He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 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!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Revised Standard Version)
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Fifth Sunday of Heesnag), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
Do I Choose Humility or Pride?
How would the hearers of Jesus’ short parable react to a tax collector being the hero of the story? We read from Mark’s Gospel how Jesus was not looked upon favorably for sharing a table with them:
Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:13-17)
So what is the real contrast between the Pharisee and the tax collector? What did Jesus want his listeners to hear?
The Pharisee was a Jewish religious ruler, one who devoutly followed traditions and intensely observed the Law of Israel, especially the purification laws. Pharisees were highly respected among the people, viewed as examples of righteousness. As an “example” of righteousness, this particular Pharisee went to the Temple to pray and ended up comparing himself to others, exercising a high level of pride.
Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. (The Message)
Tax collectors, on the other hand, were despised among their fellow Jews. They were licensed by the Roman government to collect taxes, but would charge high percentages for their own profit and would even turn someone over to the Roman government if necessary. Thus they were considered to be thieves and even traitors. This particular tax collector is ashamed of his conduct, his greed and deceit, and more importantly, he bows in awe and fear before his Judge. Instead of standing as the Pharisee did, he is prostrated and beats himself saying,
God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner. (The Message)
Jesus told this parable to certain people who were convinced of their own righteousness, complacent, and confident. From the epistle reading for this Sunday, St. Paul teaches us proper confidence, one that is grounded not in our own accomplishments and ego, but in God and his promises, what he has already done for us by paving the way to union with him:
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)
Are we quick to judge? Do we evaluate the level of Christian love in others rather than in ourselves? Do we cover up our own faults, sin, and hurt by pointing to others, comparing ourselves with them? Also from the epistle reading for this coming Sunday, St. Peter tells us that it is God who will exalt us as a result of our humility, and no one else:
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. (I Peter 5:6)
And so it will be God, as Judge, who will justify us. That is, Jesus will decide if we have chosen to follow the example of the Pharisee or the tax collector.
Don’t Beat Yourself Up
Clearly the Pharisee was self-righteous and arrogant. His is not the example of how one should pray or live. But is the opposite, the prayer of the tax collector, really the paradigm by which we should measure our own prayer life and how we should view ourselves? It’s easy to assess the world around us and conclude that no one is really good, but at the same time, are we really all that bad? Shouldn’t we have a positive outlook, a healthy perspective of who we are? Why beat yourself up?
Even the posture of the tax collector can seem a little excessive when we think about it. Sure, when contrasted with the upright, proud stance of the Pharisee, the tax collector is obviously applauded for his humility, but is he going too far by not lifting his eyes, striking his breast, bowing down, and positioning himself as far as possible from the altar of sacrifice? We could ask the same thing about one of our most revered saints, Gregory of Narek, who often is criticized for his seemingly dark, self-flagellating prayers. Listen to the mournful, heavy, tragic, strongly penitential tone of Բան 9 from his famous Book of Prayers:
If I were to fill the basin of the sea with ink,
and to measure out parchment the length and
breadth of a field of many leagues
and were to take all the reeds of the forests and
woods and turn them into pens,
I still would not be able to record even a fraction of my accumulated wrong doings.
If I were to set the Cedars of Lebanon as a scale
and to put Mount Ararat on one side and my
iniquities on the other,
it would not come close to balancing. (9A)
And I have fixed my mind’s eye upon you, O worthless soul of mine,
sculpting a monument in words. (9C)
Is this prayer (or St. Gregory in general) too negative, overwhelmingly dark, or self-deprecating? Does he have an overdeveloped sense of penance or unworthiness? Or is he onto something? Does he actually get it, what Jesus was talking about in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, what Christian faith is all about, what the Cross really means? After all, St. Gregory of Narek is not a saint because of his poetic prowess and how he was able to string together beautiful sounding sentences. He is a saint precisely because of his ability to speak with God from the depths of the heart, because he possessed the humility of the tax collector.
St. Gregory is unique in that he captures the essence of Armenian spirituality, but his heart of repentance isn’t anything new. It’s authentically Christian (see I Timothy 1:12-15, II Corinthians 12:9-10, Isaiah 64:6). Both the tax collector and St. Gregory of Narek were painfully aware of their weakness, their flaws, that which diseased them and needed healing. They both knew the urgency of the Gospel and the danger of living apart from God, out of union with him and his Church. And they both knew the only cure was the healing salve of God’s mercy.
