Homily on the Publican and the Pharisee

We live in a fantasy world. A world in which there is no need for us to change. But we are not well, we are simply deluded. May the Lord God protect us from the Pharisee in our minds that wants to tell us lies about ourselves and our neighbors and give us the humility ? and through that the justification – of the Publican.  Enjoy the show!

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The Fake News of Pride
Homily on the Publican and the Pharisee
Luke 18:10-14

St Basil the Great (On Humility): The one guilty (i.e. the Publican) of insolent behavior suffered the loss of his justice and forfeited his reward by his bold self-reliance. He was judged inferior to a humble man and a sinner because in his self-exaltation he did not await the judgment of God but pronounced it himself. Never place yourself above anyone, not even great sinners.

Our fallen psychology is plagued by two kinds of pride

  • The justification of the self
  • The denigration or even demonization of the other

When we look at our own behavior, we do so with rose-colored glasses; everything is explained in a way that allows us to continue believing that we are wonderful people. Even when we do something that harms others, assuming we even notice their pain and our own role in causing it, we will protect our own sense of virtue by blaming circumstances.

When we look at the behavior of others, especially people who are different than us or that our chosen identity predisposes us to dislike, we do the opposite. For example, when good results from their behavior we will explain away their role in bringing it about, giving credit to circumstance or suspecting ulterior motives; but when bad things result from their behavior, we automatically assume evil intent and ignore the role of circumstance.

This is just psychology: we justify our own behavior and denigrate that of the people we do not like. We write hagiography about ourselves and demonize our enemies.

As a result of this, we live in a fantasy world. A world of alternative facts. A world in which we have no need to come to confession, no need for real change (what we call repentance), and no real need for Christ our Savior. As Jesus Himself said; “I cam to help those who are sick; those who are well [or think themselves well] can take care of themselves” (e.g. Matthew 9:12).

But we are not well, we are simply deluded. We only see the mote in our neighbor’s eye; we cannot even notice the huge log that is sticking out of our own. (Matthew 7:3).

Here is one of the wonderful ironies: once students of psychology have learned this basic truth about how humans think, they start to see it everywhere. They notice how everyone around them suffers from the inability to diagnose their own – often quite obvious – shortcomings. But the irony is that they are no more likely to be able to notice how it works in their own lives.

In his book the Black Swan, Nikolas Taleb cites studies showing that even professors and psychologists (and, I presume this applies to priests, as well) who teach, research, and diagnose this very delusion suffer from it just as much as everyone else. We are now in the same situation as them.

This is an important point: knowing that we are flawed is only a first step; it is not enough to help us see ourselves and others as we and they really are. If we don’t act, then this knowledge will just give us more words to use as we join the Pharisee in prayer.

Now we can say;

Look at that fool, how he justifies his own behavior and demonizes those he does not like. He cannot even see what a sinner he is. I am glad that I am not like him. I see using the pure light of psychology. I have studied and now understand human motivation and behavior. I am so glad I’m not like that ignorant fool who justifies himself and demonizes the other.”

So what is the answer?

The way to counter-act our fallen psychology is not just to know about it. Even looking for it in ourselves will be unproductive – we just can’t see it (no matter how smart we are or how many books we read) until we take the medicine that the Lord is prescribing for us today.

And that medicine is this:

1. To take a moment and stand in silence attentiveness.

2. To take a slow deep breath in, then hold it for a second or two.

3. As we slowly push the air out of our lungs, we simultaneously take the opportunity to empty ourselves of all the things we think we know about ourselves and others.

4. And then we pause our breathing, stand before God unarmed, empty, and completely vulnerable, and join the Publican in his prayer; “God be merciful to me a sinner.”

This will then mark the real beginning of our healing. And as the prescription says;

Take until well.”

May the Lord God protect us from the Pharisee in our minds that wants to tell us lies about ourselves and our neighbors and give us the humility – and through that the justification – of the Publican.