Epistle for Sunday of Publican and Pharisee
(II Tim. 3:10-15)
Today is the second of the preparatory Sundays leading us toward the holy season of Great Lent. On this Sunday we read the Gospel parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.
Our Lord tells us that two men went into the temple to pray – one was a Pharisee who was diligent in keeping the fasts and all the rules of the Jewish law and the other was a Publican, a lowly and despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood in the temple with great confidence and pride, thanking God that he was not like other men. The Publican stood in the back of the temple and could hardly raise his eyes to heaven, crying out “’God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ Our Lord Jesus Christ makes the point that it was the prayer of the Publican that was pleasing in God’s sight – ‘for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’
It is very interesting and instructive and appropriate that on this day we read the Epistle from Apostle Paul to his spiritual child Timothy. In today’s Epistle we are exhorted to follow Orthodox ‘doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions.’ We are warned to beware evil men and imposters who might lead us astray from the true path. The Apostle advises us that we ‘must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.’ Apostle Paul is urging us to hold fast to the faith, to the traditions and teachings that have been handed down to us. We are forewarned of evil men and imposters who might lead us astray from the true path. We must know our faith and our traditions and we must adhere to them with all fidelity.
One might look at the juxtaposition of today’s Gospel and Epistle lessons and wonder what is going on? In the Gospel lesson for today we are told very clearly that preoccupation with the letter of the law and an over-emphasis on the rules of tradition will not pave our way into the kingdom of heaven. However, in the Epistle lesson for today we are warned to carefully hold on to the traditions which have been handed down to us, that we must beware of straying from the true path, that these things ‘are able to make us wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus’.
How are we to understand these seeming contradictions? Are strict adherence to the traditions of our faith and simple-hearted humility contradictory to each other? The answer, of course, is a resounding ‘no!’… these things are not contradictory. In fact, if we approach and pursue them in the right way, they can and should serve to complement one another. The key to both of these things is in the correct disposition of the heart and mind.
The parable of the Publican and Pharisee is sometimes used as an excuse for us to grow lazy in our observance of the traditions of the Church. We may say to ourselves, ‘Well, as long as I am being humble and loving, this is the most important thing’ – and all the while we ignore or trample on the treasury of the disciplines and traditions which have been so carefully handed down to us by our forefathers.
On the one hand, there is truth to our statement. It is indeed most important to have and to cultivate that warm, loving heart and that sense of true humility. (Indeed, this loving heart is the whole point of strict adherence to the disciplines of our faith!) But we have to be very careful about our motivations, about trusting too much in our self, in our own flawed judgment of things. Apostle Paul is warning us today to remain loyal to ‘the things which we have learned and been assured of’. We should receive these traditions with simplicity and trust – knowing that those Orthodox Christians who have gone before us have found their salvation in this atmosphere of piety created by the traditions and practices of the Church. Who are we to stand in judgment? Who are we to dare think that we have the spiritual insight to do better than those holy ones who came before us?
Listen to the following quote from a contemporary Orthodox writer and traditionalist, Constantine Cavarnos. He helps us to understand the interplay of all of the richness of the Orthodox traditions on the formation of the soul. He says,
‘The iconography, hymnody, music, and architecture of the Byzantine tradition are trying to convey the same thing. They have the same point of origin: they all spring from and are used to communicate the Orthodox Faith and make it apprehensible to the believer through the senses. Thus, you can see the organic unity of the fine arts of Orthodoxy. You can also see it in the appearance of the priest, the monk, the form of the prayers, and the Liturgy. All of these things are organically related to one another. If you say that traditional iconography is not essential, or the traditional music is secondary and can be replaced with organs or violins, while still retaining Orthodoxy—that's not so! When you eliminate these things, what's left? Soon you'll begin toning down the dogmas because of minimalism or relativism. The Greeks have a word for this: xephtisma, "unravelment." Your pants are torn in one place, you let that go, then the tear spreads out. If you don't patch it up in time, it will spread more and more, and the whole garment then falls to pieces. So you have to mend it. If you don't take the time to repair any kind of break from the Tradition, then the whole thing begins to fall apart. And that's what has happened to much of the Orthodox world. It's falling apart in this way, saying: This does not matter, that is not essential, that's unimportant, that's a convention, and so forth. The Orthodox Tradition brings everything together in a meaningful, beautiful, organic relationship with everything else. It gives us life and solves unnecessary problems and unnecessary worries that are created by "modernization" and ecumenism.’
Our approach and our attitude to standing fast in the traditions and disciplines of the Church must be humble. We should be motivated to hold fast to these things for fear of perhaps unconsciously ‘unraveling’ the tapestry of faith. We should consider ourselves unworthy heirs of this rich inheritance and, without picking and choosing based on our own judgments, we must strive with love to preserve and to observe to the best of our abilities the fullness of our Orthodox traditions.
The Pharisee of today’s Gospel did not find fault with the Lord because of his faithful observance of the Jewish laws. For this, God would bless him and would love him for his efforts. However, the Pharisee lost track of the purpose of all this. His traditionalism led him to self-righteousness and pride. His traditionalism led him to look upon others with scorn and disdain for not being as ‘Orthodox’ as he felt himself to be. This is the great danger of an over-emphasis on the outward forms of the Orthodox life. If we look into our heart and our mind and find ourselves having this same smug arrogance and sense of self-righteousness, then we have surely fallen off the true path.
The discipline of the Pharisee should bring us straight to the humility of the Publican… and the humility of the Publican should create in us zeal for the discipline of the Pharisee.
May we attend to the unity of the message given to us in today’s Gospel and Epistle readings. Heeding the Apostle Paul, may we carefully and diligently follow the doctrine and manner of life handed down to us from our forefathers. And heeding the teachings of our Lord through the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, may we acquire that sense of humility and unworthy gratefulness to God – crying out to Him, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner!’