Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, February 24, 2013
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
A recording of this sermon is available via Ancient Faith Radio.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
We return now once again as we do every year to those three preparatory Sundays before the beginning of Great Lent, and on this first of them, we meditate on the image of the Publican and Pharisee.
It seems to be a straightforward, obvious sort of story from the mouth of the Lord Jesus, just the kind of imagery He likes to use—the supposedly “religious” man who turns out not to be very religious at all, and the spiritual underdog who is revealed to be the one who is actually closer to God. This same pattern plays out in other parables. The one who is not expected to be spiritually advanced turns out to be the good example, while the one whom society would expect to be truly spiritual is revealed to be a fraud.
What I would like us to explore today is one of the aspects of this dynamic as it’s played out in the parable of the Publican and Pharisee, and that aspect may be summarized with this question: “Why are you here?”
There are of course many different behaviors related to church attendance: Some people are always here. Some are here only once a year. Some come once a month. Some show up for a few weeks then disappear for a while. Some are always early. Some are always coming in just as the service begins. Some are always late. Some are variously on time or late. Some always come to Matins. Some always come to Vespers. Some occasionally do either or both. Some don’t even know what those words are referring to.
And besides the question of whether or not someone is here, there is also the issue of what they do when they get here. Some focus attentively on everything happening in the service. Some have attention that wanders and comes back. Some read the bulletin. Some check Facebook on their smartphones. Some just sort of enjoy the experience. Some are asking themselves how they can better repent. Some hang out in the narthex. Some always make sure they hear the sermon. Some always make sure they’re never in the room for the sermon. Some are serving at the altar. Some are serving in the choir. Some are serving from their places in the nave.
When you show up, how often you show up, and what you do when you get here may still all be distilled down to this basic question: “Why are you here?” That is, why are you in church? What did you come here for?
I know this may seem obvious, but please bear with me. This is a question that bears asking, and it also bears returning to, even frequently. Why? Because ideally, corporate worship is something we keep coming back to, Orthodox Christianity is something we keep doing. None of this is about making a one-time decision and then being happy with it and forgetting about it later.
So what does this parable tell us about motivation for worship? What does it tell us about why we’re here—or more critically, why we should be here?
The clue we’re looking for can be found in the prayers of the two men in today’s parable. We first meet the Pharisee, about whom the Lord says this: “[He] prayed thus with himself.” We then hear him thank God for how wonderful he is, how much better he is than other people, especially better than the Publican, the tax collector in the back. But let’s just focus in on that first description of him: “[He] prayed thus with himself.”
The Pharisee is there with himself. He is there for himself. He is there because it makes him feel good about himself to be there. He walks in, knowing that he’s a good guy, a man who does all the right things, and he is confirmed in that feeling there with himself. He seems to be addressing God, but when the God-man describes him, He does not say that the Pharisee prayed to God, but that he “prayed thus with himself.” The Pharisee is alone. The Pharisee is not open to anyone else, certainly not to God. He is there with himself, for himself, by himself.
Now look at the Publican. Christ says: “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” He is not there “with himself” like the Pharisee. The Publican actually is crying out to God. He is actually praying, actually asking for something. He asks for mercy. He desires to connect with God. He is aware of his brokenness, his incompleteness, the wound in his person that needs healing. He comes to the temple to make a real request. He is not there to feel good about himself. He is not hoping to walk away confirmed in his good opinion of himself. He is wounded. He is hurting. He is looking for the Healer. He does not expect anything, does not demand anything. He asks for mercy.
If you get that we are seeing here an image of pride contrasted with an image of humility, then you’re on the right track. But I want us to understand what humility actually is. If we think it’s about walking in here with a feeling of guilt and then going away feeling better, we’ve missed it. We haven’t gotten it. We will have been here for the wrong reason and in the wrong way.
Fundamentally, the difference between these two approaches to prayer in God’s holy temple is that the one is only there for himself while the other seeks to connect. The Pharisee does not feel that he lacks anything at all. He may even feel he’s offering some sort of contribution, and of course he should be recognized for that. But the Publican knows his sin. He knows his lack. He knows his brokenness. He knows that he can never be complete without the mercy of God.
The Pharisee’s problem is not that he does all the right things. Of course he ought to fast and tithe and to refrain from sin. The Pharisee’s problem is that he does not see what all those things were meant to help him to see, what all those things were designed for, to train his will so that he might see what he needs to see: That he needs God. He needs Him desperately. The Publican knows this, and so he falls down and cries out for mercy.
Here is the question, brothers and sisters in Christ: Are you here because you need God? Are you here because you are hungry for God? Are you here because you know you are broken and wish for God to heal you? If the answer is “yes,” even if only intellectually right now, then a full exploration of what that means will have a deep and lasting effect on whether you come here, how you come here, and what you do when you get here.
You don’t need me to say that you should be here as often as you can, for as many services as you can, paying attention as much as you can, serving in every way you can. This is obvious, and no lecturing will reach those who do not wish to know it. And those who wish to know it already do.
The reason we come here to church to pray is this: That we are suffering, incomplete, and, if we truly looked into our hearts, we will see that we are desperately wounded creatures, and here is the place, above all others, where we find mercy. Here is the place where we find the blessed peace that washes away sin, where the blood and flesh of the God-man transform finite creatures with the power of the uncreated infinite. Here is the place where we find eternal life, which is to know our God, to know the Christ Who was sent. Here, He is our God, and we are His people.
Why are you here? Why have you come here today? Consider in your heart all those extraneous reasons you may be here—someone else wants to you be here, you like to see your family and friends, you like how you feel when you come here, you like the choir, this is just what you do on Sundays—and just set them aside. You are here to meet your God, because you need Him. Because you love Him. Because here, you find mercy.
Lord, be merciful to us sinners!
To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.