Glory to Jesus Christ!
My dear friends in our Lord, we have talked many times before concerning the necessity of balance in the life of grace. In walking the path of sanctifying grace, just as in walking any path in this world, if we do not have balance, we are going to stumble and fall.
Now, of course, even in our falls we might still find the assistance of our Lord. Even if we fall a thousand times a day, we must never think that we have been abandoned, for such is never the case. Instead, if we fall, we should find within it a lesson for our own humility and an opportunity to look within ourselves to see what it is that causes us to fall – to see what it is that throws us off-balance.
It is an especially opportune time to make such an inventory of our soul, as we begin our preparation for the season of Lent. Today we hear in the Gospel our Lord’s parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.
Now this is a well-known parable, in which you have a Pharisee – a devoutly religious and conscientious man – and a Publican, or a tax-collector, and we heard about the general state of life of the tax-collectors last week when we heard about Zacchaeus. So you’ve got a Pharisee and a Publican and they both go to the temple to pray.
And, as we hear, the Pharisee stood and prayed: “O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican. I fast twice in a week: I give tithes of all that I possess.” But the publican, praying, simply struck his breast, saying: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” And the Lord concludes, saying: “I say to you, this man,” that is, the Publican, “went down into his house justified rather than the other: because every one that exalteth himself, shall be humbled: and he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted.”
And with our Lord’s explanation, the point, the moral of the parable, that is, the necessity of humility in the life of grace, is quite easily understood, very easily grasped. It is not nearly as easily practiced, but it is easily understood.
It is precisely this difficulty in practicing genuine humility that causes the Church to place this lesson before us on this day, this first week spent in preparation for Lent. Because even if we undertake all the ascetic labors of the coming Lenten season, if we do not humble ourselves, then we undertake our labours in vain.
Look at the contrast between the Pharisee and the Publican, and you will see the key that you need to practice humility.
What is that key? They key is heart. One of the great faculties of the soul, along with the intellect and the will. These three must work in concert, in harmony, and in balance with each other if our spiritual life is itself to be balanced.
Look again at the Pharisee and the Publican. There is the contrast, yes. One leaves justified while the other does not. But they are far, far more alike than you might first realize.
For in what they say, they both speak the truth. The Pharisee was not lying when he listed all the things he was not. He was not lying when he spoke about his fasting and his tithing. He told the truth. Likewise, the Publican spoke the truth when he simply declared himself a sinner. The truth by itself is not enough.
Both the Pharisee and the Publican did good things, regardless of their own sinful natures. The Pharisee began his prayer with thanks to God – and leaving aside the question of his motivations – thanking God is always a good and proper activity. The publican likewise begged mercy – itself also a good and proper activity. So the good and the proper by themselves are not enough.
The difference lies in their hearts. The heart of the pharisee is fixed on himself – and consumed with pride, the dis-ordered seeking after one’s own excellence. The heart of the publican is fixed on the beauty of the Lord and His grace, and his heart is pained by separation from God by sin.
Love – rightly ordered love – this is the key. This is the real difference between the Pharisee and the Publican. This is the difference between justification and condemnation. This is the necessary virtue that we must have with us as we embark upon the Lenten fast this year.
In order to cultivate this love within us, we must hear our Lord. We must daily lay our own hearts open before him. Only the humble heart loves rightly. And only the heart which is fashioned after that of the Lord is humble. And our hearts are fashioned after His when we daily hear His word, as He Himself has said: Learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart.
Here is our lesson for this week. Here is our key. Let us take it and go forth with joy.