Today is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. It is a formal beginning to our preparation for the Holy Fast, and is the first day we read anything from the Triodion this year. We are now in a period of time to prepare ourselves – 4 more weeks. Next week follows the Prodigal Son, then the Sunday of the Last Judgment, then the last Sunday before the Holy Fast begins – the Sunday of Forgiveness. There is not much more time, and this time is given for us to reflect upon what it is that we need to do to improve ourselves.
The church gives us some help here. The Sunday before this day is always the Sunday of Zacchaeus, who was a publican. Today, we read about another publican, just a nameless person in a parable. This event never actually occurred; it is a parable our Lord used to teach us. However, it has extra meaning when we think of it in light of the story of Zacchaeus, and in our mind’s eye, equate the publican in this parable with Zacchaeus.
In this parable we see two kinds of humility - or rather, humility and its evil opposite, pride - and two kinds of knowledge. We see the pride of the Pharisee, and the church in its hymnology points out the differences between his pride and the humility of the publican. In order to fully understand the lesson we must see that the Pharisee was not completely wrong and the publican was not completely virtuous, and yet, one of them was justified and the other was not.
The Pharisee was not condemned for keeping the fasts. He was not condemned for doing righteous good works. The publican was not praised for the life of sin that he had led. Rather, the Pharisee was condemned for judging another man, for using a measure in measuring that he was not capable of truly fulfilling himself. He was condemned because he was either unaware or did not care about the hidden sins that he had in his life, and how he truly was impure before God. He should have been in his demeanor just as the publican.
And the publican – why was he justified? He was justified because of his humility, but there is a very interesting aspect to his humility that we must know. He certainly did not judge another man, but he was well aware of his sin. There is something I see over and over again in our society and even in those who are Orthodox in our world as well, since we breathe poisoned air and hear poisoned ideas and we have some of that poison accumulate in us. I see this problem constantly. That is, that people, because of their sins, even though they know that they are wrong, and they want to do better, and have an inner conviction that something is wrong and unholy – instead of struggling against them, because they fail so often – they find a way to avoid being continually pricked by their conscience and being made aware of their sin.
This happens among profligate people. Why do you thing that people drink, or find themselves lost in promiscuity or other debauchery? This is to lose themselves from the reality of who they are and how far they are away from virtue. Everyone knows internally what virtue is – it is built into our hearts; it is built into our character. The Apostle Paul talks about it in Romans, and it is very evident that all men know what is right. But when he falls so far short of virtue he is afraid to really tackle the problem, as it is a very difficult one. So, in extreme cases, he falls away through debauchery, disbelief, falling into extremely wrong doctrines and ideologies and ways of life. And if we get into this state (and it is easy to fall into it: beware!) we deny and deny and deny the reality of who we are, and Who God is. Because generally someone must be blamed, and you can bet that we do not like to blame ourselves very often.
Another thing that people do when they are aware of their sins and wish to do better and continually fail – they fall into despondency. This is not so much where they blame someone else, or fall into impure activities without any heedfulness at all, but their despondency eats them alive. Truly, despondency kills more than any other sin.
Let us imagine now that the publican of today's parable IS Zacchaeus. One of the fathers I read quite often, the Blessed Archbishop Andrei, draws this parallel and it is a striking one. Imagine the life of Zacchaeus before he was enlightened by Christ. He was the chief among the publicans. He was the biggest sinner. This meant that he had been guilty of murder and of defrauding widows and orphans. Howso murder? He may not have killed a man with his own hands, but he caused people to starve, widows and orphans with no money, who had no means to live, and they starved or became sick and died. Their murder was on his head. And of course, he was a thief, and a man in his situation, with so much abundance, would fall into every kind of sin. Certainly he had his pick of any wealthy courtesan he wanted, who feigned affection towards him because of his money, and he certainly ate the finest of foods, and drank great quantities of the finest of wines. There was much that he did that was wicked and abased. We can probably truly say, without being guilty of a sin, that we are not as bad as that!
