Sermon – The Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee 2021
The Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee
By V. Rev. Timothy Baclig
February 21, 2021
Today is “The Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican.” It signals the approach of the season of repentance. The fast of Great Lent in our church begins with a two-week introduction starting with Meat Fare Sunday on March 7th, and the Sunday of Cheese Fare (March 14th). The first day of the fast this year is Monday, March 15th. The Church prescribes no fasting for this coming week, following the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee and prior to the Sunday of the Prodigal Son – next Sunday.
Our God is the God of mercy and compassion. Humility is always the starting point for you and I to live and practice all that God demonstrated through the life of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, sent by the Father, who has also sent us His Holy Spirit.
Our God is not a God of words. He is the Word (the divine Logos)! Moreover, our practice of prayer is not prayer of mere words. It is the prayer of love that is tied to our relationship with God and each other. The prayer of love is also tied to deeds of mercy. This also means that we live what we pray.
Today’s Gospel lesson sets before us the scene of two men who go to the Temple to pray, and of whom our Lord said, one is justified because of his humility and sincere contrition. It is among the shortest of lessons, but is among the most potent in content.
You and I can manifest the simplest prayers when we pray from the heart. Sometimes it results from an unexpected tragedy, a sudden fear, being caught off guard, or being exposed from a hidden sin, maybe even a lesson that touches us in what we observe or are instructed.
In the verse just prior to the beginning of the reading of today’s Gospel lesson (v. 9) we hear who Jesus addressed this parable: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else Jesus told this parable…” Why? Because it is a spiritual problem that we don’t allow ourselves much time to think about. Pride isolates and insulates and disassociates: none of which characterizes life in God’s Kingdom. Consequently, it behooves each of us, before the season of the Great Fast, to take note of our own understanding of what it truly means to be a member of God’s Kingdom.
We are very accustomed to condemning Pharisees. We say, “At least, despite all of my sins, I am no Pharisee. I am not a hypocrite.” And we forget that the prayer of the Pharisee in today’s lesson is very possibly true. He does not lie or put up a façade. Who is this Pharisee? He is someone who fasts twice a week. He tithes (gives 10% of his earnings to the temple). He is free from gross sins (he is not a robber, does not practice evil, is not an adulterer). And all of this is true! Moreover, the Pharisee does not take credit for his good actions; he acknowledges and recognizes that they all come from God and he gives thanks to God. So what is wrong with this Pharisee?
There are two things that are lacking in the prayer of the Pharisee: first he lacks humility, and second, he is without repentance. It’s his attitude. The Pharisee is a man with an attitude – a wrong attitude! He has a spiritual problem. And so for us, the importance of the lesson is: that you and I can do everything right and still be shut out of the Kingdom of God!
And so, even before Great Lent begins, the first and most important lesson before the season of the fast brings calls our attention to the fact that our good works in and of themselves cannot save us.
The three disciplines of Great Lent include prayer, fasting and good works (almsgiving). The three must go together. If some of us are better or more accomplished in one or the other, we must work to keep a balance in all three.
The Elder Joseph the Hesychast said: “Acts of charity, almsgiving and all the external good works do not suppress the arrogance of the heart; but [prayer] meditation, the labor of repentance, contrition and humility – these humble the proud mind.”
In the end, Christianity aims at not making us proud but repentant. The goal of the Christian life is humility with contrition. The spiritual fathers of the church speak of this as the descent of the mind into the heart. In other words it is not only about acquiring good knowledge or correct belief. Our faith is not an act, nor is it about facades or masks. It is about fearing God and about the practice of faith, hope and love; the greatest of which is love because our God is a God of mercy and compassion.
The Pharisee in today’s lesson is not aware of his shortcomings—even the excusable ones—of which he, like all men are guilty. Beyond that, he compares himself to the publican with a certain pride and disdain.
Now, let me ask you a very serious and important question: Do you think that we would have the right to condemn the Pharisee and to consider ourselves more righteous than him if we were to break the commandments that the Pharisee observes? Do you think that we would have the right to place ourselves – in contrast to the Pharisee – on the same level as the justified publican? We cannot do any such thing unless our attitude is exactly the same as that of the publican.
Would we even dare to say that we have the publican’s humility and repentance? If we ostentatiously condemn the Pharisee without truly becoming like the publican ourselves, we fall into the sin of Phariseeism. It carries with it a self-serving attitude that separates us from God and each other.
So what can we learn about the Publican? First we are told that “he stood at a distance.” He does not dare to lift up his eyes; he smites his breast; he implores God to have mercy upon him, and realizes that he is a sinner. His whole bodily attitude also demonstrates humility. (A saint once said, “Jesus Himself has taken the last place so completely that no one has ever been able to take it from Him.”) This is the reason why the Lord said about the publican: “This man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” Jesus uses the expression “rather than the other” in order to leave the Pharisee’s case open to our thought. He wants us to give the lesson serious thought. He concludes at the end of verse 14: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
We see in the publican something more than a good attitude. He not only confesses his sin and positions himself humbly before God. The heart of the publican’s prayer is an appeal, filled with trust, to the goodness and tenderness of God. He says, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” (the first words of the penitent Psalm 50 of David.) Our Lord chooses to place these words in the mouth of the publican for a reason. In doing so He provides us with a model of prayer for repentance. He asks penitents (each one of us) complete trust in the tender mercy of God.
We all need gratification. We all need attention. We all need love. And we all probably need to begin to recognize and acknowledge many in our lives that have not received, and often do not get enough thanks for their sacrifices and virtues as models and examples. However, just as “tooting our own horn,” is not a Christian virtue, neither is burning with envy and jealousy which is rooted in pride. The temptation of pride is avoided when one maintains a healthy prayer life and an honest relationship with God.
In summary, one can say that the discipline of Great Lent is to break, or “till the soil” of a hard heart and a proud mind. In the end, the goal of Christianity is not making us proud, or even helping us to feel good or bad about ourselves. The goal of the Christian life is humility with contrition. The spiritual fathers of the Church speak of this as the descent of the mind into the heart.
Listen to the wisdom of St. Anthony the Great: "Learn to love humility, for it will cover all you sins. All sins are repulsive before God, but the most repulsive of all is pride of the heart. Do not consider yourself learned and wise; otherwise, all your effort will be destroyed, and your boat will reach the harbor empty."
O Lord our God who didst reproach the Pharisee with justifying himself and taking pride in his actions and didst justify the publican when he approached Thee humbly, seeking with groans forgiveness for his sins – for Thou dost not draw near to arrogant thoughts or turn away contrite hearts. We also kneel our heart and soul before Thee, O Thou who didst suffer for our sakes. Grant us forgiveness and Great Mercy.