The Publican and the Pharisee
The Fly and the Bee
Fr. Achilles Karathanos, Feb. 8th, 2009
Today we celebrate what has become known as the "Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee." This is the first Sunday of the Lenten Triodion. We are beginning the liturgical and spiritual preparation for Great Lent, and ultimately, the Feast of all Feasts—Holy Pascha. These next three weeks serve both as a spiritual orientation towards aligning our hearts aright and for transitioning into the Great Fast. In fact, this is a fast-free week, followed by a week of regular fasting on Wednesday and Friday, then Meat-fare, then Cheese-Fare, after which we commence the Great Fast on Clean Monday, March 2.
The first three Sundays of the Triodian—The Publican and the Pharisee, The Prodigal Son, and the Last Judgment, provide us with a mental and spiritual "warming up" to Great and Holy Lent, so that we can "hit the road running."
The lesson of today's Gospel can be summed up in six words: "Judge not, and be not judged." These words are simple and easy enough to say, but to truly live them is another matter.
To help us uncover the spiritual power of message of the Publican and the Pharisee, I want to first share with you a metaphor I've encountered in the teachings of Elder Paisios, of blessed memory, of Mt. Athos. Elder Paisios truly is a holy monk of our times who recently reposed in 1996. The Elder stated that there exist two kinds of people: the bees and the flies. The flies are those people who are attracted to a four letter-word: DIRT. Though they may be in a beautiful garden of flowers, full of beautiful fragrances, flies zip straight to the mound of dirt on the ground. They are very happy and comfortable there amidst foul smells. Similarly, this category of people is always looking to latch onto something negative—to find something worth complaining about, and loves to wallow about in negativity.
The bee, on the other hand, is always looking for something beautiful and sweet to sit on. Elder Paisios said that if bees could talk and we asked a bee where to find the garbage, it would respond:
"I don't know. I can only tell you where to find flowers, sweets, honey, and sugar." It only knows the good things in life and is ignorant of all evil.
This is the kind of thinking that calls the cup half-full. The bees are full of positive thinking, and out of love for others they attempt to cover up evil in order to protect their fellow men. They follow the Christian precept St. Peter the Apostle tells us about. He instructs us: "Above all things have fervent love for one another, for love will cover a multitude of sins." (I Pet. 3:8).
One time elder Paisios was counseling someone in his usual seat in the Church. They got up and left, and unknowingly the man had dropped a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. As they exited, Elder Paisios asked the next visitor to step into the Church to wait for him while he saw the first man off. As Fr. Paisios entered the Church, the man immediately questioned him:
Do you smoke?
No. . . the Elder answered, why are you asking?
(in an accusatory tone) I saw a pack of cigarettes in the chapel—that's why!
After this man left, a boy came to visit the Elder for the first time. Inspired by humility, the Elder feigned he was someone else and said, "Fr. Paisios is not here. He went to Karyes to buy cigarettes."
The child answered innocently, "It does not matter, Father. I will wait for him to come back."
You see, brothers and sisters, the way of thinking of the first man was like a fly. Seeing a pack of cigarettes, he was immediately attracted to the dirt of suspicious and judgmental thoughts. In contrast, the child's response even to something apparently negative was bathed in innocence and purity. It never occurred to him that the elder was off to buy cigarettes for himself—and if he was, so what!—he trusted that he was a monk blessed by God. He was like a bee seeking the nectar of God's blessing through the elder, and he would not allow a little dirt to distract him.
What about us? Are we on the path of the fly or the bee?
Today's gospel message, I believe, will help each of us answer that question for ourselves.
We see the two men coming to the Temple to make a prayer offering. The first man, the Pharisee, by all appearances is a bee. He comes and thanks God that he is not like other immoral men such as extortionists, the unjust, and adulterers. In fact, we see that the Pharisee truly does practice the good and Godly deeds of fasting and tithing. The Saint and desert Father, Abba Dorotheos, tells us that up until this point the Pharisee was indeed behaving like a bee. Perhaps he was a slightly self-righteous bee, yet at least He was thanking God for his virtues. Unfortunately, though, he looked about himself, saw the tax collector, and was immediately attracted to the filth of judging his brother. It was good for him to thank God that he was not a usurer or an extortionist. But the moment he said he was glad he was not "like this tax collector," he usurped God's role, judged his brother and transformed himself into a fly. He exalted himself over another particular person, and so was made low in God's sight.
The tax collectors in general were infamous and despised because they collaborated with the Romans and really had to extort money from fellow Jews in order to make a living. For this reason, the tax-collector in this parable really considered himself to be a fly. He stood afar off, so as not to approach too close the holy place of the temple. "He would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God be merciful unto me a sinner."
God be merciful unto me a sinner.
These are the heartfelt words that took him not just to the honey, but to the source of honey—the living God. The tax-collector, the publican--the sinner-- did not allow his past sinful thoughts and actions to dissuade him from seeking out his God and Savior. He approached God in repentance. It was precisely because he acknowledged his lowliness and sinfulness that he was exalted in the sight of God.
Again, I ask: What about us? Are we flies or bees? It's really too simplistic to say that we are strictly one or the other. All of us have some tendencies to be attracted to filth. In our minds and our hearts we are tempted to judge others; we are short in patience; short tempered; we become frustrated and angry with others. There is no one who lives without sin.
Yet, what do we
do with our sin? Do we become so used to having a negative mind-set, that we wallow in it and really make negative thinking the primary characteristic of our personality? Do we thrive on the dirt of others so much that we are beginning to feel like, and maybe even look like, flies? Whether the tendency for us to judge others is limited or has become the central dung heap of our lives, it doesn't matter. Whether we carry on our back one ounce or one ton of the sin of judging others, it will be metered to our account at the Dread and Final Judgment. There is only one solution—to tend to the plank of sin in our own eye, and to beat our breasts in contrition and to cry out, "God, be merciful to me a sinner."
Repentance that comes from the depth of our soul is transformative. When we truly face our own sin—our own tendencies toward negative thinking and judging others--we will find that the plank in our eye might fetch a few hundred dollars at the lumber yard. We won't be so quick to bring attention to, or even notice, the speck of dust in our neighbor's eye. And we will cry out from the place of desperate need: Lord be merciful to me a sinner. This is the type of repentance that gives us wings to fly and leads us to the honey of Grace.
There is one source of sweet Grace that never wanes. His Name is Jesus
Christ. Today, Jesus instructs us: "Come unto Me and be transformed! If you act like a fly; even if you feel and think like a fly—come to Me and I will refashion you. I will give you stripes and an instinct for things only good and sweet."
Our Lord Jesus is our very font of metamorphosis in this life! The love of our Lord Jesus Christ not only has conquered the power of death in the world to come, it empowers us to transform our very way of thinking and manner of existing in this life. But He is gentle and forces nothing on us—our mode of flight is absolutely ours to choose.
If, like the Pharisee, we find that we are content to look about us and deem ourselves a little bit more noble, a little bit more wise-- in essence, a little bit better than those around us--we will remain stuck in the mud on the path of truly becoming transformed and Godly people.
If, however, we are willing to acknowledge our failings, overlook the faults of others, and approach Christ with a heart of contrition and mind of repentance, He will renew us and transform us. He will give us the wings and the vision of the honey bee! We, as God's children, will be content only with Goodness itself.
As we enter into this Lenten season of conditioning ourselves to be Christ-bearers, let us fly constantly to the source of True and everlasting Sweetness—Christ Himself. With the Church our hive, and Christ our nourishment, we cannot help but acquire the love that covers a multitude of sins. Through the prayers of the Theotokos and all the saints, may Christ Our True God help us to become bees of His Kingdom.
This sermon is published with the permission of my priest, Fr. Achilles. In my opinion, it calls us to think carefully as we prepare for Great and Holy Lent.