1st Sunday of Triodion – Orthodox Homily on Publican and Pharisee

The Triodion, the three weeks before Great Lent, begins today with the Sunday of the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee. The Triodion is a time of preparation afforded to us by Holy Church that we may get our ‘spiritual house’ ready to make the most of the holy season of Lent just three weeks before us. We start preparing now how that we may advance in faith and the life in Christ this holy Lent. Christ’s words beckon us: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”

But because of our busy lives, our culture of distraction, we can find ourselves running about during Lent just as preoccupied as we were before–If we don’t prepare to set it aside now. And if we are content to just ‘follow the rules’ of Lent, the fasting, increased praying and worshiping, more giving of offerings, can quickly become dry, wrote, and fail to aid us spiritually, fail to have their needed and desired affect for a change, for growth and progress in our participation in the life of the Holy Trinity.

This outward following of the ‘rules’ and the propensity that such an attitude leads to, namely, self-righteousness, is precisely the problem Christ addresses to us in today’s Gospel—even before the Fast begins. The Pharisee enumerates all his accomplishments, the things he’s doing ‘right’—all good in and of themselves: fasting, praying, giving a tithe (a tenth) of his income, not breaking the Commandments—but, they’re all empty because his heart is not right toward God, where a spirit of pride, self-reliance over God-reliance, reigns, so will self-righteousness.

So, let’s acknowledge for a moment how easy it is to be like the Pharisee! We’re too easily focused on the ‘doing’ of the Faith, our book knowledge, or our ethnic heritage in the Church, our checking of the ‘rules’ of Lent off our list, to the exclusion of its inner meaning and application: our communion (koinonia) with God, the needed change in us to hunger and thirst for Christ more, the repentance needed to cure any dryness of heart, worldly preoccupation, and excuses. We must pray that these are replaced for love and God and zeal for His Kingdom.

But this doesn’t mean we ignore the ‘rubrics’ of Lent: The Pharisee isn’t condemned because he fasts twice a week or because he gives tithes of his income: all the faithful are admonished to do so as the fruit of their love for Christ and His Church and to advance in faith. No, rather, it’s his spirit of boastfulness, the lauding of these actions, the sufficiency he finds in them, thinking that these things somehow justify his self-glorification and judgmental spirit, that they merit favor with God. No, these are among the chief sins of the Pharisee, but not the actions themselves.

If we are honest with ourselves, we will realize how easy it is to fall into the same sin as does the Pharisee. For instance, if in our confession we seek to mitigate or justify ourselves before God for the sins we’ve committed—shifting the blame or, at least, watering it down, lessoning our responsibility for our sins, then we will find that we are just as guilty as the Pharisee and that are sins remain unhealed. Instead, God would have us be as the Publican: the repentant heart is quick to be self-accusatory and, thereby, is thereby justified before God. The penitent humbles himself before God, prostrating himself before Him in soul and in body, and it’s Gods who lifts him up and restores him, just as we hear from Christ today: “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled… he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Not only is the Pharisee self-righteous, but he also is judgmental of others. The final sin of the Pharisee is his condemnation of the Publican. The Pharisee cannot see into the Publican’s heart, but judges him based on what he knows of his occupation or past sins with no recognition of the repentance and forgiveness God offers all—God alone can see into our hearts and knows our intentions and our struggles. This too, brothers and sisters, should be a warning to us.

The publican, on the other hand, recognizes himself as a sinner—so much so, that he’s on his face before God, not even daring to lift up his face toward heaven. He’s utterly prostrate—in body and in soul, confessing his sins openly. Like the harlot who anoints Christ’s feet, weeping bitterly for her sins, the publican too finds favor with God, and, here’s the key: so will we if we are willing to humble ourselves before Him in repentance, desiring more of the Life that is only in Him: “a contrite and humble heart Thou wilt not despise,” as King David reminds us.

You and I cultivate the spirit of the Publican if we wish to see growth in the knowledge and love of God, if we desire to deepen our communion with God and make the most of the holy season before us. To aid us in discovering more of where lie the ‘raw’ areas of our soul, the wounded sin-sick parts of us still in need of God’s healing, we fast, we pray, we worship, we make the most of the Lenten services specially prescribed to us, we give of ourselves, we keep Christ before us, judging ourselves, repenting, and confessing now, that at the dread Judgment Seat, we may enter then into the joy of our Master, our Creator, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

We make full use of Great Lent only if we follow the prescription God provides us through His holy Church: applying the Prayer of St. Ephraim to our lives, prioritizing the weekend services of Great Vespers and the Divine Liturgy—which have a particular theme and lesson for us to learn and interiorize, the Canon of St. Andrew in the first week, and, of course, the Presanctified Liturgies on each Wednesday, which feed us spiritually in the course of the week when we are so “in the world,” but have such need to learn to be “not of the world.” We make Christ and the Church the priority so that we may do the hard ‘spade’ work of our repentance and grow in communion. These services communicate to us the message of the truth of God we need to hear if we’re to become less like the Pharisee and more like the Publican, and made fit for the Kingdom of Heaven. They are an integral part of Christ’s sustenance for us during the Fast.

To think we can ‘do Lent on your own’ without the guidance of the Church and our participation in the Church is, well, again, the sin of the Pharisee. Christ God desires more for us; He desires to grow us in the Truth He is. But in order to grow in faith, we avail ourselves of the formula for growth that’s held true for sinners turned Saints throughout the generations of the Church.

Because of his humility through his confession and contrition of heart, the Publican’s prayers are received by God. The publican leaves the Temple restored, freed, healed. The Pharisee, in his pridefulness and self-righteousness, departs condemned. If the heart isn’t engaged, if we’re not centered on Christ God and our own need for forgiveness through repentance, then we cannot expect to grow in our faith or arrive at Pascha furthered in the Kingdom of God.
Every time we pray or prostrate ourselves in humility and contrition of heart, every time we plead with God, “forgive me, have mercy on me, heal me,” God hears us, works in us, and deepens our communion with Him—Why? Because He loves us. Our growth in faith may be almost imperceptible; like growing up as a child: we don’t really see it until the years pass; only then is the difference obvious. So it is with us and our growth in faith and life in Christ.

Rest assured, God honors our striving and our struggle for healing and growth in faith. It can begin with a desire or even a desire to desire if we’re willing to prioritize the life that’s only in Him, if we’re willing to look inside ourselves, to judge ourselves, and present ourselves to God, humbly, confessing as did the Publican, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” May this be our prayer as we prepare ourselves in body and soul for the holy season before us and life eternal!

Fr. Robert Miclean
Holy Archangels Orthodox Church
Sunday, January 28, 2018—Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee

Epistle: Romans 6:3-11; II Timothy 3:10-15
Gospel: Matt. 28:16-20; Luke 18:10-14