The Gospel Lesson of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14), so St. Luke tells us, is a parable that Jesus told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others” (vs. 9). As a pre-Lenten Sunday it is a warning to all of us who are about to enter into Great Lent, that strictly adhering to the letter of the law of fasting will do us no good, as it did the Pharisee no good, if we think that fasting shows or proves how righteous we are and entitles us to judge those who don’t keep strictly Great Lent. Christ teaches:
Two men went up to 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 as this tax collector. ‘I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise 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, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
Christ’s lessons from this parable include a warning against self-righteousness and warnings that all prayer is not equal in the eyes of God. There is good prayer and bad prayer, right prayer and wrong prayer. We who are renewing our spiritual lives through Great Lent need to pay attention to these lessons. We are to pray rightly and for good reasons and with good intentions. Great Lent is a time of spiritual renewal, a time to get back to the basics of being Christian. When we are catechumens and new converts to Christianity, we are attentive to our prayer, but it is easy through time to turn our prayer life into a justification for judging those who don’t pray or behave like we do. Great Lent is a time to get back to the fundamental purpose of prayer, to the foundations of our Christian life: namely to love God and to love one another. Prayer is to put us into a right relationship with God and neighbor. Right prayer teaches us to be humbly thankful to God for all blessings received, and to humble ourselves in contrition before God for sins we have committed. St. Maximos the Confessor says a very similar thing about confession:
“Every genuine confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence. Confession takes two forms. According to the one, we give thanks for blessings received; according to the other, we bring to light and examine what we have done wrong. We use the term confession both for the grateful appreciation of the blessings we have received through divine favor, and for the admission of the evil actions of which we are guilty. Both forms produce humility. For he who thanks God for blessings and he who examines himself for his offences are both humbled. The first judges himself unworthy of what he has been given; the second implores forgiveness for his sins.” (St. Maximos the Confessor, The Philokalia , Kindle Loc. 18272-80)
Thus we come to understand that the lesson of the Publican and Pharisee is a Gospel lesson about prayer and about keeping the spirit of Great Lent. We are to be humble – fasting is not the goal, however, humility is a goal, as is repentance and love for God and love for neighbor. Fasting is to help us learn humility so that we can humbly love like Christ did who though He was God humbled himself and died on the cross for us in love. Fasting and Great Lent are lessons in humbling ourselves so that we don’t trust our own righteousness and don’t boast to ourselves, to others, or to God about how our spiritual achievements or how pious we are when we strictly keep Great Lent. The real strict keeping of Lent is not in avoiding certain foods but in truly humbling ourselves before God and our fellow human beings. Humility tells us not to trust in our own righteousness but to thank God for all things including a willingness to obey Him. We are humble when we credit all good – even our self-denying efforts – to God Himself. We also humble ourselves when we admit to our sins and seek forgiveness in the sacrament of confession. As St. Maximos says there are two ways to confess both of which achieve: to admit to sins while putting forth the effort to amend our lives and to give thanks to God for every blessing received including an ability to fast or obey God. So in confession we can positively give thanks to God for the spiritual blessings we have received.
The sinful Publican understood the role of repentance in confession. The righteous Pharisee failed to credit God and give thanks to Him for the blessings of an Orthodox life.
The Gospel lesson of the Publican and Pharisee finds its fulfillment at the end of Great Lent on Pascha night when we hear the homily of St. John Chrysostom:
If there are any who are devout and love God, let them enjoy this beautiful and radiant feast of triumph! If there are any who have been wise servants, let them enter the joy of their Lord! If there are any who have labored long in fasting, let them now receive their wages! If there are any who have worked from the first hour,let them receive their fair compensation today! If there are any who came at the third hour, let them celebrate the feast with thanksgiving! If there are any who arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings;they will not be deprived because of that! If there are any who delayed until the ninth hour, let them approach and not be afraid! If there are any who tarried even as late as the eleventh hour, let even them not be alarmed by their tardiness! For the Lord, Who is jealous of His honor, will accept the last as well as the first. He gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour just as He does to those who work from the first hour. He is merciful to those who come last, even while He cares for the first ones. … So then, all of you, enter the joy of your Lord! Receive your reward, whether you came first or last! Rich and poor, dance for joy together! Sober people with the heedless, honor this day! Whether you kept the fast or disregarded it, rejoice today! The table is fully laden: feast sumptuously! … Let no one weep over transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the tomb! Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free!