Are we, as the Church, as baptized members of the Church, as painfully aware of our weakness as was St. Gregory of Narek? Do we utterly depend on God for salvation, hope, and healing? When we distance ourselves from God, do we become afraid like a child who wanders from their parent? Do we turn elsewhere for fulfillment, to soothe our anxiety and fear, to find peace? Are we like the Pharisee and resist our diagnosis and the cure, or are we striving to be like the tax collector, the model for healthy Christian living, constantly looking to Jesus as the Cure for that which ails us. Do we seek to unite with God and his Church by sharing his Holy Body and Blood during Badarak, which means sacrifice, the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of our heart? It is Psalm 50, the most repeated Psalm within our liturgical services, that properly aligns our external worship with the heart that should accompany it:
For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. The sacrifice «պատարագ» acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Narek’s prayers, which serve as a model for our own repentance and confessions, were not an opportunity for him to report his progress and achievements. They were an opportunity to express his humility, a humility born from a contrast between the righteousness of God and the sinfulness of humanity. In other words, humanity has broken its communion with God by removing itself from the only source of life, resulting in corruption and death. In his prayers, St. Gregory openly reveals this movement away from our proper mode of existence and toward corruption and death. Thus, when St. Gregory confesses, when the tax collector prayed, it was their diseased condition, their communion with God that was of concern rather than a list of rules they did or did not obey. When St. Gregory confesses, he is turning to God, not out of optimism about his potential progress, but out of recognition of his futility. His confession is not about a second chance to try harder, but to be transformed and healed from a sinful condition into union with Christ.
Society tells us to “be positive,” to express who we are, how we were born, and anyone who tells us otherwise is judging us. But Jesus didn’t come to earth and die on a Cross so that we could be positive. We were not gifted life so that we can do whatever we would like with it. Quite the opposite. We were born to live in union with God, but this is not “positive,” nor is it comfortable. And so it is perfectly normal to live in that place of holy tension: a joyful, yet uncomfortable space where we are always coming to know God, experiencing his divine blessings, but in the midst of a harsh world in which the disease of sin pervades, a world filled with people chasing their own way. All is not well, but thankfully, the victory has already been won.
The horse is made ready for the day of battle,
but the victory belongs to the Lord. (Proverbs 21:31)
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Corinthians 15:57)
We might be able to impress others with externals, such as the Pharisee, but if our heart is not right, if we don’t recognize that we are sinful: i.e. sick, damaged, dependent, then we are missing out on God’s divine blessings: his forgiveness, peace, and unity with himself. These blessings only come when repentance becomes the normative, daily life in Christ – by knowing the urgency of salvation and the Person from which it comes, by admitting and accepting our deficiency, by confessing our symptoms to the Great Physician with meekness and humility, and by uniting with the Body of Christ through the holy sacraments of the Church. Through these things, we can join St. Gregory as he ends his deeply penitential Բան 9:
A dew drop of your grace is exhilaration.
You give comfort.
You make us forget despair.
You lift away the gloom of grief.
You change the sighs of our heart into laughter. (9D)
Before Others or Before God?
We go to Church, we’re involved, we fast during Great Lent. During Badarak we confess our sins, we bow down to the ground, we even beat our chests when we say “Վա՛յ ինձ, վայ ինձ, վայ ինձ”. Throughout our liturgical services we sing the prayer of the tax collector, “Lord, have mercy” (Der voghormya) over and over. In fact, it is his prayer that serves as the foundation of the refrain “Lord have mercy” that permeates our liturgical and personal prayer.
But before whom do we do these things? The Pharisee stood before other people around him, and comparing himself with them, he was able to pridefully read his spiritual resume. In contrast, the tax collector bowed down before a holy and righteous God, not before other people, and was therefore compelled to humbly utter the words, “Lord, have mercy” (Տէր ողորմեայ). When we do the same, we can’t help but to see the urgency of our situation and our humble dependence on God for the cure.
The point is not to criticize pious activity, customs, rituals, and righteous deeds. They are good and even essential. They are a response to God, acts of worship born from our faith. But without a heart of true repentance, one of humility, these things will only lead to judgment of others, pride, and arrogance. The downfall of the Pharisee is that his heart was in the wrong place. Instead of God, he used other people as his measure of spiritual success. The tax collector, on the other hand, like St. Gregory of Narek, contrasted his ailing and infirmed soul with the holiness of God.
In one of his sermons, Archbishop Norayr Bogharian† (1904-1996) from Jerusalem encourages us to examine our own sins rather than point out the sins of others:
Everyone must be his own judge…Let us examine ourselves well; let us turn on our ourselves – on our own souls – that magnifying glass through which we view the transgressions of others, and we will see the sooty footprints of Satan are revealed in our soul’s dark corners…Instead of the Pharisee’s pride, let us clothe ourselves in the tax collector’s humility. (trans. Roberta Ervine)
A story from one of the Desert Fathers, a saying from an early Christian monk helps us understand humility and how we should view ourselves in comparison to others:
A hermit was asked, ‘What is humility?’ He answered, ‘Humility is a great work, and a work of God. The way of humility is to undertake bodily labour, and believe yourself a sinner, and make yourself the servant of all.’ A brother said, ‘What does it mean, to be the servant of all?’ He answered, ‘To be the servant of all is not to look at the sins of others, always to look at your own sins, and to pray to God without ceasing.’ (trans. Benedicta Ward)
God sees our heart, so it’s a good idea to be as honest as possible with him when we pray. And when we are honest with who we really are in his sight, can we really attempt to impress him by reading off our accomplishments, bragging about how we are better than others? Or will we, like the tax collector, feebly bow before our Creator, our Great Physician, barely able to utter the words, “Der voghormya, Der voghormya, Der voghormya.”