WHEN EARLY CHRISTIAN WRITERS FIRST BEGAN to list the deadliest passions that can consume a person they invariably considered pride as the most serious. Gluttony, lust or greed focus on material pleasures which can be tempered by physical conditions such as age or health. Pride, however, that increasing fixation with the self, can be with us to the moment of our death. Pride, called the queen or head of the passions, can egg us on to justify ourselves even before the awesome judgment-seat of Christ.
People rarely put their prideful feelings out there for all to see. We learn to keep those thoughts – “I’m better than you… I’m smarter than you…” – to ourselves. But we have them throughout our life and they can poison our relationships with others and even with God.
Pride here does not mean self-respect or taking satisfaction in one’s legitimate accomplishments. It rather has the idea of arrogance or superiority toward others because of one’s abilities or accomplishments. “I’m cuter than you… I have more toys than you.” Pride uses the circumstances of our life to make us disdain others whom we perceive to be weaker, poorer, less educated than ourselves. While envy, wanting what others have, looks up to others more successful than we, pride is the opposite. We look down on those whom we perceive are less than we are.
The Pharisee in the Lord’s parable (Lk 18:10-14) does put these feelings into words for us. “I do this, I do that, I’m not like him!” This is a particular temptation of religious people. They may be able to eat or drink in moderation. They may not be troubled by sexual enticements or the lure of possessions. But they are often quick to compare themselves with others whom they perceive as less perfect, if not as sinners.
Trusting in Our Own Righteousness
St Luke tells us that Jesus “spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others” (v.9) When we indulge feelings of self-importance and trust in ourselves how can we be trusting in God for our salvation? How can we commit ourselves to any authentic repentance?
The Pharisee saw his actions as guaranteeing his righteousness before God. He did fast twice a week, probably every Monday and Thursday, as was the Jewish custom. He did tithe, giving away ten percent of his income. But he trusted that these actions guaranteed his righteousness before God. Weekly fasting and contributing out of our material resources are excellent practices, commended in both Jewish and Christian traditions. But it is God alone who makes people righteous through Christ. We do not justify ourselves through any acts of devotion we might adopt. As St Paul would clearly teach, righteousness “…is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph 2:8-9).
Nevertheless, good works have their place, an important one in God’s plan for us. St Paul goes on, “We are His [i.e. God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). The Christian people are “a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17), made by God in Christ for a purpose. As a people justified by God’s grace, we exist to perform good works according to God’s plan. While it is God’s grace, not these works that make us holy, we fulfill our new nature by performing them.
Trusting that We Are Superior
The Pharisee is faulted on another score as well. He used his good deeds as clubs to beat down his neighbor. First of all, he judged that the publican did not do any of these things. And in that he may have been right but he also judged that he was better than the publican because of these works.
The publican, on the other hand did not reproach the Pharisee for his judgmental words. As St John Chrysostom points out, “The publican did not say, ‘Who are you to tell me such things? From what source did you learn of my life? You did not live with me. We did not spend time together. Why are you so haughty? …Why do you praise yourself?’” (On Repentance and Almsgiving, 24) Rather he prayed humbly repenting over his own sins.
In one sense the Pharisee was right; the publican was a sinner. Publicans lived by extorting payments for themselves over and above what the Roman governors demanded. But the publican here is shown repenting for his sinfulness while, “The Pharisee totally ruined the righteousness of his deeds” (v. 25) by claiming superiority over the publican.
St Augustine in his Sermon 45 on the New Testament, dramatically recasts this scene in the form of a courtroom trial: “You have heard the case of the Pharisee and the publican; now hear the sentence. You have heard the proud accuser and you have heard the humble criminal; now hear the Judge. ‘Truly I say to you,’ says God the Truth, God the Judge, ‘The publican went down from the temple justified rather than the Pharisee… because everyone who exalts himself shall be abased and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.’” In icons the publican is often represented leaving the temple “justified,” with a halo around his head.
We see this praise of humility returning again and again in the pages of St Luke’s Gospel. It forms a major part of Mary’s canticle, the Magnificat: “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly” (Lk 1:51-52). It appears in a warning from Christ on jockeying for the first places at dinners. “He told a parable to those who were invited, when He noted how they chose the best places, saying to them: ‘When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him; and he who invited you and him come and say to you, “Give place to this man,” and then you begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes he may say to you, “Friend, go up higher.” Then you will have glory in the presence of those who sit at the table with you. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 14:9-11). As pride is the queen of the passions, so humility is the queen of the virtues.
The parable of the Pharisee and the publican is read as we begin our journey through the Triodion to Pascha as a reminder that, although we may fast more than twice a week during these days, we should not be congratulating ourselves on having earned something. Rather, like the publican we should be ask for God’s mercy since even in doing something good we have the tendency to pervert it as did the Pharisee.
~Every good deed can be made void through foolish pride, while every sin can be cleansed by humility. Let us then embrace humility in faith while we completely turn away from the paths of pride.
~The righteousness of the Pharisee proved useless and was condemned because it was joined to pride. The Publican gained humility, the mother of the virtues which lifts us up on high.