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(March 2006 -- 1st Article)

Pharisees, Humble Yourselves!

By the Rev. Metropolitan Avgoustinos of Florina, from the weekly bulletin “Kiriaki,” Feb. 20, 2005

[translated from Greek by the staff of the Greek Orthodox Brotherhood of St. Poimen].

My dear brethren, if we take a quick look around us and observe nature and all in her, we will notice something astonishing: all of nature and all of God’s creatures are in prayer, each of them in their own unique way. The sea thanks God through the roaring of the waves; the small stream of water through its murmuring; the trees through the rustle of their leaves; the birds through their melody; the stars through their twinkling lights. Did you ever pay attention to a chicken drinking water? During every swallow, it raises its head high, as if it is conveying gratitude to its Creator, saying, “God, I thank you!”

Now I ask you: is it possible or remotely likely that man would be absent from this Divine invitation? Of course not. Man prays as well, conveying his gratitude to his Maker. Ever since our childhood, our wonderful mothers have taught us to humbly cross our hands in front of the icons of Christ and Panagia, and to whisper a simple prayer towards our Heavenly Father. These constitute unforgettable moments for all of us. Later in our lives, we learned, along with many other children, how to say in Church the “Our Father” and the Creed, thus joining the rest of the congregation in our mutual pleas and thanks towards our Lord.

The most noble expression and manifestation of the human heart take place during the time of prayer. The creation communicates with the Creator. It is the exact moment that compels man to thank Him for the many benefactions he enjoys daily in his life. It is also the moment that man, feeling perhaps great sorrow and hopelessness, turns to His omnipotence and pleads for help and protection.

But what is this that I see? What is this that I observe and hear? Man, in his great sinfulness, somehow manages to profane and commit another great sin during this time of prayer. How does he do that? Our Lord provides us the answer to this question through the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.

Our Lord through this parable transports us to the temple of Solomon, during the time of prayer for the Jewish congregation. The magnificence of this temple made man “feel” the presence of God, i.e., that God comes down to all those in prayer so that all of them in turn are elevated towards God. Multitudes of faithful thus approached the Temple of Solomon with great piety to pray within. Their movements, attitudes, and stance were calm and noiseless.

This environment of sanctity and piety is being disturbed by someone. It is the Pharisee. What does he do? He avoids all others and walks alone. His walk is prideful and his appearance and bearing are haughty and arrogant. He considers himself saintly, righteous, and pure. He refuses to associate with others and does not mingle with them in fear that they might “pollute” him. Furthermore, he enters in a boisterous, noisy manner. All others must stop what they are doing and take special notice of him; they must turn their eyes towards him. There is only one prayer that must be heard: his and his alone! He thus directs himself towards the center of the temple and he raises his hands so that he can proceed with his prayers in an elevated tone…

This however, is not prayer. The prayer of the Pharisee is a mockery of God. He does not take a second to consider that in front of him is not a simple Jew but He Whose presence makes the universe tremble and shiver. The Pharisee, all puffed up with ego, does not consider it proper to kneel or even lower his head and ask for God’s mercy. Thus standing, he begins his “prayer”.

He begins with, “I thank Thee” (Luke 18:11). I wonder what he is thanking God for. Does he thank Him for his wealthy house, for his excellent health, for his many riches that are spread all over his home, for being protected from committing sins? What is he thanking God for? Let us listen to him: “God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this Publican; I fast twice in a week, I tithe all things that I acquire…” Now I ask you: Did he do this “prayer” for God? No. This “prayer” was meant to be heard by the people that were present all around him. He wanted all to know his “virtues” so that they could admire him.

The Pharisee altered the prayer stance into a display of self-idolization, a show. Where is the self-awareness, the feeling of contrition, the pose of humility? Where is the consciousness of the sinful human nature and the plea for God’s mercy? He is preoccupied with his ego and self-declared accomplishments. “I am not an extortioner, I am not unjust, and I am not an adulterer.” Yes, Pharisee, you are not all these things, but you are an egomaniac and prideful. And for God, there exists no human passion or evil more disliked than that of pride. Pharisee, it would have been more welcome if you were an extortioner and unjust and an adulterer, as long as you were not prideful. Why? Because then it is possible for your humility to guide you into repentance and thus attract God’s mercy.

