines where the gold and jewels are dug from the earth to the refiners
      and jewelers who make them into beautiful things. The labor to gather the
      wealth to purchase these things and with care lay them into the ship and
      then to sail carefully avoiding all the dangers of the sea, the wind, the
      waves, the reefs, the pirates until finally the shores of the homeland are
      in sight. But pride is a hidden rock below the water line, lurking there as
      a danger even to the most skilled sailor who lapses in his vigilance. If
      this ship full of treasure were to run aground on the hidden rock of pride
      and sink - then all that treasure becomes worthless and even within sight of
      the harbor the ship itself is lost. This is the most devastating effect of
      pride in that it can rob even the greatest spiritual treasure of its value.
      Similarly it is like a handful of thousand dollar bills. Great wealth there
      gripped in the hand, but those bills, which have so much value are lost and
      become worthless if they are consumed in a fire. We must be careful to
      preserve our souls from the flame of pride - for pride will consume all that
      is of value and leave only worthless ashes.

      Yes we must strive to avoid pride. This is accomplished by acquiring the
      virtue of humility. What is humility? Abbot Nazarius of Valaam teaches us
      that "Humility is understanding yourself and everything about yourself as
      being nothing." In this world we are constantly surrounded by just the
      opposite - we are encouraged to develop self pride and to be proud of our
      accomplishments. But humility instructs us to look as our accomplishments as
      nothing, even our righteousness is to be considered as filthy rags before
      God. The humble man compares himself not to others but to God alone and when
      he measures the worth of his accomplishments, he measures himself only by
      the standard of God's holiness. Against such a standard we all fall far
      short, we are all as nothing. But it is exactly this kind of "nothingness"
      that God loves - it is exactly this kind of "nothingness" that puts us on
      the path of salvation, that conquers demons, that overcomes temptation and
      sin, that propels us into the Kingdom of God. In order to gain all that God
      would give us, we must first abandon all that we think we have. Humility is
      that abandonment, that self emptying before God, where we voluntarily give
      up all of our own accomplishments, where we willingly acknowledge our own
      weakness and impotence to do any good thing, where we present ourselves to
      God as empty vessels ready to be filled with the oil of His grace.

      St John of the Ladder speaks of humility saying, "It is one thing to be
      humble, another to strive for humility and another to praise the humble. The
      first belongs to the perfect, the second to the truly obedient and the third
      to all the faithful." The first step towards acquiring humility, therefore,
      is to praise the humble - that is to honor the saints and cherish their
      memory. This is within the power of every person. Thus we should all read
      the lives of the saints - not once but many times and we should praise their
      memory, for they have obtained that which we all desire, that for which we
      all strive - that is to be like God. We have their lives which we can read,
      we have the services, especially the canons and akathists, that we can sing
      and chant. By filling the soul with such remembrance the qualities of the
      saints, by learning the lives of the saints and praising their memory, we
      learn the "rules" of humility, we learn the way of life, the things to do to
      become humble ourselves and so we pass on to the next stage - that of
      obedience. As we obey the requirements of the humble life, as we set aside
      our own will and obey instead the will of God as revealed in the lives of
      the saints by imitating them, then we begin to be the one who "strives to be
      humble". Who then is to say when a person finally becomes "humble"? This is
      only revealed to us by God in the manifestations of the grace bearing life
      and even in the grace bearing life after death of the saints.

      From the parable we can see two things happening - we can see the pharisee
      listing all of his accomplishments before God and we can see the publican
      saying only "Lord have mercy". In this is demonstrated the path *away from*
      humility and the path *toward* humility. In order to acquire humility one
      must no longer claim for himself the credit for any good deed - but rather
      whenever you see something good in yourself, instantly give credit to God.
      Gratitude, thankfulness and praise of God turn away pride and open the way
      for humility. Just as the publican confessed his sinfulness and sought only
      for the mercy of God so also we must cease relying upon ourselves, our own
      efforts, our own righteousness and fall down before God uttering only the
      prayer, "Lord have mercy on me a sinner". When we do this we set our foot on
      the path of repentance. True repentance requires humility, for to repent
      means to "turn away from". in order to turn away from our own sinfulness,
      our own sinful feelings, desires, thoughts, reasonings, ideas, and efforts
      and embrace instead all that God gives requires humility, that sense of our
      own nothingness and of God's all sufficience; no longer relying upon
      ourselves but upon God alone.

      Something else that encourages humility is the remembrance of death and the
      thought of judgement. When we recall that we will one day die and all that
      we have in the world will pass for our hands and we will stand before the
      throne of God naked except for the virtues and grace we acquired in our
      lives, then we again sense our own inability, our own nothingness, our own
      powerlessness. Such thoughts are inevitable, and if they are not clothed in
      humility and complete dependence upon God's mercy, then they lead only to
      despair. And so humility is again necessary, not only in the living of life,
      but at the end of life as well. Those who are humble and who count
      themselves as nothing relying only on the mercy of God can look at death and
      judgement without fear, for they have already died to the world, they have
      already judged themselves and found nothing of value and so have confidence
      and trust in God alone rather than fear and despair.

      The elder Anatoly of Optina says that "For one who is proud, asking
      forgiveness is very difficult. Satan also is not capable of this, and hates
      to ask forgiveness." Humility is also necessary in the act of forgiveness.
      To ask others to forgive is an act of humility, an act of confession of
      one's own emptiness and reliance upon mercy. To forgive others and to be
      forgiven requires humility. And so as a final strategy for acquiring
      humility - ask forgiveness of all you have wronged - first asking
      forgiveness of God and then asking forgiveness of all those in your life
      whom you have offended. Do not do this mentally in the privacy of your own
      mind - but face to face, speaking the words to the other person, confessing
      your own wrongdoing and saying to them, "forgive me." This action will
      produce in you humility for it will burn away and destroy pride that hides
      in corners of your soul.

      Now as I said at the beginning today sets the tone for all of Lent. And
      indeed humility is the basis for much of our Lenten struggle. Next Sunday we
      will learn about repentance, and following that the Saturday of the
      remembrance of the departed and the Sunday of the Last Judgement. Finally,
      just before Lent begins we have the Sunday of Forgiveness wherein we begin
      our lenten struggle by asking forgiveness of one another. Humility,
      Repentance, the remembrance of death and judgement, and forgiveness - all
      these things await us in the days and weeks that come. The first of these is
      humility and of this we learn today, imitating the publican, counting
      ourselves as nothing, falling down before God and crying out, "Lord have
      mercy on me a sinner."
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