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!

The parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is read every year on the second preparatory Sunday before Great Lent. In the Orthodox Church, we have a period of four weeks of preparation before we enter the Great Fast. And each of the Gospel readings during this period is revealing to us the subtleties of the struggle that we’re about to undertake in our Christian walk as we prepare for Holy Pascha.

Last week, with Zaccheaus, we explore especially the role of repentance in the Christian life. To repent—to turn away from our life of sin, and to turn toward Christ our Saviour. Everything that we do as Christians should have to goal of making Christ the center of our existence, and making us more in the image of Christ. This week, the Fathers have chosen the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee to draw our attention to the necessity of humility in the Christian life.

As Orthodox Christians, we spend a lot of time doing the things that the Pharisee is so proud of himself for doing. Fasting two times a week, tithing—giving of our material abundance to the Church of Christ. Struggling to maintain ourselves in purity, to not give in to the temptations of Satan. And, of course, these are good things. All commanded by Christ in the Gospels. The Pharisee’s problem is not in his meticulous observance of the law — in fact, the Father’s say that we can learn from the Pharisee on this. Trying to keep the law and the commandments of Christ is central to our walk with God.

The Pharisee’s falling is when he attributes his righteousness to himself. Instead of praying, “Lord I thank Thee that I…” the Pharisee should have been praying “Lord, I thank Thee that Thou hast allowed me” or “that Thou hast given me the grace.” Every good thing we do is by the grace of God. Without His grace, His mercy and love, we’re capable of nothing. The Pharisee should have offered all the glory to God, knowing that his own works were only a meager offering. Bl. Theophylact comments that if the Pharisee would have kept this proper perspective, then he would have counted himself with the worst of sinners, having received good things as a gift from God, a borrowed blanket covering his nakedness.

This prideful Pharisee is then contrasted with a tax collector. A man considered sinful just for his profession. But a man who stands in the temple, unable to lift his eyes to heaven, who beats his breast and prays, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” He doesn’t compare himself with others. He doesn’t mention the good things he’s managed to accomplish. He just prays to God for mercy. He knows he’s a sinner, and he begs for God’s forgiveness. And Christ reveals at the end of the parable that the humble prayer of the tax collector justified him before God. “Because everyone who exalteth himself shall be humbled, but he that is humbled shall be exalted.” The humble Publican is exalted to heaven, whereas the pray of the prideful Pharisee is unheard.

In the Christian life, we’re constantly tempted by pride. Especially during Great Lent, when we’re so much focused on our spiritual life—being in Church, praying, fasting, almsgiving, and repentance. The demons are around not only to tempt us to fall, but once we begin to do the things of God, the demons are there to tempt us with pride. To tell us what a good job we’re doing, how others aren’t doing nearly so well, how proud God must be of our efforts. And as soon as we listen to the demonic voice of pride, we find ourselves side by side with the Pharisee. Feeling justified by our works, and judging others by what we have done. Of course, the problem again is not our works. We struggle to follow the Gospel commandments, and that’s good. But in this struggle, somehow it’s easy to lose proper focus, and leave God out of the picture. We must keep in mind that we are but dust and clay. The only reason we accomplish anything is by the grace of God and for His glory.

This next week is fast-free; we set aside our regular Wednesday and Friday fast. To help us remember that our works are nothing without God; we can’t feel justified just because we keep some of the basics of the law. In the Christian life, we try to put ourselves on the path of Christ. We try to be more like Christ. And any success we have is due to the grace of God. All of our works, all of the things we do in the Christian life—prayer and fasting and tithing and spiritual reading—everything we do is an essential part of our walk with God. We’re told that if we love God, then we’ll keep His commandments. But that’s just a part of our walk with God. He meets our efforts to please Him with grace so that we can be successful. Without His grace, our struggles would amount to nothing.

The Father’s of the Church are very clear that we’re created free, with the ability to choose God, or to reject Him. But once we choose Christ, He floods us continually with His grace so that we might have the ability to proceed down our chosen path without faltering. Christ-like humility is not hating ourselves or feeling depressed because of our sin. Humility is seeing ourselves as we really are. Seeing where we are in our walk with Christ, and knowing that we have so much more to learn, and so much more to grow in His likeness. Knowing that all we are is because of Christ, and offering Him worship for the mercy He shows us each and every day.

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!