In one month’s time, we’ll celebrate the “Sunday of Orthodoxy.” Triumphantly we’ll read the Synodikon that proclaims the Orthodox Christian faith to be the faith of the Apostles, the faith of the Fathers, in short, “…the faith on which the world is established.” We’ll feel confident that we’re upright in our chosen faith. Yet, in a twist of irony, our Orthodox faith first gives us a reading that tells us that in doing this, we will walk away humbled rather than vindicated. (Reflections on the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee)
Our Orthodox faith has a very venerable tradition: it’s a history going back to the apostles themselves. Today, 4 out of 5 of the ancient patriarchates still form the core of the Orthodox world. We pride ourselves on the fact that our origin story pre-dates the Bible itself. In fact, our story even makes up the entirety of book of Acts!
It was precisely this ancient foundation that led me to Orthodoxy. In Athens, I walked in the footsteps of St. Paul himself. I stood on the Areopagus, the very place he had told the Athenians about their “unknown god” (Acts 17). And, as I looked around me, in this place of the apostles, I noticed that the churches around me weren’t Catholic or Protestant, but Orthodox. My curiosity was peaked.
Returning to Minnesota, I sought out Orthodoxy and I was captivated. As I experienced its Divine Liturgy, as I learned about its theology, I concluded that this was the faith of the apostles, the faith of the fathers. My destiny was changed forever.
Being chrismated and becoming fully Orthodox, I felt like the Samaritan woman, now able to drink of water that would quench my thirst eternally. I was finally drinking of the depths of ancient Christian spirituality.
I was proud of this. I became a walking embodiment of the Synodikon, declaring a “triumph of Orthodoxy.” I had found pure Christianity, I told people. Here’s an uncorrupted theology, I shouted. I relished in my Orthodoxy. I was like St. Paul, who, as a Pharisee, was
…progressing in Judaism beyond many contemporizes… being exorbitant in [his] zeal for [his] ancestral traditions. (Galatians 1:14).
It was a personal triumph, a self-glorification.
So, as I studied today’s Gospel lesson, the story of the Publican and Pharisee, imagine my surprise when I found myself staring into the mirror. In my self-congratulations, I had to become the Pharisee!
The Pharisee, we are told,
…stood up straight and prayed these things about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of mankind – rapacious, unjust, adulterous – or even like this tax-collector; I fast twice a week and tithe from everything whatsoever that I earn.’ (Luke 18:11-12)
He sounds like a good Orthodox Christian. Noting the sinless nature – yes, sinless nature – of the Pharisee, my Patristics professor once noted,
He has done nothing wrong: in fact he is a virtuous man, absolutely faithful to the law, steadfast in the observation of religions obligations: he frequents the temple, fasts when prescribed, and gives money to the poor.
Nor is he simply a hypocrite, outwardly righteous, but with no real faith in God. No, he explicitly attributes his own upstanding life to God and expresses his gratitude for this; he even begins his prayer by thanking God. (Fr. John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, pg. 14).
If I’m honest, this sounds like the person every priest wants in his parish. He’s a man who would go to church often, actually give 10% of what he earns to the church, and observe the fasts on the calendar. Who wouldn’t want a parishioner like this? This man is the ideal parishioner.
Upon reflection, though, I was looking in the mirror. I, too, love going to church. I, too, do my best to give of my time, talent, and treasure. I, too, observe the fasts of the church. Yet, it was this man, the Pharisee, who did not go home vindicated!
Why? What was wrong with him? How had he missed the mark?
Again, I return to the wise words of my Patristics’ professor,
The word which recurs most frequently in his prayer is the word ‘I’: I have done all of this, and more. He thanks God, but really he is thinking about himself, what he has done, and what he deserves. He reminds God of all the things he has done, to ensure that God recognizes his worth. In doing this, he shows that he is, in fact, satisfied with his own righteousness, content with himself, with his virtues and his religiosity. He has no need, finally, of God (pg. 14).
In other words, the Pharisee has taken the place of God, the sole judge of the world. He has swept God aside, thrown him from his throne, and sat down, declaring a final verdict for himself: upright in his actions. He has missed the mark in his own confidence and arrogance.
In delighting in my discovery of Orthodoxy, I too had missed the mark. Instead of “boasting in nothing except the cross of our Lord,” (Galatians 6:14) and knowing “nothing except Jesus the Anointed, and him crucified,” (I Corinthians 2:2) I had thanked God that I was not like others who hadn’t discovered Orthodoxy. In fact, to others I encountered, it seemed like I was holding Orthodoxy over their heads.
If I’m honest, it isn’t just with Orthodoxy that I self-justify. It’s easy to see myself as “in the right” when reading about American politics. In my mind, my views of how to run the country are better than any politician’s – of either party. It’s also easy to see myself “in the right” as I sit in my comfortable reclining chair watching the news. There are some really disgusting people out there who do some really sickening things and I tell myself, “I’m glad I’m not like them.”
With each thought, I miss the mark more and more.
Now, as we prepare to enter the Great Fast, readying ourselves to enter into Christ’s resurrection, we are reminded that we shouldn’t fool ourselves. The reality is, we stand in need of God. As St. Paul tells us, we are imprisoned in sin (Romans 11:32). Like the Publican – a tax-collector who cheats his fellow countrymen and colludes with the foreign enemy – we have to seek humility.
…standing a good distance off, [the Publican] would not lift his eyes to heaven, but beat upon his breast, saying, ‘God, grant mercy to me, a sinner.’ (Luke 18: 13)
No ascetical task that we do – whether it’s fasting, attending services, greater charity, or prostrations – can vindicate us. Only through a true confession that acknowledges our own sinfulness and realizes our own nothingness will we become like the Publican. Only in humility will we come to know that we are in God’s hands.
We have to pull back, letting God take control of our lives. In confessing that we have missed the mark, we become wrapped in grace, united to our Lord.
This Lent, may we be tempered by humility, with the image of the Publican always before us, so that it is not us who lives, but the Anointed living within us (Galatians 2:20).
P.S. Live Humbly
St. Elias the Prophet (419 N. Grandview Ave., Dubuque)
Saturdays: Great Vespers, 4 pm
Sundays: Orthros, 9 am; Divine Liturgy, 10 am
Or find your nearest Orthodox Church by clicking here