In Ecclesiastes 7:15, King Solomon says: “There is a righteous man that perishes in his righteousness.” And Joshua ben Sirach writes: “Arrogance is hateful to the Lord and to men, and injustice is outrageous to them both...The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker. For the beginning of pride is sin, and the one who clings to it pours out abominations” (Sirach 10: 7,12-13).
That is the precise meaning of today's parable. This is the way that the Church opens to us the doors of the Triodion. This is the Way that the Lord says to us: “Start preparing your hearts and minds for the contest of the Great Fast that is coming in just a few days. I want you to begin to think about making a commitment to me, a commitment to spend more time with Me!”
The first element in the Lenten journey is Prayer. Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving. These are the Lenten Trinity, so we start with Prayer. Prayer is the essential foundation of the spiritual life. Prayer, true Prayer must be divorced from a merely “religious” recitation of words. It must be about the heart. That’s why today's parable, is about HOW to pray. Well, to be honest, it's about HOW to pray, and how NOT to pray. The Lord wants us to understand clearly that the prayers of the proud, the arrogant, the haughty, the judgmental, the uncaring, and the unfeeling, simply WILL NOT BE HEARD. Why? Because such “prayer” is not really prayer at all. Did you hear what the Lord said about the so-called “prayer” of the Pharisee? He says: “He prayed with himself.” It means that he is so focused on himself, that even in his prayer he is still focused on himself. True prayer never boasts, never judges, never condemns somebody else. St Cyril of Alexandria says: “What profit is there in fasting twice a week, when you only do so as a pretext for ignorance and vanity, and makes you contemptuous and haughty and selfish? What good does it do you to tithe from what you have, but then boast about it and provoke God's displeasure? What can be gained by pride which condemns others while puffing up itself?”
In Holy Scripture when something comes in “threes” it is considered vitally important. Please make note of this: the Bible, in three different places, says: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Proverbs 3:34; 1 Peter 5:5; James 4:6). Abba Isidore of Pelusium, the 5th century saint and Egyptian desert father, said: “The heights of humility are great and so are the depths of boasting; I advise you to attend to the first and not to fall into the second.” And St. Makarios the Great of Egypt says: “If you see someone exalting himself and is arrogant about his abilities, know that even if he worked great signs and resurrected the dead….he is being robbed by an evil spirit without realizing it. Even if he performs miracles — do not believe him because the sign of a Christian is to hide from others any gifts that God might have deemed him worthy to receive.”
True prayer must always be offered in humility, as was that of the publican. If we really believe in God, and if we really believe that He is there when we are praying, it is IMPOSSIBLE for us to be proud. We can be distracted, we can become weary, but we cannot become proud. St. Isaac the Syrian makes the following recommendations to us concerning HOW we should pray:
1. Pray with attention and without distraction – so that we can have a true encounter with God. 2. Pray with humility – because only this sort of prayer goes straight to God’s ear. 3. Pray with affection and tears – with joy and thanksgiving, yes, but also with true repentance and purity. Mental Prayer must be accompanied with physical prayer – the sign of the cross, bows, and prostrations. 4. Pray with patience and intensity of feeling – to ‘deny oneself’ means to courageously persevere in prayer. 5. Pray from the depths of the heart – even if you pray using ‘the words of another’ (like the Prayer Book), they should be uttered as if they are your own. (St. Isaac says this is especially true of the Psalms.) 6. Pray with faith and absolute trust in God – He knows our life and He knows what we need, but trust in God’s providential care for you. Don’t ask for foolish things
In addition, don’t be discouraged when it seems like God is slow to answer your prayers or fulfill your requests. This can be due to things beyond our knowledge or understanding. It may also have to do with timing – our timing versus God’s timing. Of course God may be distancing Himself because of unconfessed sins, or our sinful life in general. St Isaac says:
“We say that God is plenteous in mercy, so why is it that when amidst temptations we unceasingly knock and pray, that we are not heard and he disregards our prayer? This we are clearly taught by the Prophet when he says: 'The Lord's hand is not little, that it cannot save; nor is he hard of hearing, that he cannot hear: but our sins have separated us from him, and our iniquities have turned away his face so that he does not hear.’ Remember God at all times, and he will remember you whenever you fall into evils” (Cf Isaiah 59:1-2).
I'm going to close with a verse from the Lenten Triodion that we heard last night at Vespers:
“Let us, the faithful, flee the boastfulness of the Pharisee; let us repeat in reverence the Publican’s prayer: May our thoughts not be poisoned by pride, O Lord; grant us the grace to cry aloud from the depths of our hearts: “O God, be merciful to us sinners!” Amen.