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Weekly Message 02-17-08: The Pharisee and Publican

The Pharisee and Publican

Today is an important Sunday in the liturgical year because its lesson puts us on the right track as the Great Fast is quickly approaching. Consequently, Mother Church puts a prayer from vesperal hymnology on our lips: "Open the doors of repentance to me, 0 Giver of Life." Without repentance, there can be no proper celebration of the Great Fast and without repentance, there is no salvation, so the celebration of the Resurrection then becomes but a moot point.

As a result, the Church of Jesus Christ begins to prepare us for the great and holy season, that it might be spiritually beneficial and enriching for us. The important key that is needed to open the doors to paradise is humility and the Lord knows there is an imperative need for this virtue today when people think only of themselves and how by themselves, devoid of any grace or supernatural help, they can become what God intended them to be.

Christ tells a story with rich meaning, or a parable about people who think much of themselves, so much so that they lost track of reality and truth and were "good," and who as a result condemned others as sinful. The story concerns two men, the Pharisee and the Publican.

Our Lord often mentions these people in his discourses to the people. Who are they? The publicans were local agents of the Roman government for the purpose of collecting taxes from area citizenry. Often these people exacted as much as they could from the people and were therefore treated by the local populace with contempt and hated particularly by the Jews. The Pharisees were learned men of Jewish Law who considered themselves above all others. They remained distinct from ordinary believers because they were what me might say "sticklers" for the Law. They were proud of their record and looked down upon others whom they felt did far less than ordinary observance of Jewish Law. Not only did they do all that the Law demanded, their approach was a legalistic one, not at all spiritual. Jesus never condemned anyone's behavior as violently or as vociferously as He did that of the Pharisees because of their pride. Since they did what they did, not out of love of God, but out of simply feeding their inordinate pride, their lifestyle was a waste of time. There was no humility or sincerity in them. On the surface, they appeared pious, but were haughty.

These two men went to the temple to pray and by coincidence, arrived there together. The Pharisee went to the very front of the temple, not for the right reason, but only to show himself before all the people. To be seen and noticed in his finery was very important to him. He thanked God that he was not at all like all the rest gathered there an he enumerated his virtues, or what he supposed them to be. Apparently the god to whom he prayed did not have the faculties to observe them or know them himself. The publican did not even feel himself worthy of entering the presence of God, so he stood at the rear of the temple, beating his breast, praying, "0 God, be merciful to me a sinner."

In commenting on them, our Lord tells us the publican went home justified in the sight of God while the Pharisee is condemned. Our Lord insists that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Today the Church starts our journey to triumph in the Great Fast the right way. The Lord desires we be on guard lest we become guilty of the sin of the Pharisee. He wants us to be inwardly self realistic and not outwardly overbearing. Humility is simply looking at ourselves in a real way, recognizing we often fall short of the mark and must constantly try over and over again to regain control of ourselves that the mind and thinking of the Lord reign within us. If we are to save our souls, we must realize it cannot be done alone, that we need the grace of the Lord to make up in us what the Lord has already accomplished for us. God has done his part; we have to do ours. Humility is seeing ourselves precisely as our God does, always eager to do something about our shortcomings.

A story is told about St. Ephraim the Syrian, one of the great saints of the early Church. He was about to depart on a long journey. He prayed the Lord send along some partner with whom he might carry on a conversation during the trip. He desired spiritual growth even while busy traveling, so he wished the time would pass not only quickly and interestingly, but with an enrichment of the spirit. In all things and circumstances he wished to advance in spiritual life and values.

He started his journey and soon, he overtook an old woman, walking along very slowly, deep in thought. "Well," thought St. Ephraim, "what in the world can I learn from this old, seemingly mature woman?" The saint stopped and the woman looked at him. "Why do you look at me that way," he finally asked. And the lady was not lost for words, "I look at you because woman was originally made from the rib and bone of man by the hand of God. It is from such as you that I myself came." Then she continued, "You ought not look at me, rather, then look, at the good brown earth, the dust and mud of the soil because it is from these that God created you." St. Ephraim walked away, thanking God for this worthwhile lesson in humility. Even since then, women have prided themselves rightly that they were created from the rib, the bone and body of man, and that man, created as he is out of dust, mud and earth has not as exalted source of being.

How effective is our Lord's insight, "Learn from me, for I am humble and meek of heart." These words should inspire us to pursue in our own reality the victory to which God is calling us. The very first key to unlocking the door of repentance, of real change in our lives is, the one we ought to treasure is the message of the gospel. The key is to develop, by the grace of God, a sense of humility before the throne of our Creator. This virtue will excite within us a great assurance of heaven's joy and assist us in developing the temperament of soul necessary for salvation. Once we have gotten on that road, it will safely carry us through the pitfalls of temptation which we daily face so that with deep meaning ours will be the heart-felt prayer of the publican, "0 God, be merciful to me a sinner."

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