Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Josép Martinez-Cubero,OHC
Proper 25 Year C- Sunday, October 15, 2016
|St. Maximos the Confessor|
Seventh century Christian monk, theologian, and scholar St. Maximos the Confessor wrote:
In today’s gospel reading of the parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, the Pharisee lifts himself up by belittling, and pointing the finger at others. He is not like those sinners, thieves, adulterers or the tax collector. His religious narcissism is a form of spiritual self-justification. In today’s society, we use many tactics to justify our self worth: intelligence, talent, alma mater, career, political views, where we live, experience, piety."The person who has come to know the weakness of human nature has gained experience of divine power. Such a person, having achieved some things and eager to achieve others through this divine power, never belittles anyone… Like a good and loving physician, God heals with individual treatment each of those who are trying to make progress."
Living without self-justifications makes me feel vulnerable, and my worst tactic for that self-justification is often self-righteousness. But day-by-day, as I continue working on my own slow conversion, I experience little glimpses of what it is to live liberated from the need of self-justification. As I come to accept that through grace God accepts me fully and unconditionally, I do not, for any reason, need to prove myself, point the finger or judge others.
The tax collector, standing far off, prays for forgiveness. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He returns to his home justified. Jesus’ statement at the end is quite clear: if we exalt ourselves, we will be humbled; if we humble ourselves, we will be exalted. It is a frequent theme in the teachings of Jesus. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. Any who want to be my disciples must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. Whoever wants to be first must be servant of all. You also must wash one another's feet. Those who wish to save their lives must lose them. All those who humble themselves will be exalted.
It is a theme blatantly ignored in a culture that rewards self-promotion and celebrates success; in a culture where self-promotion bleeds into other-demotion; in a culture where in order to get to the top others are pushed down or out. It is a message lost in an election season of division, demonizing hatred, and disconcerting violent acts. The words of the Pharisee are timeless and his goal is as current as the morning paper. But any time we fall prey to the temptation to point the finger at other groups, we will find God on the other side.
With weeks of divisive rhetoric during this horrendous presidential campaign season, we can offer an authentic and visible witness of the God who lifts the lowly and humbles the haughty. But, let us be careful not to start pointing the finger at the Pharisees of our time, lest our prayer becomes, "Dear God, I thank you that I am not like other people: hypocrite, overly pious, self righteous, or even like that Pharisee. Dear God, thank you for teaching me that I should always be humble."
The Pharisee misses the true nature of his blessing. He has trusted in himself. His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to God, but it is really about himself. He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions, accomplishments, and being. He has turned his piety into golden calf, and has worshiped it as an idol. The tax collector, on the other hand, knows that he possesses no means by which to claim righteousness, and therefore places his hopes and claims not on anything he has done or deserved but entirely on the mercy of God.
This parable is not about self-righteousness and humility as much as it is about the grace of God who alone can judge the human heart, and who determines to justify the ungodly. At the end of the story, the Pharisee leaves the Temple and returns to his home righteous. This hasn't changed. The tax collector, however, will leave the Temple and return home justified. This parable is about finding ourselves, over and over again, with nothing to claim but our dependence on God's mercy.
When this happens, and we are able to let go of our human-constructed divisions, then we can stand before God aware only of our need for what some weeks back Br. Robert James described as “the ridiculous nature of God’s grace, and our call to live in it.” It is a call to acknowledge our sins and to know we are forgiven. It is also a call to accept God’s grace, and to move into the arena of sanctification, and being blessed to be a blessing to others. Then, we can move from "God have mercy on me a sinner!" to "By the Grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me" (1 Cor 15:10) The Grace of God. This is what the tax collector receives. It is available to the Pharisee as well, but he sees no need for it. ~Amen