Week of the Publican and the Pharisee (2 Timothy 3:10-15; Luke 18: 10-14)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be! Great Lent is such an important annual event in the life of an Orthodox Christian that it’s something we always have in the back of our mind, especially as we enter a new year and begin the approach to Lent. This week we very consciously enter the period of preparation for Great Lent. Forgiveness Sunday, which marks the beginning of the Fast, is only 3 weeks away.

For us as Orthodox Christians, Great Lent is a focused period of repentance. We take this time to look at our lives very closely in the light of Christ. How do measure up to what is revealed to mankind in Christ? What am I doing with the deposit of the Faith passed on to me through the Saints and the Church? Lent gives us the chance to ask these questions, to examine our lives, and to concretely take steps to move us closer to Christ. The Church knows that we weary in our spiritual struggles, and so we have the time of Great Lent to recharge, to re-focus, so that we really can fulfill that petition of the Liturgy which calls us to offer our whole life unto Christ our God.

All of Christian life really is about repentance. The Prophets call the people of Israel to repent, St. John the Baptist calls the people to repent, Christ begins His earthly ministry by calling the people to repent, and the Church and Her Saints continue this call for us to repent. To repent is not simply to feel bad for the things we’ve done—that certainly is a part of it, but only the first step. To truly offer repentance, we follow the teaching of St. John the Baptist—he preaches to the people, “Repent…[and] bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). And then he goes on answer people’s specific questions about what they should do—and in these answers we see that true repentance brings about a change in our lives. A change that places us on the path of Christ—turning away from the self gratifying mindset of the world, and fixing our gaze on Christ.

To repent is lay aside all earthly cares, to turn away from our sins, and to measure all things by the revelation of Jesus Christ. Over the course of the next three weeks we’ll spend time considering and preparing ourselves for what we’re called to do in Great Lent. And then we’ll begin to make our fast, to prepare ourselves through repentance to receive the grace of rebirth at the Resurrection (Pascha) of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ

In today’s Gospel reading we see the Pharisee in the temple in prayer. The Pharisee was a keeper of the Jewish law, and a teacher of prayer and repentance and charity. He was a man of God, at least by his job description. And his prayer to God in the temple was, “I thank Thee that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector; I fast twice a week, [and] I give tithes of all I possess” (Luke 18:11-12). This prayer has nothing to do with the True God. When we come before the face of God we have nothing of ourselves that will justify us before God. We’re all sinners, and we all deserve condemnation, the Scriptures teach us. This Pharisee’s prayer misses the point of our supplications to God—we certainly give thanks for our blessings, but we don’t look at the sins of others, we look at the ways we’ve fallen short of the glory of God. We come to God always in repentance.

On the other side of the temple we see the Publican. He was a tax collector, a Jew who collaborated with the Romans, everyone despised him because of his life; he would be the image of a sinner to the Jewish people. And as a wretched sinner, we hear the publican’s prayer, “[He] would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” (Luke 18:13). This prayer accomplishes all that the Pharisee’s prayer fails to do. He looks only at his life, on his sins, and he knows that he’s not worthy to enter the presence of God. And he prays accordingly. And his prayer is received by God, and he goes home justified.

For our repentance to be true, to be accepted by God, we must repent in the spirit of the Publican. Our repentance must come from a broken heart. The Psalmist writes, “a heart which is broken and humble, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 50:17). Our heart is broken when we see that we are the chief among sinners. When we can honestly begin to pray, “forgive me, for never have I done anything good in Thy sight.” We turn from our sins, and not just because they’re “bad,” not just because we’ve broken the law, but because anything that separates us from our Lord brings pain to our hearts.

Not only do we repent for our sins of commission, and sins of omission (the things we do and the things we fail to do), but we also repent for our spiritual poverty. This past weekend Fr. Zacharias (of St. John the Baptist monastery in Essex, England) mentioned this several times—spiritual poverty. God offers us so many rich blessings, from the fullness of the Orthodox Church and so much of the experience and teaching of her saints translated and made widely available in the English language, all the way to the material blessings we have as people in America (people here living in poverty are most always better off than most anyone in the poorest countries of the world). And in the midst of all these blessings, so often we fail to take advantage of any of them. We find ourselves very spiritually poor, very spiritually under-developed. Not making use of the blessings that God gives us.

And for this failure to grow in Christ, as well as for our sins and transgressions, we now begin to prepare to repent. To offer ourselves more perfectly every day to Christ, Who offered Himself totally and completely to us for our restoration and salvation. So may our prayer this Great Lent mirror that of the humble Publican—“God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!