The first Sunday of the lenten cycle is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. The first four Sundays of the cycle are not part of lent, rather they are preparatory Sundays to help us prepare for lent (as known in the West) or, more commonly known among the Orthodox as the great fast. It is not insignificant that we call this fast great. It is longer and stricter than the others. It begins on the evening of the Sunday of Forgiveness and lasts until the Feast of Palm Sunday. The great fast is itself a journey, a preparation for Holy Week, when we celebrate our Lord’s Passion and, ultimately, Pascha.
The first preparatory Sunday teaches us about the necessity of humility and warns us to flee from pride and vainglory - the former being increasingly rare and the latter overly abundant.
First we have a Pharisee. The Pharisees were highly esteemed among the Jews. They were known for their personal piety and adherence to the Law. Publicans, however, were reviled and despised, as traitors and thieves, collecting taxes for the hated Romans, all the while overcharging those same taxes and keeping the difference.
The Pharisee addresses God. (I say addresses, not prays to, as he does not petition God for anything, so wretched is his condition.) He says: "God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.”
Do you see what is wrong here? The Pharisee feigns praying, but all he is doing is boasting before God, singing his own praises instead of God’s, with the purpose that all present would hear how faithful he is to the Law and praise him.
The second thing he does is, by comparing himself to them, especially the Publican, he condemns transgressors while justifying himself and gloating.
Then we have the Publican who acknowledges his sin. He dares not look up toward heaven, and while beating his breast, he prays: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Our Lord tells us that it is the Publican, not the Pharisee as one might expect, who went home justified to his house. But why?
The Publican went home justified because of his humility. Humility is the foundation of all the virtues. There is no virtue that is devoid of humility, just as there is no sin devoid of pride.
This is made clear in the Scriptures. The first of the Beatitudes is: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. The Beatitudes are like a ladder that ascends into heaven. The first rung on this ladder is humility, for without humility we are unable to attain any virtue, unable to ascend the ladder.
We need humility to mourn, for a proud man would never recognize, much less confess and weep over his sins.
We need humility to be meek, for without humble tears a hardened, calloused heart will not be softened.
We need humility to hunger and thirst after righteousness, that is for Christ, for when we are full of pride and vainglory we hunger and thirst for no one or nothing We are satisfied with ourselves.
We need humility to be merciful. Anyone who is proud and full of himself as no sense that he needs anything from anyone, including God. A proud man look sdown upon and condemns those among him who fail to live up to the standards which he has set, not only for himself, but for others also.
Without humility a heart cannot be purified, for it lacks the tears and contrition needed to cleanse it.
Without humility there is no peace because there is no love. There is no love because there is no room in the heart of the proud and boastful except for themselves. They are always right and, instead of embracing others, despise them.
And of course, without humility we cannot be persecuted for righteousness sake, not only because humility is required to bear all things for Christ, but especially because it is those who in their pride persecute the humble. The best example is St. Paul. Before encountering Christ he was a zealous persecutor of Christ, but after encountering Him, he humbled himself and became the Apostle Paul, suffering much for the Gospel.
We also have the 50th Psalm, which we read several times a day, a psalm of repentance, in which we say: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a humble and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”
Time and space prohibit us in examining the lives of the Saints, the most Holy Theotokos, and above and before all, the Lord Jesus Christ, who humbled Himself by uniting Himself to our nature so that He could destroy death by death and bestow upon us life.
The Pharisee, however, did not go home justified. He sought nothing of God because he felt no lack of anything. His heart is so full of himself that he felt no hunger for God, no need for mercy. Thus he received none.
Not that how he lived was necessarily wrong. He did not leave unjustified because he kept the Law. The Lord never condemned anyone for keeping the Law. He Himself kept the Law. The Pharisee went home unjustified because of pride and vainglory. He is a perfect exemplification of what the Lord means when He says: “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.”
The idol of self; the idol of pride; the idol of vainglory; they are everywhere.
Last week we learned from Zacchaeus that if we wish to see Christ we must have a desire to see Him and that we need to act upon this desire. The Publican teaches us that we cannot desire Christ without first humbling ourselves. Many people saw, heard, and encountered Christ, but not everyone recognized Him for who He is. If we desire to recognize Him, to be seen by Him, to go to our homes justified, then we must first humble ourselves, if even a little.
But how do we do this? First, let us not compare ourselves to sinners but to Saints. Let us read the Lives of the Saints (not neglecting the Scriptures) and become acquainted with how they pleased God and were glorified by Him. God is wonderful in His Saints (Ps 67:36). He is praised and glorified in them.
Second, let us not judge others. If we see someone sin we should pray for them. Although we may see someone sin - or think that we do, we do not see whether or not they have repented in their heart. Only God sees the heart. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is how we learn to truly love God, for we cannot love God whom we do not see if we do not love our neighbor whom we do see, for our neighbor, regardless of who he may be, is created in the image and likeness of God as are we.
Third, let us keep the commandments, not as objective to achieve, but out of loving obedience to Christ who says: “If you love me keep my commandments”. Our Lord wants us to keep His commandments as He keeps the will of His Father, thus by keeping them we abide in the love and harmony of the Trinity Himself.
Finally, let us be patient. Humility is attained over time, usually much time. It is a life long process which requires denying oneself, taking up one’s cross and following Christ, who humbled Himself even unto death upon the Cross. The more we die, the more we live. The more we humble ourselves the more God exalts us. If God were to exalt us without us being humble we would fall, crash and burn as did Lucifer. The Devil and his angels (demons) hate humility in a man’s heart most of all.
The foundation of our lenten journey, and our life in Christ in general, is humility, for without humility we cannot repent and attain the fullness of perfection in virtue, which is love, the love of God and love for each other.
May our good Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, through the prayers of His most pure Mother and of all the Saints have mercy upon us and save us.