Fr. Luke A. Veronis

Mr. Papadopoulos usually sits over there. Everyone knows this, because he is in Church every Sunday and every Feast Day. He even comes by the Church every day to light a candle and offer a prayer to God! He is well-known as the most generous giver in the Church and a philanthropist in the community. He gives away 10% of his income every year. He fasts every Wednesday and Friday, and even fasts for 40 days before Easter and Christmas. He meticulously tries to follow the commandments. His reputation among the people is as one of the most serious believers in all the Church!

Yet there’s one problem. His life holds a deep, dark secret that no one is aware of. Only God knows that he’s addicted to internet child pornography!

How does your view of the man change when you learn about his dark secret? Even though he does many good things, would you consider this man a model Christian? Surely not! Despite all his good deeds, we see how one sin can ruin someone!

Remember that! One terrible sin can corrupt and ruin all the good we try to do in our lives!

Today we begin the Triodhion Period, which means it’s the first Sunday we begin our preparations for Great Lent. Yes, we prepare to get into the right mindset for our journey through Great Lent. Then, of course, Great Lent is another 40 day preparation period for Holy Week and Pascha itself. In other words, if we want to experience the joy and wonder of Pascha in its fullness, we need to prepare and get ready. Clean Monday and Lent are still three weeks away, beginning on February 27th. As a preparation for Great Lent, however, the Church presents these next three weeks with specific themes to help us prepare.

This preparation begins with the story of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector. Two very different people who enter the temple to pray – with God exalting one, and humbling the other. We learn that for those who trust in themselves, who are so self-confident in their own goodness, disaster awaits them! Yet for those who humbly approach God, no matter what they’ve done, our Lord will accept their prayer.

Jesus describes a Pharisee and a Tax-Collector praying in the Temple. The Pharisee was a well respected religious leader of the Jews. He was a man who trusted in himself because he was sure that he was a good and faithful person. Like Mr. Papadopoulos, the Pharisee believed that God saw his goodness, as did many other people who showed him much honor and respect. He prayed daily. He generously gave his money to the Temple. He fasted twice a week. And he thought that he wasn’t like other sinful people. He was good. He was pleased with himself, and he came to the Temple to tell God how pleased he was. 

We must admit that the Pharisee did a number of exemplary things. In the eyes of most people, his actions modeled a faithful believer! He prayed. He fasted. He gave generously. He obeyed the law of God. Yet God didn’t see only what we see. God looked in the heart of the Pharisee, and saw his deep, dark secret.

Yes, the Pharisee was a man who had done many good things, BUT he was also a man full of pride; a man who thought too highly of himself; a man whose pride led him to judge others.

Maybe some wouldn’t compare the sin of pride with the sin of Mr. Papadopoulos. Yet the spiritual principle is the same - one sin can corrupt our heart. In the eyes of God, pride is the first and greatest sin, because our pride places ourselves above others, even in the place of God.

Whenever we think of ourselves as “good,” we forget that ultimately, there is only One who is good – God Himself. Pride betrayed Lucifer, the greatest angel, who wanted to be equal to God. Pride tempted Adam and Eve, who listened to the devil say to them, “You won’t die if you eat of the fruit. God told you not to eat of the fruit because He didn’t want you to become like Him.” And in every generation since, the subtle temptation of pride lurks deep within the heart of each of us, ready to destroy every good work.

St. Paul says, “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God… For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We all deserve death for the sins that we have committed, no matter how much good we do. God calls us to perfection, for only what is perfect will abide in paradise. Yet, who can claim such perfection?

How dare we be proud, trusting in ourselves while judging others, when we need to understand that salvation is a gift no one can earn. In order to receive this gift, we must honestly see ourselves as we truly are and then repent, turn back towards God. In fact, our spiritual path is an endless journey of repenting and turning toward Jesus Christ, and we can journey into paradise only when humility abides in our hearts. 

Thus, on this first Sunday of preparation for our Great Lenten journey, the Church asks us to take an honest look at ourselves and acknowledge our hidden sins. Although many of us think good of ourselves, we must confront our darkest thoughts which haunt our minds. We cannot ignore the distorted passions that possess us at times. Within our soul we can find all kinds of hidden evil, ready to jump out at unexpected times. And the greatest evil lurking in our hearts is pride, our self-assurance, our ego.

Today’s Gospel lesson, however, does not only warns us about the danger of pride, it also shows us the path of salvation. A tax-collector in the time of Christ was among the most hated people in Israel. He betrayed his own people by working for the enemy Romans. He stole from his own people. In fact, the Jews despised tax-collectors so much that they placed tax-collectors in the same category as murders and thieves. One tradition even forbade tax-collectors to even enter the temple to pray.

Despite this tradition, today’s hated and sinful tax-collector humbly enters the temple and fall to the ground in the very back. He understands his guilt and sinfulness. Instead of offering a long prayer of repentance, he simply falls on the ground, covers his face, and cries from the depth of his soul, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

He doesn’t justify his actions. Instead, he dares to enter this uncertain room of knowing himself and acknowledging he is truly a terrible sinner. He doesn’t despair, but instead confesses his sin and falls down before God asking for His mercy and grace. “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Jesus ended this story by saying this sinful tax-collector, instead of the righteous Pharisee, left the temple right in the eyes of God. Although the tax-collector sinned in countless ways, he turned back to God with one of the greatest virtues – humility. Humility means truly knowing yourself, and approaching God with hope in His great mercy! The Pharisee, despite all his good works, destroyed his relationship with God by his pride and self-righteousness.

Saint Anthony the Great summarized this parable beautifully when they said, “Always reject pride and consider everyone more righteous than yourself.” Jesus warned, “Those who think highly of themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Remember, one terrible sin can corrupt all the good we try to do in our lives! Pride and Self-Righteousness is that sin!

Thus, may we imitate the tax-collector’s humility and repentance, daily crying out with all our heart, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”


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