Sunday of Publican and Pharisee
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.’
This short parable of our Lord Jesus Christ delivers a clear lesson for us as we approach the season of fasting… We must not allow our efforts to diligently keep the fast become a cause for spiritual pride. At all times, we must recognize our unworthiness and our indebtedness to the blessings and mercies of God, and we should direct our prayers to Him in gratitude and humility.
On this day we also 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 utmost fidelity.
As with all of these preparatory Sundays before Lent, the Church is giving us specific instruction in how we are to approach our season of fasting. 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’.
Which is it? Are strict and careful 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, and must not, be 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 our heart and mind.
The parable of the Publican and Pharisee might be used as an excuse for us to grow lazy in our observance of the traditions of the Church. We may say to ourselves, ‘Well, it is Lent and I know I should fast, but as long as I am being humble and loving, this is the most important thing!’
On the one hand, there is truth to that statement - it is indeed most important to have and to cultivate that warm, loving heart and a true sense of humility. (In fact, the cultivation of 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 who came before us?
Our approach and our attitude to standing fast in the traditions and disciplines of the Church must be, above all things, 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 was not at fault 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, judging those who do not live up to our standards, then we have surely fallen off the true path.
Let us attend to the unity of the message given to us in today’s Gospel and Epistle readings. The discipline and fidelity of the Pharisee should bring us to the repentance and humility of the Publican. And likewise, the repentance and humility of the Publican should inspire us toward the discipline and fidelity of the Publican. We must strive to observe the disciplines of the spiritual life in order to soften our heart toward God and others. And from that softened and purified heart, our desire will grow to cling to God and to strive to fulfill His holy will.
May we all acquire that sense of humility and gratefulness to God – crying out to Him, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner!’