Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee – 2019

My dear friends in our Lord: Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever.

In the today’s Holy Gospel, the Lord guides us on the path of salvation, and the Church prepares us for Great Lent, as we now have entered into the season of the Lenten Triode, the season of the Liturgical preparation for Pascha, and this week brings us the instructive parable of our Lord about the publican and the Pharisee.

Our Lord sums up the spirit of the parable for us as He says: Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

The humility of the publican in today’s Gospel elevates him to the height of righteousness, whereas the pride of the Pharisee reduces him to the depths of sinfulness. Because he who imagines himself to stand highly before God and before man is abandoned by God – for such a person has, in fact and in their heart, decided that they genuinely have no need of God, whereas he who considers himself – knows himself – to be nothing without God, and therefore who hopes and prays for the mercy from above… he receives help and mercy from God, for as the scriptures attest, God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

Both the Pharisee and the publican (or tax collector, like Zacchaeus, about whom we learned last week) entered the temple to pray, but the manner of prayer that they offered to God could not have been more different.

|The Pharisee, standing, prayed thus with himself,” the Gospel tells us, and quite rightly. The Pharisee prays ‘with himself,’ although making a show of addressing God. He begins by saying: “O God, I give thee thanks,” and this – by itself – is perfectly good. “O God, I give thee thanks,” would be a right and just prayer. But, of course, the Pharisee kept speaking. And what is it that he gives thanks for? For the fact that he is “not as the rest of men,” and then he lists their faults. Then he goes on to list his own “merits” before the Lord – as if perhaps the Lord needed to be reminded of all the good work that the Pharisee had done. “I am not as the rest of men.”

The good beginning of the prayer of the Pharisee, “O God, I give thee thanks,” was twisted and destroyed by arrogance and condemnation.

But know this, my friends, and know this well. The Pharisee,- for all that can be said of him – the Pharisee was no liar. He spoke not one single solitary untruth in what he said. His so-called prayer contained nothing but the truth. For according to all external appearances, the Pharisee was more righteous than the publican. He did not extort, did not commit adultery, did not deal unjustly in business, he fasted. All of this is true.

But all of this is according to human understanding, human logic. The Scriptures and the Fathers have warned us before, and we are warned again not to rely on our own understanding. This goes doubly – triply – in our day and in the current situations in which the Church finds herself. Human understanding invariably leads to pride – and this is the downfall of the Pharisee. Pride, which is the disordered seeking after one’s own excellence. And virtue combined with pride, as St. John Chrysostom tells us, is even deadlier than sin combined with humility. For while humility can move one to be relieved of the burden of sin by the mercy of God, pride admits no humiliation, and when pride fails – as it always will fail – it will take down all dead virtue with it into the abyss.

The Pharisee considers himself perfect, an example for others; he expected respect from people and praise from God.

There is nothing more pernicious than pride, for pride turned angels into devils, causing them to be cast out even from heaven itself. From church history, we see the cautionary tales that there are those have renounced the world, retreated into the desert, killed the flesh with fasting, but, overwhelmed by vanity and pride, they also killed their own souls and lost their salvation. Mindful of this, the Church guards her children against becoming conceited with fasting this week. For this whole coming week is a fast-free week, – there is no fast on Wednesday or Friday this week – so as to remind us that even in the preparation for the fast that the fast is not an end in and of itself. Fasting is a tool, it is not the end product. We will hear and learn more about that in coming weeks. This week, the Church enjoins us not to fast, and out of humility we follow the guidance of the Church.

Out of humility, I say, for pride is ultimately indignant of God, it rejects the necessity of God, it builds insidious contentions between us and our neighbor, and is invariably accompanied by spiritual passions and catastrophic failures.

And yet through all this, my dear friends, we must also refrain from despising and condemning the Pharisee, as he did the publican. For in truth the Pharisees were people of spiritual achievement, their righteousness cost them many labors. It is far, far better to pay attention to ourselves.

Let us look within ourselves. Isn’t it the fact that sometimes we do not have the works of righteousness that the Pharisee had? Are we strictly observing the necessary fasting and prayer? Do we give God a tenth of our income with such diligence? As I said, what the Pharisee said regarding himself was nothing but the truth.

Therefore, let us not easily and hastily judge the Pharisee, even if he had a very ostentatious righteousness. He is condemned by Christ for the fact that his righteousness was proud, and his soul was dead and he had no genuine charity – which is supernatural love. But still even the Pharisee – especially the Pharisee – can hope for forgiveness, if, remaining a righteous worker, he brings unto God the fruits of his righteousness – repentance, love, compassion, and mercy. Then the Lord can – and will – gloriously and graciously revive his soul.

But let us turn from the Pharisee and take a look at the publican, the herald of humility in today’s parable.

The Gospel tells us, “And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes towards heaven; but struck his breast, saying: O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

What it is that made the publican’s prayer acceptable to God? The simple fact that he was humble and had a contrite heart contrite. The publican’s prayer was brief, but diligent and profound, and combined with living faith, so that while the Pharisee uttered many words but truly said very little, the exact opposite is true for the Publican. In his few words, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner,” the Publican calls to God, in the depths of his heart he calls out: “O God, I confess my sins, for they are immeasurable, I grieve for them and suffer a broken heart. By my own iniquity, my God, have I turned against you. I ask nothing else from You, except for the forgiveness of my sins, and your grace in correcting my life, for I, the greatest sinner, I beg forgiveness, I beg conversion, I embrace repentance, I seek salvation.” Here is a true pattern of prayer for us sinners.

The Lord accepts the prayer that comes from a humble heart when a person realizes his sinfulness before God. Christ said: I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. He promised that tax collectors and harlots would enter the kingdom of God through repentance, and the first of these was the thief at our Lord’s right hand who repented at the Savior’s Cross. The Pharisees, contrarily, in their ostentatious righteousness came to the point where they crucified Christ.

And yet once again, let us remember that when we judge, we do so only by individual external actions of people, but we cannot know the whole life of a person. Only the Lord sees us comprehensively. Only God can rightly appreciate a person, as He did in the case of the tax collector and Pharisee.

Many people call themselves sinners and in fact they are, but the depth of their repentance is tested by God in trials. The Lord is close to a repenting sinner; He, by His mercy, does not send him sorrow and temptations above his powers. We need to learn to see this concern of the Lord for our salvation, accept any test from His hand with humility, and then our life will be filled with joy from the fact that the Lord loves us sinners as His children.

The Lord glorifies the truly humble. And truly great is the power of meekness! Blessed be the meek, they will inherit the earth. The saints say about humility: “Humility is the beauty of all virtues. Like rain upon dry ground, like the anchor for a ship, thus is humility for the human soul. It is the key that opens the gates of heaven, it is the shield deflecting the arrows of the evil one.”

So, my dear friends, having rejected all pride, let us learn humility. In learning humility we will also learn to love it. The Lord Himself issues this vocation to us, for He says: Learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart.

As we stand on the eve of the ascent to Great Lent, let us look within ourselves, and let us see ourselves in the light of today’s parable. Who do we resemble? Do we have the pride of the Pharisee or the repentance of the Publican? Do we even have the Pharisee’s material virtue, that is, do we pay tribute to God? Let us think about how we look at our neighbor, how we judge them, sometimes without having even the fruitless righteousness of the Pharisee in our souls.

The Holy Church, preparing us for Great Lent, in the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee gives us an image of prayer. In prayer we can turn to God, who is always close, near, sees our mental state better than ourselves, and wants us to repent and humility always pray to Him: God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

May the Lord help us to gain humility and repentance!

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