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Sermon: Becoming Light for Those in Darkness

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(from The dismissal hymns of the feast of St. Photios the Great)

Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee
A Sermon by Rev. Mark Leondis
(Luke 18:9-14)

What do you desire in life? What fuels you to make your daily decisions and choices? How do you act toward others? Do you desire salvation? Do you desire to follow the Lord as your King and God? What is the theme of your life?

Today we are told of the story of the Publican and the Pharisee. A story about two individuals who are direct opposites. Opposite in the way they lived their life, in the way they acted toward others, even in the way they prayed. In essence, two examples for us on how we can live and make decisions in our life.

Let’s take a look at these two individuals who “went up into the temple to pray”. First we have the Pharisee: Mainly, the Pharisees were highly respected as zealous observers of God’s law. We know that they formed strict legalistic application of traditional interpretations of the law stemming from oral Jewish Tradition. They were usually hostile to the mission of Christ, who condemned their excessive legalism and their preoccupation with outward forms, ignoring true righteousness of the heart.

‘The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterous, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’” 

The Pharisee measured his spirituality and his commitment to God based on someone else. He did not look within to realize his potential, but rather looked out to another. The reality is that at times, we all fall into this dangerous trap. It is quite easy to compare ourselves with other people.

Whether it’s with our appearance, our career status, our wealth, and even with our spirituality, it is quite easy fall in this area. 

The Pharisee also fell into the trap of legalism. He felt it important to list his deeds to God in prayer; to “inform” our Lord of his good deeds. When we offer prayers to God, we need not tell him of our good deeds – God is the omnipotent, the all-knowing, the one who created each and every one of us. He created us and knows us as His own. We are called to enter into communion with Him through prayer. To stand before Him without ego, pride or passions; to stand before Him as He knows us. 

The Pharisee was a typical example of those people who look upon themselves as righteous and exalt themselves above others. The Orthodox Faith is not about “rules” required for salvation; things that we have to do to enter eternal life. The Orthodox Faith is about “tools” given to us by our Savior, “tools” which enable us to become closer to our Lord and enter into a deep communion with Him. To name a few, the “tools” given to us by our Lord are the Sacraments, fasting, prayer, even reaching out to the un-Churched – these “tools” enable us to become closer to our Lord and He in turn becomes manifest in our lives. 

The moment we begin to view these gifts or “tools” from God as rules is the moment we become legalistic in our Faith. We are not called to become robots of the Faith; but rather, we are called accept the great call from our Savior, transform our lives, and offer it back to Him for complete healing and restoration. We are called to share our Faith with others without judging them or their spirituality. We are called to recognize our own sinfulness and to reach out and share the Grace that we have been blessed to receive from Christ our King. 

Now let us take a look at the Publican. The Publican is a typical example of the kind of persons who were despised by the Pharisaic “righteous ones” on account of their sinful life. However, we know that he was deeply conscious of his own sinfulness. The Publican was a tax collector, known for cheating the people. Jesus Himself was criticized for trying to bring healing to the tax collectors. They were despised as public sinners.

We are told in today’s Gospel lesson, “And the tax collector standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying, ‘God be merciful to be a sinner!’” 

In his prayer to God, the tax collector asked for mercy and forgiveness. He is indeed deeply conscious of the sinfulness of his life, standing before God in utter awe and humility. We read that the Publican was “standing afar off”, understanding that he would not stand near the “holier” parts of the temple.

Realizing his utter sinfulness, the Publican was not even able to “raise his eyes to heaven”. But rather, with head lowered with humility and respect to God, he was only able to “beat his breast” as an unconditional statement of his guilt before our Lord. In contrast to the Pharisee, the Publican measured his spirituality according to himself -- not anyone else. 

In this parable, we see two extremes of daily living. The Pharisee, was a proud, self-righteous man. And the Publican was a humble, contrite man.

I ask the question today, which one are you most like? Do we compare our spirituality to others or ourselves? Do we judge others or focus on our own sins? Do we boast of our accomplishments, or do we plainly thank God for them? Do we brag of how we fast and pray? Or do we fast and pray as we ought to? Do we judge lapsed or non-Orthodox who visit our Church on Pascha and Christmas? 

“The Publican/Tax collector went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” 

Even though the Pharisee did all the things which were directed by the law: prayer, fasting, keeping the law, he did them because law says to. He viewed His faith as a legalistic contract to be signed to enter heaven. He was condemned because of his self-righteousness and his self-exaltation.

The Publican was exalted and justified, forgiven, made right with God -- he is the one who is justified -- because of his humility.

A great writer once said that “a great book requires a great theme.” So does a great life. Endless streams of books are meaningless and will not last as great literature because they do not have a great theme.

In today’s Gospel lesson we read about two men, the Publican and the Pharisee. We read about two men who we can model ourselves after.

What will be theme of your life? Will you emulate the legalism of the Pharisee or the humility of the Publican? Will you make your daily decisions based on the law or based on the heart? Do you desire salvation to experience the great love of our Father or His condemnation? What is the theme of your life?

Amen.

Fr. Mark Leondis is the National Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. He serves as the Chairman of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF), our campus ministry effort and serves on the faculty of Saint Vladimir’s Seminary as a Lecturer in Religious Education.

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