Sermon for the Sunday of the Publican & the Pharisee (2019)
“One who is affected by pride is not even safe in heaven,” says St. John Climacus, because Lucifer was in heaven, yet because of his mad pride he fell therefrom. On the other hand St. John calls humility a “heavenly siphon, which from the abyss of sins can raise the soul to heaven.” He adds, “If the pride of some of the angels made them demons, no doubt humility can make angels out of demons. Therefore, let those who have fallen take courage!” Again he says, “an angel fell from heaven without any other passion except pride, and so we may ask whether it is possible to ascend to heaven by humility alone, without any other of the virtues.” If we listen attentively to the Holy Ascetic Fathers, they resound with the very same truth. Abba Isaac says that “humility, even without works, is enough to save a man; but no matter how many beautiful and wondrous works a man may have, if he does not have humility, all his virtue is in vain, and will only harm him without humility.”
This is clearly portrayed in today’s very familiar Gospel story. In the Gospel, this parable is preceded by the words, “And Jesus spoke this parable unto certain ones which trusted in themselves, that they were righteous, and despised others…” If we find ourselves today as sinful, wretched, sick, deformed by sin, and afflicted with a multitude of passions, then let us take heart; for we can still find the very accessible virtue of the most-sinful publican: humility.
We are not told this story in order to justify ourselves. God forbid! Nor are we told this story so that we will say with those, who St. Paul says are in error, “let us therefore sin, that grace may abound! Let us do evil that good may come!” God forbid that we should think this—that the boundless mercy and ever-present forgiveness of our God and Savior is a free license to sin without regret. St. Paul warns those who think this way that “we are servants of whomsoever we serve—whether sin, or righteousness.”
We are told today’s parable—as the reading last night at Matins pointed out—in order that we may set humility above all else as the cornerstone of our struggle for virtue and holiness. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, what other virtue could we possibly set forth as our beginning? Is not humility ever before us? Is it not an ever-present opportunity waiting to be seized by us? Aren’t we able to humble ourselves at any moment and be justified with the most sinful publican? Let us remind ourselves what the Gospel-commentators—and last night’s reading at Matins—always point out, that publicans were one of the worst types of sinners which one could imagine. They were sell-outs to their God, and their own nation and people. They were Jews who worked for the Roman pagans. They collected, and often unjustly extorted much more money than called for, from their own flesh and blood. They forsook the True God and bowed down to the Roman-pagan idols, to demons! They were seen by the Jews as traitorous, wicked blood-sucking parasites. In the mind of the Jews, they were so hated and unclean that, when the Lord was teaching His apostles how to deal with stubborn, recalcitrant heretics, and all those who remained uncorrected and unrepentant in the face of constant exhortation and rebukes, and would not even hear the Church and Her highest authority lovingly calling them countless times to repentance, that finally, such ones were to be seen as “heathen men and publicans.”
Have we become this depraved? If so, let us not yet despair of our soul’s salvation. Because, we yet have hope; and it is to be found in the sincere, heartfelt repentance manifested by the publican in today’s parable. The Church holds up this parable above all others as the head of our yearly Lenten season of repentance. Let all of us who are afflicted by vainglory, self-conceit, self-trust, pride, self-complacency and spiritual numbness hear a thundering warning: such will be greatly humbled. Let all of us who are afflicted by a multitude of countless passions, and humbled by our sins, let those of us who are so hear a gentle voice: repent and be justified, and you will be exalted by the Most High Lord Himself.
Yet, what if we find that our many sins are only multiplied by vanity, boasting, spiritual blindness and vainglory? Is there hope for such as us who are like this? Yes! It is true, Christ states that “all who exalt themselves shall be humbled,” but while we are yet in this life, we can still pass from such pride-caused humbling into a state of exaltation; for “all who humble themselves shall be exalted.” We are not sealed in a permanent state of spiritual abasement because of pride until the Last Judgment. Nor are we safe or eternally secure in a state of spiritual exaltation because of humility until that same Day. Abba Isaac, in a brief prayer of confession to the Lord, says, “Truly, O Lord, if we stop humbling ourselves, Thou shalt never stop humbling us.” To the vain, worldly and pleasure-seeking flesh these words are threatening. But to those who have even a speck of desire for the heavenly kingdom, these words bring great comfort and hope. God’s mercy shall pursue us all the days of our life, as the Psalmist says. But sometimes this great, eternal divine mercy manifests itself in our lives in a seemingly-odd way. For instance: maybe we find nothing in this life but hardship. We are constantly overcome by our sins, even by petty and small things which we think we should be able to overcome. We feel embarrassed at our constant failure and spiritual sickness, and we feel as though the whole world can see right through us, and that our shame is open to the eyes of all.
But have we ever stopped to think that God is so incomprehensibly merciful that, although He is all-holy and all-pure, nonetheless if we can only be humbled and saved by being afflicted and overcome by every passion and sin imaginable—and this is the only thing which keeps us from completely separating ourselves from God by mad pride and self-deceived self-trust...
