Author: Fr George Dimopoulos
Source: Orthodox Sermons for all the Sundays of the Year – Volume I
Publisher: Christian Orthodox Editions
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner”.
Today we mark the beginning of a period that we call the Katanichticon Triodion which ends on Holy Saturday night, when the triumph of the Resurrection will be heard – “Christ is Risen”. All of the Apostolic writings and the Gospel readings for these Sundays are geared to prepare the Christian for the spiritual struggles of the fast. Four virtues, moulded by the divine art, are pictured in these Gospel readings. The first is humility, the humility of the Publican. The second is repentance, the repentance of the Prodigal Son and the forgiveness of his merciful father. The third is mercy, as written in the parable of the Last Judgement: “I was hungry and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty and ye gave me to drink; I was a stranger and ye gave me lodging”. And the fourth virtue is fasting, the real fast, as St Basil writes, “the freedom from evils”.
In order to stress the importance of humility, our Lord Jesus Christ told the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. Two different men went into the Temple to pray. The Pharisee, traditionally considered by others as a religious person, and the Publican, who because of the nature of his work, was looked down upon as a very sinful person.
The former (the Pharisee) boasted and was elated with self-praise, lifting himself higher than the stars. He, of all people, forgot what the wise Solomon had warned: He ignored the admonition of the Prophet Daniel against proud people, and their destiny: “All the proud people will be humbled by the Lord”. His attitude about himself was very selfish and egocentric, even while standing in the Temple of God. Instead of praying, he began to list all of his non-existent virtues. He stood and began his conversation with God. An equal, comparing human virtues with the virtue of God.
Unfortunately, society today has an over-abundance of this type of person, and the Church has more than Her share. Usually we can find them on the parish-church committee – standing in the back of the church, talking incessantly, greedily counting the “day’s take”, and, of course, criticising the priest’s sermon. They are very easy to detect – they know all the parish gossip and are willing to share it “just with you”. They “know” all about the church – especially the priest’s responsibilities – and naturally they are very much above the ordinary churchgoer.
Always expect little participation from them, however, in church worship. And never expect a contrite heart or pangs of conscience. For such individuals, the woeful cry that shakes the very foundation of the Church, the prayer of the Publican – “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” – has very little meaning. According to St John Chrysostom, the proud man is capable of committing any evil. Why? Because pride sets man at a very great distance from God. It falsely uplifts his abilities, exaggerating their true value. A proud man ignores the opinions of his fellows. And most terrible of all, he equates the majesty and power of God according to his own false standards.
Socrates, the father of philosophy, calls the proud and those that boast about themselves, foolish and inflated skins: “skins (hides) are inflated by air, and the foolish man by pride”. The philosopher and moralist Diogenes wrote: “that the man ensnared by the passion of pride becomes a slave of it; and as the shepherd leads his flock, in the same way the proud man is led by his passion”. This is exactly what befell the Pharisee in the holy Temple of God. He thanks God not for his health, or for his wealth, but for not being like the rest of the people: “extortioners, unjust, adulterers”. It is amazing that the Pharisee found the Temple of God the proper place to accuse others.
A wise, good and virtuous man never applauds himself, no matter how good he may be. Socrates was a philosopher and a wise man, but he both privately and publicly called himself ignorant. He used to say: “The only thing that I know is that I know nothing”. A saint, even upon reaching the height of virtue, in the end exclaims: “Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trust not. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do”. The good man knows and repeats but one thing: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”.
The opposite of pride is humility, IE, not to exalt one’s self above others. As St Paul says: “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think” Which is that humility that is accepted by God?
It is not the tapinology – the study of humility – IE, humility via lip-service. But it is an internal feeling and consciousness – what I know in comparison with and in relation to what I don’t know. Who am I and what am I able to become? We are fed up with tapinology. Especially we, the clergy. We are aware of tapinology and all of its improvisations. For example, we often hear from bishops, priests and clergy in general, especially when about to assume their duties as such, that they are unworthy of any honours or serious responsibilities. However, when they are invested with honours, privileges, and responsibilities, it becomes an impossibility to offer them criticisms or suggestions of any kind. And if you do, your name could very well be eliminated from the Church’s diptychs! This of course, is not humility, but blatant tapinology.
Dear brethren, we do not pretend to offer any answers to the problems raised in today’s parable, involving two men, both of them coming down to the city of Jerusalem as righteous. However, we do repeat and urgently stress that the words of our lord be forever in our hearts and minds as the only norm in maintaining a Christ-like balance, in regards to humility and pride: “For everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted”. Amen.