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The Tax Collector & the Pharisee
Dear Ones,
The Pharisee is a very religious guy. He’s the perfect “member” of the people of God. He keeps the fasts. He tithes of his possessions. He is always there for the services. He never misses the Feast Days and Holy Days. He is perfect.
Then there is the not religious guy. The tax collector. In the old King James Version it calls him a publican. To a modern American that doesn’t mean anything. To a person living in the UK a “publican” is the guy behind the bar at the pub. He’s a bartender. No, this guy is a tax collector. Tax collectors are mentioned many times in the Bible, mostly in the New Testament, and mostly in a negative light. They were reviled by the Jews of Jesus' day because of their perceived greed and collaboration with the Roman occupiers. Tax collectors amassed personal wealth by demanding tax payments in excess of what Rome officially required, and keeping the difference. They were despised as blood-sucking thieves, and as collaborators and traitors. Yet, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus shows sympathy for the tax collector Zacchaeus, causing outrage from the crowds, that Jesus would rather be the guest of a sinner than of a more respectable or "righteous" person. And all of us know that Jesus personally chose Levi, later called Matthew, to be his disciple in spite of the fact that he was a tax collector.
Pharisees, on the other hand, are shown very little sympathy by the Lord. Despite the fact that they are very religious and very strict in the observance of their faith, Jesus calls them “whitewashed sepulchers,” “vainglorious blind guides,” “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” and other things hard to hear. Why? Jesus said: “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8). They are fakers, charlatans, and posers. Isaiah speaks for them by saying: “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. And there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee” (Isaiah 64: 6-7).
So their hearts are not close to God. They don’t want to grab on and take hold of Him. They act “religious” in order to be admired and praised by others. So...what is the point? Well, sometimes those who seem perfect aren’t, and those who seem terribly flawed may actually be the ones whose hearts are close to God and whose souls are yearning for God. So...where am I going with this?
When I first went to Seminary, back in 1974, I could count on one hand the number of students who dared to declare openly their veneration of Tsar-martyr Nicholas II and the Russian Royal family. The now-Archbishop Kirill and I were two of them. What were the objections of others at the Seminary?
Oh, most said they were just political victims, not real Christian martyrs. Others said that they were simply incompetent, out-of-touch, spoiled, rich royals who basically brought it on themselves. A few others suggested that they couldn’t qualify as real Christian martyrs because they were flawed. Flawed how? Some pointed out the royal family’s attachment to Grigori Rasputin – who they said was a schismatic, a phony, a faith-healer who was also a womanizer. Others said that the Tsarina was romantically attracted to Rasputin. Still others said that the Tsarina was still religiously Lutheran, even though she was received by Holy Chrismation into the Orthodox Church. And worst of all, Tsar Nicholas was a smoker! So with all these shocking impediments against sainthood laid at their feet, it was impossible to regard them as saints, or so they said. So yes, it’s true. Tsar Nicholas was a smoker. But as for the rest of it, we now know that they were lies, political character assassination, fake news perpetrated by godless anarchists and communists, regicidal haters of Christ, haters of the Holy Church, haters of Holy Russia, and haters of the Imperial Family. Lies, lies promulgated by the Father of Lies. But did the Royal family have flaws? Sure they did. Everybody does. But as for their hearts, ah, that’s where we find their true character, their true nobility. What about Tsar-martyr Nicholas, the smoker? Why is he a saint? Because he courageously denied himself and voluntarily gave up more than we will ever have or ever even imagine. Born in a high position, he died as a lowly captive. Born in glory, he found himself humbled and slandered, yet he bore it all with meekness and charity. Born to rule, he found himself pushed around and abused like a criminal, and finally, he who had just recently been in command of a great imperial army was executed brutally by terrorists. The Tsar-Martyr bore all this without complaint. He bore it as a Christian - sacrificing himself and all the privileges, power, might and glory that he was used to, all his actual rights, all desires, and his own will. He remained faithful to Christ to the end, and he died for Him as a true martyr.
Throughout his life, and up to the very end, Tsar-martyr Nicholas would often repeat the Saviour’s words: “He who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 24:13). Well, he did that. He was my hero in 1974, and he is my hero today.
I am wearing on my thigh this wonderful epigonation, called “palitsa” in the Russian church. It was given to me at Christmas by our dear Vladyka, Archbishop Benjamin. It bears the image of the Tsar-martyr Nicholas. I am not at all sure that he knew of my deep and abiding love and veneration for this great saint of our Church. Perhaps the saint himself arranged this great consolation for me in some mystical way. In any event I am very grateful.
So why am I mentioning the Royal New Martyrs today? Don’t they have their Feast Day in July? Yes they do. But today we celebrate ALL of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. I couldn’t possibly talk about all of them, or even mention them all by name. I have some favorites, if one can even dare to utter such a thing. But by far, my favorite is Tsar-martyr Nicholas. He wasn’t perfect, like the publican, but his heart was very close to God. May God, in His great love and compassion toward all, grant us His grace and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, in spite of our many flaws and shortcomings. Amen.