February 21, 2021

Pharisaic Righteousness and the Sigh of the Publican (Metr. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos)


By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

"The Pharisee having stood by himself ... And the Publican standing afar off" (Lk. 18:11-13).

The atmosphere of prayer is the most suitable to reveal the inner disposition of people. The spiritual condition of people appears at prayer, so it is not accidental that the Lord, in order to express the opposition between the Pharisee and the Publican, presented them at the time of prayer.

The Pharisee in the way he prayed showed that he lived a demonic spirituality, a twisted spiritual state, which was unredeemed. The Publican with the prayer: "God be propitious to me the sinner," showed his spiritual health, which is why he emerged justified. The more one seeks to justify oneself, the more one is cut off from redemption, while the more one ruthlessly flagellates oneself, considering oneself unworthy of divine mercy, the more one receives the divine Gift.

We would like to emphasize three points in today's homily.

Piety and Pietism

Pharisaic righteousness is always outside the atmosphere of divine grace, because it is a purely pietistic state. Here we must distinguish between piety and pietism, because the case of the Pharisee of the parable and all the Pharisees through the ages reminds us of the pietist.

First of all, it must be emphasized that piety is not an external presentation, but our union with Christ and through it with the entire All-Holy Trinity. The Apostle Paul identifies the mystery of piety with the incarnation of Christ. "And without controversy great is the mystery of piety: God was manifested in the flesh, Justified in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Preached among the Gentiles, Believed on in the world, Received up in glory”(1 Tim. 3:16).

Therefore piety is not a human manifestation and energy but the energy of the Triune God. From this we can begin to say that the pietistic person has some superficial virtues and does some external works "in the sight of people". Their virtues are not the fruit of a life in Christ, they are not done in a climate of repentance, but are human works done in an effort to be projected. On the contrary, the works and virtues of the pious are the fruit of the Holy Spirit, the result of their union with Christ. That is, virtues have a deep theological meaning. It is not a natural way of life, or a habit, but gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit, given to man who by the working of God's commandments submits the body to the soul and the soul to God. Thus to the pietist all actions are human, they are acts of "autonomous deontological ethics", while to the pious all actions are divine-human.

Works and Justification

After this distinction, it is understood that these works themselves do not justify man, because "good deeds" can be done by all heretics and all unredeemed human systems, but without ensuring salvation. Those "good deeds" that are not done in the climate of repentance, but in the spirit of self-justification, separate man more from God. Saint Gregory Palamas teaches that "if God is not active within us then everything from us is a sin." One can do almsgiving, practice temperance, etc. but because he does not have the spirit of humility and is not sacramentally connected with the Church, he is separated from God and therefore his whole life (even if he is temperate) is sinful.

Therefore, good works in themselves neither justify nor condemn man, but justification and condemnation are regulated by his relationship with the God-man Christ. As an example we have the two thieves at Golgotha. One was saved not for his good works, since he was a criminal, but because he confessed Christ. And the other was condemned not for his crimes, since he was not worse than the other, but because he cursed Christ. So our salvation is regulated by our relationship with Christ and His holy Church, His Body.

It should be noted that those who unite with Christ and confess Him do works, but these are fruits of the Holy Spirit, for which they do not feel the need, like the Pharisee, to boast. In this way they show that they live the spirit of salvation and are holy. For holiness is not a moral concept, but an ontological, existential one, that is, it is participation in the experience of repentance, in the search and union with the Grace of Christ.

Self-justification and Self-blame

The Pharisee of the parable perfectly expresses Western Christianity with its overabundant social work, but alienated from the inner life, while the silent sigh of the Publican expresses the inner life of the Orthodox Church.

The Orthodox are those who go beyond Pharisaic righteousness, justification of works and self-justification and, like the Publican, seek the mercy of God. They are the ones who are distinguished for the great virtue of self-reproach or, as Saint Basil says, "speaking first" (we are to speak the first word against ourselves) is an essential element of Orthodox morality. Because it is always connected with the humility of the soul, that is why he who has this virtue shows the existence of divine Grace. Self-reproach is the "invisible preoccupation", according to the Holy Fathers. It leaves no room for stress and all the psychological complexes that today's psychology is talking about, which is, after all, a creation of the climate of self-justification and the Pharisaic righteousness of Western Christianity. This difference is also expressed in the way of worship. The Orthodox talk about sin in their hymns and ask for God's mercy, while the westerners and westernized religiosity like the "songs" that are imbued with self-justification.

May we live the Orthodox spirit of repentance, so that we may enjoy the Resurrection of Christ.

Source: From the book Όσοι Πιστοί. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.