What happened to this bad man? He was enlightened by God in a way that was wondrous and miraculous and totally outside of what he expected. Therefore, he in his zeal said, "I will restore fourfold to anyone I have defrauded, and I will give half of my goods to the poor", and he had great warmth in his heart when he was in the presence of Christ, and he wanted to do better.
And then came tomorrow, the next day. He fell back into his bad habits. He still had avarice, and he still had lust, and he still had a desire for wine. He still had a weakness for all the things that he wished to get away from, so certainly he would have fallen, again and again and again. Look at the life of St Mary of Egypt. Can any one of us say we were as bad as she was? I don’t think so. Look what happened to her. When she realized how evil she had been and she desired to change, she went into the desert and for 18 years (if you read her story, you can see this) – EIGHTEEN YEARS! - she spent these years struggling with lustful imaginations and hearing songs that she used to hear when she was in drunken orgies, again and again in her head, and desiring to have flesh meats and wine which she used to drink in abundance. Eighteen years! So many of us, if we had to spend only a year struggling against lust and being unsuccessful – we would just throw in the towel, and go back across our Jordan, back to the former life we had been living, because we were not “cuttin” it. She spent 18 years doing this, till finally God removed from her this lust and this depravity which she had so carefully cultivated from the time she was a maiden. It took 18 years. Very few of us in this room have been Orthodox 18 years, much less struggled 18 years against our passions.
Why did she do such a thing, and why did the publican Zacchaeus (shall we say), struggle so, and go into the temple and say, “God be merciful to me a sinner?” Why didn’t he just give up? That’s the most likely thing to happen in this world: most people give up. The reason they give up is because they do not have salvific knowledge of Who God is and what He has done, and what He will do. I said this so many times – our life is spent in learning TWO pieces of knowledge that are critical to our salvation. And they must be done in parallel and a little bit at a time. Too much of one or two much of the other will cause our death. The pieces of knowledge are of ourselves and of God. As a man grows in knowledge of God he learns how great God is and he develops confidence, and he develops this overwhelming desire to become holy. As he grows in knowledge of himself he sees those areas in his life that are not in keeping with Who God is, and he desires to change them.
But if a man learns of himself outside of learning about God, you can see in our society what happens. You can see the depravity of people. You can see their angst and anguish over their life’s situation for it is outside of God. Many very poetic things are said by people in music or literature that are TRUE, but they do not give the solution; they only know (and this just partially) the problem! If they do not know the solution, they cannot gain salvation. And the solution is the God-man Jesus Christ, Who has enlightened us and come to all of us, unworthy ones. He came not to the worthy, but the unworthy. Not to the pure, but to the impure! And as we grow in knowledge of that, then we will become pure.
The problem with sin in Christians is not so much that they just want to do it and don’t care. The problem is that they don’t understand really truly Who God is. The knowledge of God cannot be learned from a book or listening to preaching or teaching – it is learned from within. All these things help – the services of the church, preaching in the context of the services, keeping the fasts. They are all essential, absolutely. I have said this before, and I suppose I should learn to stop saying it, since it scares some people, but I believe that if a man does not fast, and if he does not value the services, it is very unlikely that he will be saved. Not because of the sin of not fasting or of missing the services because of frivolous reasons or laziness, but because you won’t know God if you eschew these things, because this is how God reveals Himself to us. And if you don’t know Him, then when there is a sin that you have trouble with – it will devour you. You will have no chance against it whatsoever, because you will not know how to fight it.
This publican UNDERSTOOD God. He also knew himself. This man was guilty of murder, of theft, of lying, of cheating, of every kind of debauchery and sin, but he wanted to change. So he went to the temple knowing that he was unworthy, but at the same time knowing Who God is, and since he knew who God is, there was hope in his breast, and he knew that God could change him. That is why he came into the temple and that is why he did not think about anything else except his own sin, and that is why he looked at the ground and did not care about the virtues or the vices of anyone else. He was too consumed with his own pressing problem. And he was justified, because of his faith. Because he had faith in God – in a true Being, not in some phantom or fantasy. Because he was living according to Who God is. Was he failing? Was he still falling into lust, and even debauchery? Most probably. Did he still have the lust of avarice in his heart? Oh yes! It takes a long time to divulge yourself of your passions. It is a hard lesson to learn. When I became Orthodox I thought some things I had difficulty with… well, I would not have trouble with them any more. And even now I struggle against them.
