Jesus said this parable: Two men went down to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ 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!’ I tell you, this man went 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.”
Luke 18:10-14 (Gospel on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee)
Your motivation for just about anything you do in life can be separated into two categories—It’s either all about God. Or it’s all about you. If it’s all about YOU, we would call that “pride.” If it’s all about GOD, we’d call that “humility.” What if it’s all about “the other guy,” doing something for someone else? Well, that actually fits under the “it’s all about God” category, because the Lord tells us that in helping our brethren, we honor Him. (Matthew 25:31-46, which we will reflect on shortly).
It’s not that the Pharisee was a bad person—in fact, he was doing a lot of good things—Extortion and adultery are bad things and he wasn’t doing them. Fasting and tithing are good things, and he was doing them. So, what was his sin? Why would God say that he went back to his home unjustified?
Well, there are at least three things he was doing wrong—He was praying “with himself.” There is a conflict right there. We “pray” to the Lord. To pray with oneself is to take the role of the Lord, the one who receives our prayers, and give it to yourself. Praying with oneself makes one “his own god.” Praying with oneself makes prayer all about us, and not about God.
Secondly, he was boasting—“look at me, I fast, I tithe.” Fasting and tithing are good things, but as we will learn shortly, we shouldn’t be sounding the trumpet when doing either of these things. If we expect recognition for our fasting and our tithing, then it is hard to argue that we are doing these things for God and not for our own sense of glory.
And third, he was judging the tax collector, as unworthy of God’s mercy and redemption, and also as a man who was not capable of repenting.
There was a moment in God’s temple, when this man made himself god. Because he made his good deeds all about himself. And in that moment, when he was so confident that he was leaving no room for God to work in his life, God didn’t listen to his “prayer.”
The publican/tax collector, on the other hand, we do not know what kind of life he had. Suffice it to say he probably was a thief. He certainly wasn’t the person you wanted to greet at your door. Extortion and blackmail were probably a regular part of his life. But there was a moment in God’s temple, when this man realized that what he was doing with his life, was all about him, and none of it was about God. And in that moment, when he was so low he couldn’t even raise his eyes towards God, he pleaded for God’s mercies and God exalted him.
Humility isn’t doing everything wrong and coming to God to make it all better. Humility isn’t acting pious and expressing self-loathing. Humility doesn’t mean you can’t have confidence in yourself. And it doesn’t mean to not be grateful for the blessings in your life.
Humility puts God first in all things. Humility makes it all about God, and not about us. Humility is what John the Baptist was talking about when he said “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) Humility means “more of God, less about us.” Humility means making it about Him, and not about us.
And when one strives to be humble, his prayer becomes the prayer of the Publican, because he realizes that he needs God’s mercies in order to overcome his shortcomings. The prayer of the Publican, “God have mercy on me a sinner,” is the root of the “Jesus Prayer,” which says “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” In Orthodox theology, we are taught to pray this prayer as often as possible, so that our sense of God’s greatness and our need for His mercies are constantly in our minds. Indeed, in the moment we are asking for His mercies, it is impossible to feel pride and make judgments on others. In the moment AFTER we offer this prayer, it is possible. But in the moment we are offering a prayer for God’s mercies, we are right in sync with God. We are making it about Him. This is why we need to ask for God’s mercies so often, so that we can live in His mercy, and not in our own sense of self, so that we can make life about Him, and not about us.
Recognizing the difference between the Publican and the Pharisee, O my soul, hate the prideful voice of the one, yet emulate the contrite prayer of the other, and cry out, “O God be gracious to me, who have sinned, and have mercy on me.” (From the Praises of the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, Trans. by Fr. Serphaim Dedes)
Seek after God’s mercies today, and in so doing, you will find humility.
By Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis