God Knows What's In My Heart. Do I?


Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee

Holy Cross Seminarian Gregory Tsikerdanos

February 9, 2014


In 1750, Benjamin Franklin wrote in his Poor Richard’s Almanac that “There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond and to know one’s self.”

Hmmm…, Do I Truly Know Myself?

In Psalm 43 is written, “For He knows the secrets of the heart.” (Psalm 43:22)

God KNOWS what is in my heart… Do I?

Coach Mal Moore spent over fifty years at the University of Alabama, as a football player, as a coach and later as the Athletics Director. He was universally loved by the Alabama faithful, a kind man who would quietly give football tickets to parents who wanted to take their children to a game, but couldn’t afford it. Why? He remembered growing up with little money in rural Alabama.”

 What most people don’t know about Coach Moore is that he spent 20 years as a caregiver to his wife, Charlotte, who had early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Charlotte was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s around 1990. He rarely if ever talked about his caregiving with anyone then, but would go home several times a day to check on Charlotte.

For the first 15 years or so, Coach Moore cared for Charlotte at home. He employed caregivers during the day, as it was dangerous for her to stay by herself, but had no help at night unless he was out of town. Aside from his numerous accomplishments for the University of Alabama, Coach Moore exemplified the quiet dedication so many Alzheimer’s caregivers give to loved ones. To me the 20 years of loving care he gave Charlotte during her battle with Alzheimer’s was his greatest achievement in a life filled to the brim with amazing milestones.

As her condition deteriorated, Charlotte went to live in a local nursing home. He generally visited her three times a day, so he could to feed her meals. A friend once asked him, “Why do you visit Charlotte so often? She doesn’t remember who you are.” To which Moore replied, “Yes, but I remember who SHE is. (Ellen Woodward Potts - May 13, 2013)

This touching eulogy tells us a lot about the character of Coach Moore. It reveals to us the core of who he was in his heart of hearts. However, it lacks something that is critical in understanding this beautiful story. Coach Moore never forgot who Charlotte was; more importantly: He never forgot who he truly was…

All of us face difficult situations in our lives. And, our thoughts, our words and our actions speak volumes about who we really are, not just on the surface, but, deep down in our hearts. When I hear stories like this, it makes me want to look into my own heart and ask: WHO AM I? Not just on the surface, but, really, who am I deep down in my heart?

In the Psalms is written, “For He knows the secrets of the heart.”  God KNOWS what is in my heart. Do I?

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells a parable about two men that reveals their innermost hearts. One is a Pharisee, and one is a Publican. On the surface each can be defined based on their roles in Jewish society:

“The Pharisee is a highly respected and careful observer of the Law, whereas the Publican is the dreaded tax collector who is despised as a sinner for collaborating with the occupying Roman forces, betraying and cheating his own people.”

Jesus tells us that both men went up to the Temple to pray. Let’s look at how they prayed…

One stood proudly, lifting his eyes and hands towards heaven, listing the good things he had done according to the Law. And the other stood ‘afar off, not so much as raising his eyes to heaven, and beating his breast.’

One offered his own piety, exalting himself and scorning others. One simply offered his own sinfulness and begged for mercy. One prayed with pride and one with humility. One prayed ‘to himself,’ and the other prayed to God!

Who was Jesus speaking to when he offered this story? This is told to us in the verse that immediately precedes this lesson: “And He (Jesus) spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others.”

Am I one of those to whom He spoke? God KNOWS what is in my heart. Do I?

The Pharisee, according to his own words was neither an extortioner nor an adulterer. That’s a good thing, right? He calls himself just. Being just is a good thing, also. He fasted and he gave tithes, also good things. Yet, he had forgotten who he was. Because he prayed with himself, comparing himself to others, he was truly praying to the creature and not to the Creator! And, according to St. Basil, “in his self-exaltation he did not await the judgment of God but pronounced it himself!”

This trap, Henri Nouwen writes, is “One of the demonic ruses used to make us think of prayer primarily as an activity of the mind that involves above all else our intellectual capacities. For many of us prayer means nothing more than speaking WITH God. And since it usually seems to be a quite one-sided affair, prayer simply means talking TO God. Thus, it is not so strange that I soon begin to suspect that my dialogue with God is in fact a monologue. Then I may begin to ask myself: To whom am I really speaking, God or myself.”

In contrast, the Tax Collector, in his humility, recognized his sinfulness. He knew who he was! He was not looking for the praises of man, but for the mercy that only God can offer. He does not attempt to justify his actions nor pass the blame to anyone else. In fact, the original Greek wording emphasizes that his sin is his own,   Θεός,  ἱλάσθητί  μοι  τῷ  ἁμαρτωλῷ; τῷ  ἁμαρτωλῷ, ‘THE sinner,’ and not ‘a sinner. Notice that the Publican does not see himself as one of many sinners, but, he is ‘The sinner.’

When God looks upon me, does he see the Pharisee, or the Tax Collector?

God KNOWS what is in my heart. Do I?

Today we begin the period called Triodion – This prelude to Great and Holy Lent is the time where we begin to cleanse our homes of meat, then cheese and dairy products in preparation for the Great Fast.  More importantly, it is the time to strip away the false pretenses of the secular world. It is the time to wean ourselves from our self-glorification and our dependence on the praise of men. It is the time to quietly search within our hearts for the person God created us to be. It is the time to prepare our hearts to be dependent on God, asking God to cleanse our heart so the Paschal light of the Resurrected Savior can shine within us. How do we do this? By following the example of the Publican, we remember who we are; we offer our sinfulness to God, praying for his mercy.

God KNOWS what is in my heart. Do I? God also knows what is in Your heart. Do you?

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, now is the time to look into our own hearts and to search for the spiritual illness that abides in us. Through the practice of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, our spiritual vision will gain the power to see through the secular selves with which we have deluded ourselves, to see our true selves. During this Lenten season, many of our services will include a beautiful prayer written in the 4th century by St. Ephraim of Syria. It embodies the very heart of Great Lent means.

Let us conclude with the Prayer of St Ephraim:

Lord and Master of my life, give me not a spirit of sloth, vain curiosity,lust for power, and idle talk.

But give me Your servant a spirit of prudence, humility, patience and love.

Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to condemn my brother;

For You are blessed to the ages of ages. Amen.

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