But I know that God can save and God will save. That was his purpose for becoming incarnate, to save sinners, like me, and like you. And the only way to know this in your heart is to live according to it. Christian knowledge is not static. It is not words on a page; it is life. Salvation is to be had in living, in living according to God is.
This is what the publican did. He knew who God is, and he knew himself, and the thought of who he was sickened him and made him sad, but he still went to the temple even though he could not look up to heaven because he could not behold the brightness of God because of his impurity. Even though he was in fear and trembling, he had confidence in God’s mercy, because of making even a small effort. That is where you gain knowledge of God, brothers and sisters. That is where you gain confidence that you can be saved. It is by making an effort. I did not say – being successful in your effort – because if that was the criteria, then we all indeed should fall into deep despondency because none of us would be saved.
It is not how good we are at change by which God judges, but is us how good we are at making an effort to repent. And it is a miraculous thing – we will change, but we not see ourselves change. Things happen so quickly. Consider our children. One moment they are just laying in the crib and making incomprehensible noises, and the next moment, they are young adults and saying things that touch our souls in ways that we never knew that they could be touched. It happens overnight. That is how it happens with our souls. We think we are muddy and filthy and unclean, and we struggle and we think that we are making no progress whatsoever, but unknown to us, although sometimes known to those who love us, we make changes, and we come closer and closer to God. And there will be a day when we have sweet release from those things that beset us.
If I did not believe that, then I would have no reason to live – none whatsoever. And that is why so many people blow their heads off – they have no reason – no hope at all. If all that life is, is this life, then it is a cruel joke, and a cruel comedy. But we know we are Christians. We know that God lives in us, and even if we sin, God will hear our repentance and receive us time and time again. And if you are not sure of that fact than you have not learned enough of Who God is. And you had best study this very important subject – it is called Theology – to study God, to learn of God, the science of sciences. And the laboratory in which you learn is your own life! Live life in Christ. That is what this publican was doing. The Pharisee, although he had great knowledge, (but knowledge without humility just puffeth up), he did not have the feelings that we should often have, of feeling incredibly unworthy. He lived in an externally righteous way and thought himself righteous, but he was even more depraved than a man who visits a brothel every night, because he had not real fear of God in his eyes.
Do you see the contrast? Do you see what made the Pharisee fall away and what made the publican cleave to Christ? And why are we considering them now? Why is this reading today? Well, we are going to be speaking of the last judgment soon, and we will also consider another repentance – that of the prodigal son. These are hard subjects. The church is trying to prepare us so we can look inside ourselves and learn of ourselves and learn of God during the great fast, by struggling as much as we are able, and even BEYOND what we are able. In fact, the Christian life is continually living beyond what we are capable of. God said unto us, "be ye perfect for I am perfect." And through the Apostle He says, "pray without ceasing," and He says, "turn the other cheek" when someone smites us, and, "if our enemy has us go with him one mile, to go with him two." He tells us impossible things – things that cannot be accomplished and yet they WILL be accomplished because He lives in us.
If you have any doubts whatsoever those doubts are because you are not living with enough effort, and if you make the effort – I tell you – that you will become absolutely sure that God lives in you and He will save even you, a sinner. You know your sins better than anyone else does, and if you have sensitivity, they hurt. They make us very sad, but despondency does not belong in a Christian’s character. And if is in your life, this just means that you have not learned enough of God. So you must study Him more. Study Him in keeping the fasts. Study Him in the services. Study him in pulling your mind back to prayer after it has wandered away into the ravine and onto the mountainsides. If you have one minute of prayer in a three-hour vigil service, then you have accomplished something great that day. It's true.
God help us to be like this publican in his virtue. Yea, I say his virtue. It is a great virtue when a man knows himself and when he knows God. I tell you, when those two pieces of knowledge are in a man, he WILL be saved. Amen.
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