O Pharisee, you departed the temple all puffed up since you accomplished your feat and attracted the admiration of people who eulogized you and judged you as good. Did God agree with the opinion of all others in the temple? Did God praise you like they did? Did He even accept your prayer? Let me assure you that prayers of this type cannot and do not reach God’s “ears.” This is why Christ, having full foreknowledge of such predispositions, explicitly told us how we must all pray. My fellow man, do you truly wish to communicate with your Creator in Heaven? If so, then “…enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” (Matt 6:6) Let me also be as emphatic as humanly possible and assure you that pharisaic prayers are a complete waste of time; they are good-for-nothing and lost forever.

Now you see, my dear brethren in Christ, how it is possible and likely, through pride, for many to commit grave and terrible sins, even during this time of prayer.

But why remain with the sad and pitiful image of the Pharisee? In His parable and within the confines of the same temple, our Lord presents us with the ideal image of a praying man. Before, we had the egocentric and prideful Pharisee; now, we have a humble, sensible, and wise person. He is the Publican.

The Publican examines himself as well. There is, however, a difference. The Pharisee saw only virtues, while the Publican can only see sins. From the lips of the Pharisee we hear, “I thank Thee,” full of callousness. From the lips of the Publican, however, we hear, “God be merciful unto me the sinner” (Luke 18:13). His words come out with immense pain and anguish. The Pharisee boasted, while the Publican “smote upon his breast” (Luke 18:13). The Pharisee had no knowledge of Who was standing across from him, while the Publican had complete understanding that he was standing in front of God his Creator, the only One Who is without sin, Him Whose virtue covers the heavens. He has complete self-awareness of his misery, wretchedness, and sinfulness. He does not even dare to “lift his eyes unto Heaven.” He knows that as it is not possible for injured eyes to face the sun, it is equally unlikely for a sinful man to face God. He is in immense pain; he weeps; he laments; he stands afar off and smites his chest. He cries out, “God be merciful unto me, a sinner.”

Hail to you O humble heart that is aware of the heights of God and your own wretchedness. You did not arrive to seek the recognition of people or to put on a show of ostentatious behavior. You entered the temple quietly to express your pain and anguish, to confess your sinful state, to beg for God’s mercy and love.

This is why the Publican’s prayer did not go to waste. It would be natural to rightfully think that the prayers of a man as sinful as him would be unlikely to receive any type of audience from God, since everybody ignored him, especially the self-proclaimed “virtuous” Pharisee. Do you see how the judgment and discernment of people is wrong more often than not? We never have any true knowledge of what actually transpires within the hearts of people. People’s judgment results in the condemnation of the Publican; God’s judgment, however, results in his acquittal. People ignored him or looked upon him with contempt. God, however, welcomed and received his prayer. The Publican’s humility attracted God’s love.

My fellow brethren, even today (or perhaps especially today) our own world is full with Pharisees and Publicans. As during that time, people today also come to church to pray. I wonder how many of those come with a prideful air about them and a boastful attitude, just like the Pharisee. How many men and women make these big crosses and light the candles up front so that they can put on a show? How many come to church not to pray but to instead display their newly tailored suits or dresses, those fur coats or their new expensive jewelry, thus seeking admiration, recognition, or to become the topic of conversation? How many are even “praying” through self-recognition, calling themselves good Orthodox Christians? Thankfully, however, we also have Publicans. Perhaps that older lady in the corner and that weeping mother, who with contrition in their hearts, place their heads down and pray, “O Most Holy Mother of God, please save my family and me, the sinner!” They give us a renewed appearance of the Publican. O holy soul, may His mercy be with you at all times.

I am directing my words now toward the Pharisees of our days. Do not take comfort in the words of other people about you. Examine yourselves; is it possible that the serpent of pride has bit you and his evil poison has made you ill? Examine to see if God is truly with you. And if the answer is no, then weep, bow down, kneel and cry out: “God, have mercy upon us, the sinners!” It is only in this manner that you will find His justice. Do not forget that there exists nobody without sins. No matter what heights or virtues you may reach, there will always be something lacking, something on which you know you have fallen behind. It is for this reason that you must “humble yourselves in the sight of God, and He shall lift you up.” (James 4:10). We must never forget: “God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5)