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The Wings of Humility

The Pharisee and the Tax-Collector

Fr. Luke A. Veronis

“Better is the person who has sinned, if he knows he has sinned and repents, than the person who has not sinned and thinks himself righteous.” This advice came from the Desert Fathers, who were holy saints of the 4th century and to whom thousands of people flocked for spiritual wisdom during their time.

Think for a moment about this saying: “Better is the person who has sinned, if he knows he has sinned and repents, than the person who has not sinned and thinks himself righteous.”

In other words, the Desert Fathers are teaching us that our salvation and our good standing with God doesn’t depend on whether we sin or not. Reality shows us that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. I’m reminded of this every time I pray the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on ME the sinner.

The foundation upon which we begin a serious journey towards God and His Heavenly Kingdom must start with the knowledge of our own spiritual situation. The philosopher Socrates taught us to “know yourself.” Knowing oneself in the fullest sense implies knowing our shortcomings and sins as well as knowing the divine potential we all possess. Such self-knowledge is essential for any mature Christian who wants to journey towards God.

We fall into one of the greatest deceptions of life, a lie that hinders any spiritual growth, when we fool ourselves into thinking that our good deeds are worthy of God’s blessing and salvation, that we are “good” people, that in fact, we are better than others. This is why the Desert Fathers warned, “Better is the person who has sinned, if he knows he has sinned and repents, than the person who has not sinned and thinks himself righteous.” Paradise cannot be earned by good deeds or gained through our efforts, no matter how worthy they may be. If any of us think of ourselves as righteous, deserving of heaven, then we walk on a very dangerous precipice.

Our Lord Jesus Christ offers the Kingdom of Heaven as a gift to those who turn to Him in humility and love. Of course, sincerely turning to God implies doing many good deeds of unconditional love for people all around us. Good deeds and a life of unconditional love surely play a central part in our journey with God. Yet, we must take care not to think any good deeds earn us the Kingdom of Heaven, and to beware that we can spoil and ruin any good deed of love with an arrogant or self-righteous spirit.

This is why St. Kosmas Aitolos instructs us that “A Christian needs two wings to fly to paradise: humility and love.”

We see this lesson of humility most clearly illustrated today in the Gospel story of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector. A Pharisee was a well respected religious leader of the Jews who strove to follow every detail of the Mosaic law. He prayed daily. He gave 10% of his money to the Temple. He fasted twice a week. He tried to stay away from any evil acts and tried to obey God’s law. From an external perspective, the Pharisee was a model Jew during the time of Jesus.

Yet in the story, Christ does not praise the Pharisee, but condemns him! Why? Because the Pharisee spoils all his good deeds through his arrogance and self-righteous pride. The Pharisee thought very highly of himself because of his good actions, and his pride led him to judge and condemn others, like the sinful tax-collector.

While the Pharisee noted his external behaviors, he did not “know himself’ well enough because he ignored his heart, he disregarded the mean spirit that controlled his being. While the Pharisee lauded his meticulous obedience to the Law, God pierced his heart and found the cancer of arrogance and pride eating his soul away.

In the eyes of God, pride is the first and greatest sin, because pride tempts us to think that we are truly good in and of ourselves. The Bible teaches that only One is good, and that is God Himself, because only God is sinless. All others, no matter how much good we do, still fall short of perfect goodness, because with any good comes plenty of sin in our thoughts, words, and deeds, as well as in our actions and inactions.

“Better is the person who has sinned, if he knows he has sinned and repents, than the person who has not sinned and thinks himself righteous.”

The Tax-Collector, in comparison to the Pharisee, was truly a terrible sinner in external terms. Last week in my sermon on Zaccheus, I described what a dishonest and dishonorable person a tax-collector was. Remember, in the times of Christ, tax-collectors were held in such disrepute that the Jews equated them with murderers and robbers. This tax-collector surely sinned plenty of times, and lived a sinful life, yet in this story he comes to the point of “knowing himself.” He dares enter into the Temple, and unlike the Pharisee who walks to the front, praying in a loud voice for all to hear, the tax-collector stays in a back corner, falling on his face in humility, and quietly crying tears of repentance while offering the most simple prayer, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Although the tax-collector sinned in countless ways, he truly repented by turning back to God with one of the greatest virtues – humility. Humility means truly knowing yourself – knowing the evil that is within you, as well as the divine potential waiting to burst forth. Therefore, the tax-collector approached God by hoping solely in His great mercy, and believing that even he, a great sinner, could become once again a child of God!

Now one danger we must take care to avoid, as we listen to this moving story of humility, is to misunderstand the true nature of humility and repentance. Too often I have heard people flippantly say that they can do anything they want, because God will forgive them. Yet, such people fall deeper and deeper into the abyss of sin as they deceive themselves with such a superficial understanding of repentance and humility. Authentic repentance does not denote simply saying “I’m sorry” and then continuing in sin. Sincere repentance entails deep self-reflection, piercing self-understanding, and a radical decision to change the direction of your old way and life, and turn towards the ways of the Lord. Such a surrendering understanding of repentance has absolutely nothing to do with the flippant and careless “I’m sorry. God will forgive me” attitude.

This contrast of humility vs. arrogance, repentance vs. self-assurance, contrite sorrow vs. a self-righteous attitude leave us much to reflect upon as we prepare for our upcoming Lenten Journey. That’s right, Great Lent is only three weeks away, and this parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector is our wake-up call to get ready. We have three weeks before we begin our 40 day journey of fasting and spiritual effort, and the Church reminds us that the first way we can prepare for this journey towards Easter is by “knowing ourselves,” looking within, and evaluating what spirit we possess deep within our souls. Do we possess the spirit of the Pharisee – a bit proud of our deeds, self-assured of our efforts, and judgmental towards others? Or are we cultivating the spirit of the tax-collector – aware of our sinfulness, humble before God, and contrite and sincere in our repentance and turning back towards Him?

Jesus warned us, “Those who think highly of themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

“Better is the one who has sinned, if he knows he has sinned and repents, than the person who has not sinned and thinks himself righteous.”