Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee
Start of the Triodion
This Gospel marks the beginning of the period of preparation for Great Lent, for today, on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, we hear Jesus’ parable contrasting the self-righteousness of the Pharisee with the humble penitence of the Publican. It is no accident that the Church chooses this Gospel to set the tone for the coming season. Not only does it warn us of the dangers of religious practices, but it also points us to the true aim of our Lenten discipline.
Lent is a period when we are called to intensify our Christian life, and to focus on the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It is a time for repenting, turning away from sinful or distracting behaviour, reorientating ourselves, and focusing our gaze on Jesus Christ. But, in telling this parable, Jesus warns us of the dangers of such religious activities. If they lead us to arrogance and self-righteousness, then our ascetical efforts are missing the point, for, as Saint Cyril of Alexandria tells us, “arrogance is accursed and hated by God.”
In choosing this Gospel with which to start this season, the Church holds up the Publican as a model of repentance, and in him we see the true goal of this fasting season. He has come to true self-knowledge, recognises his total dependence on God, and can only cry out, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” The truly humble person is no longer concerned with comparing themselves to those around them, or seeking to justify themselves. Instead, they are only aware of their own immense need for God’s mercy.
Arriving at such humility is often the work of a lifetime, for we all have something of the Pharisee in us. True humility cannot be imitated, but is usually learnt through a long and painful struggle. As we move towards this holy season, let us pray for that God will help us to grow in true self-knowledge and humility.
He who seeks forgiveness of his sins loves humility, but if he condemns another he seals his own wickedness. Just as water and fire cannot be combined, so self-justification and humility exclude one another.
Saint Mark the Ascetic
The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 18:10-24:
The Lord said this parable, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”