Sermon delivered February 8, 2009.
We talk a lot about humility but sometimes we have difficulty realizing what it truly is and how to practice it. Someone once said, "Humility is a strange thing; the moment you think you have it, you have lost it." Today's gospel reading, the 16th Sunday of Luke 18:10-14 gives us a glimpse into the reality of humility. In the passage Jesus tells the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, comparing and contrasting the sinful tax collector with the highly respected observer and teacher of the Mosaic Law.
Psychologists teach that if you want to change, you must start with behaviors. How we act in certain situations is actually the easiest thing to change about ourselves. Remember when we were children and the school teacher said get in line for recess or lunch? Then some kids would butt in line in order to go sooner. Often a tussle would ensue as kids jostled for a better position telling each other, "I was here first" or "no butts." Unfortunately, this still happens with adults who line up early in the morning for storewide sales or to buy tickets for a concert. Approaching it from the other perspective, do we give up our hard-earned spot in line to someone else? Now that's one example of humility, taking what is rightfully ours and giving it to someone else, especially someone who does not deserve it, with no strings attached, and be happy about it.
Jesus gives specific instructions on this matter in Luke 14:
So He told a parable to those who were invited, when He noted how they chose the best places, saying to them: "When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him; and he who invited you and him come and say to you, 'Give place to this man,' and then you begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes he may say to you, 'Friend, go up higher.' Then you will have glory in the presence of those who sit at the table with you. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
A Walmart employee and an unborn baby of a pregnant mother would still be alive if some people practiced a little humility on Black Friday last year. If this Pharisee was like the others of Jesus' time, he probably went right up to the first or best seat in the temple and started praying. He probably did it so that others would see him praying and praise him for his piety. On the other hand, the Publican stays in the back of the temple with his head bowed (v.13). This is one of the reasons the priest/deacon says many times during the worship services, "Let us bow our heads to the Lord." It's a physical expression of humility before God. Practically, it prevents us from looking around at others to see what they're doing. It keeps the focus on us and God. A more dramatic expression is kneeling during the consecration and prostrating (kneeling and touching the head to the ground) ourselves during Lent.
While simultaneously trying to express humility in our deeds, we must also express humility in our words, the sounds that come out of our mouths as we communicate with others. Whenever we criticize others there is always a tinge of "I'm better or I know better than this other person." God forbid we should make fun of others, their disabilities and imperfections, both physical or in their character. Sometimes we are exactly like the Pharisee in this parable when we tell others, including God in our prayers, "I thank you that I am not a homeless person. I thank you I am not a poor person who shops at XYZ store. I thank you I am not a starving person somewhere in the third world."
In the Vespers of the Feast, we chanted the first Stichera Hymn, "Brethren, let us not pray like the Pharisee, for he who exalts himself shall be humbled. Let us humble ourselves before God, and with fasting cry out like the Publican's "God, be merciful to me a sinner" (v.13). His prayer is the foundation of the Jesus Prayer, "Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner and cleanse me" which is to be repeated constantly throughout the day. The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee marks the beginning of the Triodion, the three week period preceding and including Great and Holy Lent. It highlights the theme of humility as an absolute essential attitude in order to enter into the season of the Fast in order to journey towards Pascha and the Resurrection of our Lord. In other words, if we wish to be resurrected from our life of sin, then we must start with humility. So instead of criticizing others, seek to compliment them directly and to other people. Pray for the homeless, poor and hungry, thanking God for bringing them into your life so you have the opportunity to help them and show your love for them.
Remember the opening to the original television series "Star Trek" where Captain Kirk says, "Space is the final frontier"? We also have a final frontier in the spiritual life. It's called the 'nous' and it refers to our soul, it's gateway is our heart and mind. Like space it is an infinite journey of light years towards God-likeness. In the chapter preceding today's reading, Jesus highlights this dynamic by telling the Pharisees that the kingdom of God is within you (Lk.17:21). The kingdom of God is within us. Therefore, to continue on our journey of humility we must cleanse our thoughts of all expressions of pride.
The Pharisee's prayer has some implication of being a thought for it says he prayed with himself (v.11). So, even if we fast and give tithes, even if outward actions and words are humble, our inward thoughts can be very prideful. Our thoughts can be like one piece of rotten fruit that can sour the whole basket. Jesus repeatedly teaches that thoughts are extremely important for our salvation. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt.5) Jesus points to a deeper spiritual maturity beyond words and actions when He says that anger (Mt.5:22) and lust (v.28) can be just as perilous to our soul as murder and adultery. In the 7th Ode of today's canon a hymn says, "You have warned Your disciples O Master, teaching them not to think proud thoughts but to be numbered with the humble." Later in the 9th Ode it says, "Let us cast out from our soul foolish pride and learn to think with truth and humility; let us not try to justify ourselves, but let us hate the delusion of vainglory and so obtain God's mercy with the Publican."
Certainly there are many other examples to express humility and overcome pride through our actions, words and thoughts. However, do not be fooled that the Pharisee's pride somehow diminishes the importance of fasting and tithes. In other words, we must avoid being taken by the false logic that if we are angry with someone then we are guilty of murder and why even bother attaining to any form of righteousness. Repentance and forgiveness are a never-ending dynamic cycle of growth and spiritual maturity. Our actions, words and thoughts are all inter-dependent, affecting one another. A hymn from the 1st Ode of the Canon for this Sunday says, "Every good deed is made of no effect through foolish pride, while every evil is cleansed by humility." In the 5th Ode it says, "Let us make hast to follow the Pharisee in his virtues and to emulate the Publican in his humility and let us hate what is wrong in each of them: foolish pride and the defilement of transgression." So, we must keep working at bringing all of them under discipline through continual attempts at humility, reinforced by the ascetical disciplines of fasting, almsgiving and prayer. This is the only way God's Holy Spirit can grow within us as we seek to become more Christ-like. Amen.
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.