Constraining, not conquering.

Homily 347 – 38th Sunday after Pentecost
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
February 17, 2019
Epistle: (296) – 2 Timothy 3:10-15
Gospel: (89) – Luke 18:10-14

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

In thinking about the Publican and the Pharisee, we generally identify with one or the other.

We maybe even lie to ourselves a little bit and say we identify completely with the Publican, the sinner deserving of nothing.

Or, maybe, we do recognize our own pride, our own self-absorption, and we say we identify with the Pharisee.

I think the correct answer is “both”. We all are a mix – unless we have perfected ourselves and are now living saints.

We are a mix of good and of bad, of humility and of pride, of righteousness and of sin.

In fact, the great philosopher of the Soviet Gulags, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, said famously:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil. 

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

What we see in the Gospel reading today isn’t really one or the other, it is both. What we must see is that we need to identify one, and work toward the other. We need to identify when we are being like the Pharisee.

And work at being the Publican.

Looking closely, we can see the central issue we all face. Look at the words of the Pharisee. God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men, dishonest, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I earn.

Where is this man’s focus? On himself. I – I – I. In the two sentences he uses “I” five times. For the grammar nerds among us – “I” is the subject.

But in the words of the Publican – God, have mercy on me, a sinner – the word “I” is never used – and the word “me” is an object, not a subject.

The Pharisee puts himself front and center, the focus of attention. The Publican places God at the center – and himself as not an actor, but someone acted upon by the subject.

And therein we find the key to Great Lent. It is that re-orientation of ourselves, away from “I” and toward God.

It is the denial of self – the denial that Christ said was an integral part of being his disciple.

The Church offers us this parable that we might be conscious of the state of our being as we begin Great Lent.

And personally, I get a lot of encouragement that the reading, the bringing to conscious mind, of this parable comes around every year.

It’s like the Church knows we need it. We will not get there – we will, as Solzhenitsyn tells us, always have evil within we need to work on.

During the Lenten periods, especially Great Lent, we focus on this one thing – constricting the evil within us.

What happens when we fail? As we inevitability will? Hopefully more infrequently, but fail we will.

The beautiful answer, the joyful, wonderful answer, is that God has already forgiven us for those times. He has already forgiven us!

He knows we will fail!

Our sins harm others, so we ask their forgiveness. We seek the forgiveness of the Church through confession and reconciliation. Such forgiveness which already exists, good measure – pressed down – running over.

Seventy times seven – every time!

It is the lesson of Great Lent. From that lesson, we derive one magnificent eternal thing – hope.

Hope in our forgiveness. Hope in our salvation. Hope in our perfection in Christ.

That we will, if we are diligent and don’t divert our attention, be restored to true humanity, united in love with God, and with one another.

With nothing to separate us from one another. No loneliness. No isolation.

Only perfect love.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.