Sunday of Publican and Pharisee
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, only 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.”
Why is it that on this day - which inaugurates the services preparing us for Great Lent - why is it that the Church places before us this image of the Publican and the Pharisee? It is an important and instructive thing which our holy mother Church desires to emphasize for us as we prepare ourselves for the season of the great and holy fast.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, isn’t it so often the case that we look upon Great Lent as a time of deprivation, of fasting from certain foods, of the demands of more frequent services in the Church? These things are true… it is a time of increased struggle against our passions, it is a time to refrain from eating certain foods, and it is a time where more services are offered in the Church.
And if our focus is on diligently attending to these struggles, to scrupulously watching over what we eat and how much we eat, and to coming to the Church to be present at the many services of the Lenten period… we are doing a good thing and there is much benefit for our souls to be had in following the rigors of the demands of Great Lent.
But what is our Gospel parable teaching us today? What is the message which the Church wishes to impart to us as we look ahead to Great Lent?
If our concentration is only on fulfilling the rules of Great Lent… we run the risk of basking in the self-satisfying and self-justifying attitude of the Pharisee. If we look upon Great Lent simply as a time which makes demands on our diet, on disrupting our worldly distractions, on compelling a sense of obligation to attend certain services… then we are sadly missing the mark of what Great Lent is all about. We will either congratulate ourselves to the degree we are able to adhere to the fast, or we will frustrate and depress ourselves to the degree that we fall short of the demands of the fast. Neither of which will help us one bit on the path toward our salvation.
The message being emphasized by the Lord in his parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, and the message being emphasized by our holy mother Church in preparing us for Great Lent, is that the season of Lent is a call to repentance, to self-examination, to recognizing the greatness and the goodness of our God and to understand the tragedy of our exile from Him.
This is what Great Lent is all about! It is a season of repentance. It is an opportunity for spiritual ‘spring-cleaning’ – to clear out the debris and accumulation of junk that has settled in our lives and to sweep out those corners of our heart and mind and soul… letting the refreshing air of holiness and grace penetrate and cleanse us.
I recall the teaching of St Seraphim of Sarov, which is so instructive to us at this time: ‘Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian practices, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end. The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, they are only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God.’
The practices and the discipline of the Pharisee – who was a just man, who fasted twice a week, who gave tithes of all that he possessed – these things are praiseworthy. But no matter how scrupulously he, or we, may attend to our fasting, our vigils, our almsgiving… these things will not save us. These disciplines are important, but only as the means by which they soften our heart, by which they raise up our mind, by which they tame our will… and thereby, by which they facilitate the acquisition of the Holy Spirit – enlivening our soul with God’s grace and peace and love.
As we look ahead to the season of Great Lent, let us look ahead to a time given to us to create room for more peace and prayer in our lives. Let us fast from judging, let us hunger and thirst for righteousness more than we hunger and thirst for gossip and the latest news. Let us look ahead with a sigh in our heart… recognizing that this is a time where we are called to stand before God in all honesty, laying aside all pretense and hypocrisy, exposing ourselves and standing spiritually naked before the Great Physician Who cares for us and for our spiritual well-being and Who can, if we let Him, apply the medicines needed for the healing of our soul.
May God grant us the courage and the wisdom to stand before God as did the Publican… in pure-hearted humility and vulnerability… not daring to raise his eyes toward heaven and only crying out: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
May this be our prayer and may this be our humble attitude and hopeful expectation of the spiritual Spring-time of Great Lent.