In the Christian tradition, Pride is considered the most grievous of all sins. The prophet Isaiah tells us that Lucifer (also known as Satan) was a great and mighty angel, and in his desire to exalt himself above God, he was cast out of heaven. In comparing pride to other sins, CS Lewis says, “Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison”; “Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind” (Lewis, Mere Christianity). Pride usually does not come in bursts, like anger, but it is a slow accumulation of thoughts about how great we think we are. The Biblical antidote to this disease is humility.
This morning’s Gospel of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector could be called “A Tale of Two Worshippers.” It is a tale that involves two radically different people, attempting to do the same very same thing. In ancient Palestine, there were certain days and hours of prayer where the temple was open to the public; so actually getting there did require some effort and planning. In our modern society where church attendance is rather sparse, we believe the fact that we are even showing up is something to celebrate! While it is something to celebrate, the parable teaches us that even the best intentions can lead us astray.
The Pharisee is the obviously holy man in Jesus’ first century audience. He would be the person you were most comfortable with, the person you would trust with your deepest secrets, and he was the person whose advice would be the the most respected.
The other man in in our tale is the Publican; a Roman Government official who was responsible to collect taxes. It is significant to remember he represented political Rome. It’s not simply the fact that he collected taxes, and since no one likes to pay taxes, he’s the “bad guy” in the parable. The publican in the mind of the ancient Jewish people was a co-conspirator with the occupying Roman forces who betrayed and cheated his own people.
Fr. Scarlett often mentions that heresy, or false belief, happens when we abuse or overemphasize a a very good aspect of the faith, at the expense of the whole of the faith. In this regard, heresy is very subtle, and often goes unnoticed.
The same is true of pride; it can be very subtle. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, and tithing can and should form us into mature Christians. They are routines we should be consciously praying for the power to do. But they could also be the very things that destroys us. From all outward and objective criteria, the Pharisee was a holy man. Then why are we told that it was the Tax Collector, and not the pharisee, whom went home justified in the eyes of God?
It is because the first step towards a right relationship with God is humility. The Tax Collector had enough self awareness to see himself in light of who God is. This takes us back to the two of the most basic theological doctrines – the knowledge of God – the creator and sustainer of the universe and the knowledge of ourself – created by God. The Pharisee’s pride made it seem as if he was doing God a favor by worshipping in him, and letting God know that there was someone doing it wrong behind him. The tax collector realized that he had nothing to bring to God except himself, and the acknowledgement that he was a sinner looking for mercy.
In Orthodox iconography, the Pharisee is depicted as standing up close to the altar, raising his arms towards heaven, where he is thanking God he is not like all the other bad people out in the world – “the extortioners, the unjust, the adulterers, and even people like this publican.” The Icon shows the publican standing a few steps below, with arms slightly outstretched, as if he is unsure about the offering of praise he is about to make. He stands in the lower place, and has a sense of humility and openness towards God’s will for his life.
When we approach God in worship, what is going through our minds? Do we think that because we are not like all the other bad people out in the world, we have earned a special place in God’s house? Do we keep a better record of other people’s sins than our own? Often, we walk around like the man who has a plank of wood in his own eye, working meticulously to get the splinters out of their neighbors eye.
The liturgy works to form us against false hopes of self righteousness. Just before the reception of holy communion, we pray that we “would not presume to come to God’s table, trusting in our own righteousness, but trusting in God’s manifold and great mercies.”
Our culture has taught us to believe that we are extra special, that we are unique – not like the rest of humanity. This philosophy can be a road block to humility. At times, we may have subconsciously prayed the words of the Pharisee, thinking, “O God, I thank you I’m not like everybody else.” But to move towards Christlikeness, we must begin to adopt the prayer of the publican, who went home justified, saying “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”