“…that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief …” From Paul’s First Letter to Timothy 1:15
“O God, cleanse me, a sinner, for I have never done anything good in thy sight.” From the First Prayer of Saint Macarius the Great
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The Jesus Prayer based on Luke 18:9-14
“I believe, O Lord, that thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” From the Orthodox Divine Liturgy prayer before the Holy Eucharist
It is hard enough to admit one’s wrong doing. It is harder still to declare one’s self to have committed the worst of crimes, and nearly impossible to still see one’s self continuing to be the worst of offenders. This is the main problem in America of every race, sex, political opinion, region, etc … ; no one admits to being chief among sinners.
It is easy to look at the story of the Apostle Paul and see what a terrible man he was before his conversion. He, as Saul of Tarsus, watched the martyrdom of Deacon Stephen with approval and became notorious for persecuting Christians with the blessings of the Jewish chief priest. After his conversion, Saul rejected the faith of his past and was ordained in Syria to spread the Gospel in Asia Minor, Cyprus, Greece, and Rome. Despite his universal wisdom in living the Christian life and obviously being a changed man, Paul still addressed himself to his disciple, Timothy, as chief among sinners. Although the went from being a cruel persecutor of the faith to an apostle of the truth, despite their being no records of any immoral acts or even cross words, this holy and righteous man still considered himself the chief among sinners.
Not much is known about Macarius before he became a monk, except that he was a camel driver. Early in his monastic struggle, he was falsely accused by a woman of impregnating her. Rather than try to plead his innocence, he worked even harder to weave baskets to make money to support his “wife and child.” The entire village was going to his cave to apologize as the woman admitted that she lied. Rather than stay and relish his deserved “I told you so” moment, Macarius fled deeper into the Egyptian desert. We see the depth of this man’s humility and lifestyle of repentance as we offer his words in our prayer books, “I have never done anything good in thy sight.” Despite being one of the holy desert fathers, Macarius seemed to try to compete with Paul in admitting to being chief among sinners.
Here is the beauty of what Jesus taught in His story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector; the one who is truly humble and repentant before God is the one who received justification from God. Oh, the Pharisee was a good man who obeyed all of the rules and did no wrong. At least, he didn’t admit to any wrong, as with those who were about to stone a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. When Jesus commanded them to look at themselves before throwing condemning stones at her, they all went away realizing they all had sinned. Perhaps if this Pharisee had heard the same command from God, he would have knelt deeper, beat his chest harder, shed more tears, and cried out in deeper anguish than the tax collector that he thought he was better than. Here in this parable, neither person of the Holy Trinity speaks vocal conviction to the Pharisee nor the tax collector.
This is how too many Americans are before God. We don’t hear him convict us. Perhaps a preacher might step on our toes every once in a while. But, like the Pharisee, we are deaf to let the sound of God’s presence cry out to us to repent and walk in His ways. Instead, we speak to God of what we accomplish and how we are better than the obviously sinful. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people, (racist crackers, ghetto slugs, faggots, bull-daggers, perverts, abortionists, hypocritical Christians, atheist, liberals, conservatives, Tea Party members, Obama supporters, Muslims, or anyone else we don’t like), or even as this tax collector. I am a tithing member of my church that only listens to Christian music, reads only Christian books, and watches only Christian TV.” What we fail to realize is that by our self-righteous attitudes, we are making ourselves into Pharisees, enemies of the very Christ who we claim to proclaim.
We need to have the attitude of the tax collector in this parable. Like the Pharisee, he does not hear a vocal conviction from God. But, unlike the Pharisee, this man feels the presence of God and is convicted by it. He is well distant from the righteous people and does not even lift his eyes toward heaven. The tax collector does not offer one word of the good he has done nor of how much he is better than anyone else. His words are the core of humility and repentance, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
In fairness, it may be that the Pharisee was as good as he said he was and didn’t do anything wrong. Likewise, the tax collector may have charged no more than assigned by the Roman and Judean officials declared and collected no more than to keep a simple lifestyle for himself and family. Let’s just say that neither man did anything outlandishly bad. But, difference is in their attitudes. One man exalts himself while the other humbles himself. Even though we see no direct punishment for the Pharisee’s arrogance, if we believe that our Lord does not lie, we know that his attitude will get him in trouble sooner or later. Likewise, there is no quick gratification for the tax collector for his humility. Since we belive the words of Jesus are true, we know he will be blessed at some point or another.
We can raise our voices in anger against the wave of anti-traditional Christianity all we wish. But as temporary citizens of America and ultimate citizens of the kingdom of God, we have to confront our own demons and live opposite of our own faults. Paul and the apostles, Macarius and the early fathers and mothers understood the need to point the finger at themselves first and foremost. This is why the early church fathers taught us to consider ourselves as they did, chief among sinners. Unless we “good Christians” do and act likewise, any complaining and protest we offer in this temporal nation will fall on deaf ears. If we prove to be hypocritical, we won’t even make it into the kingdom to come.