St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

On the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, January 28, 2007

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Let's think about this question: why did Jesus look unfavorably at the Pharisee's prayer? I think it is very simple. The Pharisee did not love his neighbor. You may ask, “Wasn't God offended at the self-centered prayer of the Pharisee?” Think deeply about it and you have to say that no, God was not offended by the self-centered prayer because God cannot be offended. God is way beyond such human emotions.

Consider it this way. Do we come to Divine Liturgy because God needs us to come? Does God exist because we praise Him? No, God is because God is. He does not need anything from us. We are the ones in need. Unfortunately, we have become forgetful. We get wrapped up in the problems of life, our desires and cravings, our ever-changing emotions, our often silly ideas and concepts and we forget that there is anyone or anything outside of our thoughts. We often live as if there were no God at all, no neighbors at all, just us. God does not need Liturgy, we do. God needs nothing at all, we and our neighbors are the needy ones. We need Liturgy to remind us that we are not alone.

The Pharisee got caught up in his own story. It was a story of self-sufficiency, rugged individualism. Thinking himself to be singularly wonderful, he followed his fantasy until it hardened into character. Thought becomes word, word becomes deed, deed becomes habit, habit hardens into character. “As the shadow follows the body, as we think we become.” The Pharisee was doomed from the start thinking, “I need no one.” He despised the Publican because that sad creature had not achieved the grand status of believing a loveless lie. We all need to become conscious of the stories we are telling ourselves. These stories are what rule us from within and they are mostly lies and fantasies. Reality is a nice change! Not simply nice, salvific!

Sometimes we only notice other people when they annoy or threaten us and then we cannot forget them! We turn them into enemies! Boy, does that get us going! Our blood boils, our hearts beat fast, our minds run a mile a minute. We feel so very alive when we are afraid or annoyed! If it weren't for these enemies, we might sleep-walk through our entire lives, but this is hardly a good life.

The Pharisee found an object to despise. The Publican became his straw-man that day. “Thank you, God, that I am not like him!” And then, to show God just how thankful he went to examine the speck in the Publican's eye. I am not like him because he does such and such and I do this and that. See how good I am and notice how bad he is. The Lord says that we should not try and remove the speck in our brother's eye before we remove the log from our own. The Tibetans have a similar, humorous saying: Do not look for the flea in your neighbor's hair and ignore the lumbering yak that is on your nose.

The Pharisee did not know, evidently, that loving your neighbor is the only way to love God. The Romans could tell a Christians because they had one over-arching, tell-tale characteristic: they loved their neighbors. Think of how different the scenario in the Gospel today would have been had the Pharisee looked at the Publican with compassion. How different our lives would be if we looked on others with compassion. It is a choice you know. What if the Pharisee had looked below the surface and seen that the Publican was a man in need of loving-kindness? What if he had allowed love rather than discrimination to rise in him?

This is the choice we have to make a thousand times a day. Will I walk the path of loving-kindness or the path of self-interest? It is the same question the Pharisee asked himself that day in the Temple. Unfortunately, he and we often choose unwisely.

It is very important how we treat others. It reveals what is going on inside of us. Love is the fruit of a life lived consciously in the Holy Spirit. Judgment is the fruit of a life lived unconsciously. Love does not see evil in others. Fear sees nothing else. Love “believes all things”. Jealousy despises all things.
Love shows compassion. Hatred kills. Love unites. Those who do not love never cease to find ways to separate, to break apart, to encourage division. It happens first in the heart and then it becomes action. Love binds together even those who are far apart, recognizing that all people are essentially one even while differences exist. Love is the core of us underneath the rubble. Now is the time to stop playing in the rubble.

So, here is the spiritual work all of us are called to do. We are called to be miners of the treasure that is within. If we dig down deep, then we will discover the mother-lode, the image, the kingdom of heaven, the spiritual gifts that God has given “everyone who comes into the world.” Then we bring up the precious ore to fashion a life adorned with beauty, compassion, kindness and love. These are the ornaments of a good Christian life. Another name for them is the virtues.

The Pharisee was believing his own fantasy, playing in the rubble of his ruined life. He got caught in a layer of debris and thought it was gold. We must look deeply into the reality of how we think and how we live through meditation and prayer and through the conscious cultivation of compassion in our daily lives moment by moment, heartbeat by heartbeat, step by step, breath by breath. There is so much that needs to change. Are we courageous enough to look? We need to become aware that the energy of the Holy Spirit already surrounds and infuses us. God is available to us every moment, but we must make ourselves available to him. Transformation from self-centeredness to love is simply a matter of thinking and doing because all that we need to accomplish it is, by God's grace, at our fingertips.