Have we ever thought that God is so merciful, that even all of this spiritual garbage which we constantly produce in our soul, even all of this, God, in His long-suffering mercy will endure, just because He knows that through the hardship and pain which it causes our still spiritually-sensitive soul, it is the only way we can be humbled and saved? Have we ever thought about this?
Christ teaches us that “those who exalt themselves by pride and self-conceit shall be humbled and abased.” But even in these words we can find hope, because they are followed by the words, “but all who humble themselves shall be exalted!” When we are humbled by God, through other people, through painful circumstances, or through our passions, or even by our fits of mad pride; when we are humbled by God, we have a chance to not only be humiliated and humbled, but to lay hold of humility and humble-mindedness themselves, and thus be exalted.
We, however, would like to ascend to heaven without a cross. We would like to become divine sons of God without enduring the same things that the Only True Son of God endured. We would like to be spiritually exalted and joyously-exultant without humiliation. We would like to become pure and perfect and humble without humiliating circumstances. But this is fantasy! No matter how much we humble ourselves in word, in deed, in manner, by bows, by asking forgiveness, even thinking that we are nothing—no matter how much we humble ourselves in this way, we still will not find true humility without involuntary trials and humiliating circumstances coming upon us without our desire, arrangement or liking. We cannot be cured in our deepest soul without the added trials and temptations which come upon us against our will. Amma Syncletica of the Egyptian desert clearly states that enduring sickness and involuntary affliction and misfortune—if borne nobly—is the highest asceticism, higher than many fasts, vigils, prostrations and good deeds. Why does she say this? Because we can exercise ourselves in many good works; we can exhaust ourselves in any number of ways—prayers, fasts, asking forgiveness, choosing the lowest place, etc., but, all of these are self-chosen, all of them are voluntary, and are practiced and exercised by our own will and power.
But when sickness, or unforeseen sorrows, afflictions, persecutions, or whatever else comes upon us without our choosing—and we yet actively and consciously choose to endure it—then this is the highest asceticism, this is bearing the cross in truth, this is the path of the Savior Who voluntarily chose to endure the spitting, the shame, the persecution, the crucifixion and death which was committed against His will by men of depraved minds. This is truly an otherworldly mindset! How far—we say—is this view from the reality of my own mind and soul. We are very far from the otherworldly virtue of that monk who was found on the roadside weeping and lamenting; who, when he was asked what great misfortune came upon him, answered with a disconcerted sigh: “oh, no temptation today, God has forsaken me!” Many times we rather say, “Oh, many temptations today, God has forsaken me!” But Abba Isaac chides us, saying, “how is it with you, that the trials on the path to the kingdom seem to you to be off the path? Do you not know that this is the path of the saints, and of the Son of God Himself?” What can we say? What can we do? No matter where we find ourselves at this very moment—whether we are enjoying a peaceful and grace-filled morning, or a painful one full of heaviness, passions and sorrow—wherever we find our own souls, we have salvation’s door open before us, and the remedy for all our ills—humility, meek acceptance, noble submission and unquestioning obedience under the almighty hand and incomprehensible mind of God Who loves us beyond all imagination.
The humble man is invincible—truly, invincible. Everyone of us who has at least tasted a slight taste of heavenly, unshakeable, unconquerable and divine humility understand this. Slap a humble man across the face, and he loves you; pierce him with nails and inflict wounds on him, and he prays for you and weeps for your soul. Watch him wither away with sickness and bodily disease, and he glorifies God with an unconquerable hope in eternal life in heaven. Let heaven and earth dissolve in flame—and be amazed as you see the humble man as serene and calm and unaffected just as other men are when they are filled with rich food, much rest and flatteries of all kinds. Tell the humble man he is insane, and he will smile and agree.
But no one can deprive the humble man of the eternal treasure which is hidden within his heart—even Christ and His Holy Spirit, in Whom are found all joy, all rest, all peace, all life, all glory. The humble man is invincible and unconquerable. He is not a push-over; he is not weak; he is not a coward. He is not a servile man-pleaser. He is a son of God, and god by grace, born by the grace of the only God of gods. He follows the Only True God upon the way of the Cross, setting all his joy and hope in what is unseen and divinely-hidden within the boundless and inexhaustible fountain of all grace and gifts, even the very bosom of God the Father, wherein is found His Only-Begotten and Most Humble Son, and the Holy Spirit, and also all who have, through Their grace and mercy, found themselves therein.
Through the grace of our Most-Loving Lord, the All-Holy Trinity, and through the intercessions of all His most-humble and loving saints, the Mother of God, all the angels, the blessed apostles and martyrs, and all repentant sinners who have been saved through the humble-mindedness of the publican—through their prayers, may we also travel their common path in this life, bearing—each and everyone of us our particular, unique, God-given and salvific cross—and being exalted thereby by the grace of God, that through hope and faith in His mercy, we might find the same glory and eternal joy which He has always had, and desires to give all who endure until the end, unto His glory and eternal rejoicing for all ages. Amen.
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