On the Lord’s Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee7
A Homily by St Gregory Palamas
…Not only can virtue remain unshaken by the various wicked devices prepared by the enemy, but it can also lift up and restore those fallen into the depths of evil, and easily lead them to God by repentance and humility.
Here is an example and a clear proof. The publican… dwells in the depths of sin. All he has in common with those who live virtuously is one short utterance, but he finds relief, is lifted up and rises above every evil… If the Pharisee is condemned by his speech, it is because… he thinks himself somebody, although he is not really righteous, and utters many arrogant words which provoke God’s anger with their every syllable.
Why does humility lead up to the heights of righteousness, whereas self- conceit leads down to the depths of sin? Because anybody who thinks he is something great, even before God, is rightly abandoned by God, as one who thinks that he does not need His help. Anybody who despises himself, on the other hand, and relies on mercy from above, wins God’s sympathy, help and grace. As it says, “The Lord resisteth the proud: but he giveth grace unto the lowly”…
The Pharisee and the publican went up into the Temple, both with the aim of praying. But the Pharisee brought himself down after going up, defeating his aim by the way he prayed… One made the ascent broken and contrite, for he had learned from the psalmist and prophet that “a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise”. The Pharisee, by contrast, goes up bloated with pretensions to justify himself in the presence of God, although all our righteousness is like a filthy rag before Him. He had not heard the saying, “Everyone that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord”…
By contrast, the publican “standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast saying, God be merciful to me a sinner”. See the utter abasement of his thoughts and feelings, and, at the same time, contrition of heart mingled with this publican’s prayer. When he went upinto the Temple to pray for the remission of his sins, he brought with him good advocates before God: unashamed faith, uncondemned self-reproach, contrition of heart that is not despised and humility that exalts… Although still far from God, without the boldness toward Him that comes from good works, it hopes to draw near to him because it has already renounced evil and is intent on good… For he believed Him who said, “Turn ye unto me, and I will turn unto you.”
What happened then? “This man”, says the Lord, “went down to his house justified rather than the other, for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted”. As the devil is conceit itself and pride is his own particular evil, it defeats and swallows up any human virtue with which it is mixed. Whereas, humility is the virtue of the good angels, and defeats any human evil that comes upon fallen mankind. Humility is the chariot by which we ascend to God, like those clouds which are to carry up to God those who would dwell for endless ages with Him, as foretold by the apostle: “We shall be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord”. Humility is the same as such a cloud. It is formed by repentance, releases streams of tears; brings out the worthy from among the unworthy and leads them up to unite them with God, justified by His free gift for the gratitude of their free disposition
7 St Gregory Palamas. The Homilies. Trans. Christopher Veniamin. Essex, England: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009. 6-12.