37th Sunday after Pentecost – Orthodox Homily for Sunday of Publican and Pharisee

The Triodion, the three weeks before Great Lent, begins today with the Sunday of the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee, and as we particularly heard in the hymnody and teaching at Great Vespers.  The Triodion is a time of preparation afforded to us by Holy Church that we may get our ‘spiritual house’readyto make the most of the holy season of Lent just three weeks before us.  We start preparing now 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–Ifwe 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 if we do not have this humble desire in our hearts to l love God more.  

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 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 becausehe fasts twice a week or becausehe gives tithes of his income or for his prayers: 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, self-love rather than love of God, and the sufficiency he finds in himself, his self-glorification and judgmental spirit 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, or avoiding Confession altogether, then we may 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, who is quick to recognize his sins and repent of them.  The repentant heart is quick to be self-accusatory and, thereby, is justified before God. The penitent humbles himself before God, prostrating himself before Him in soul and in body. 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 daring to lift his face toward heaven.  He’s utterly prostrate—in body andin soul, confessing his sins.  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 ifwe are willing to humble ourselves before Him in repentance, desiring more of the Life only in Him and confessing our sins before Him, as King David reminds us, “a contrite and humble heart Thou wilt not despise.” 

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 Him, grow in Him, making 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 theninto the joy of our Master, our Creator and 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 Wednesdays, 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 can 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 if we’re to become less like the Pharisee and more like the Publican, to grow in humility and love for God in communion with Him.  They’re an integral part of Christ’s sustenance for us in 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.  

Rest assured, God honors our striving and our struggle for healing and growth in faith and love and service to Him.  It can begin with a desire or even a desire to desire if we’re willing to prioritize the life only in Him, if we’re willing to look inside ourselves, 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, February 16, 2019—Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee
Epistle:            II Timothy 3:10-15 
Gospel:            Luke 18:10-14