Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, Eastern Orthodox Church
Gospel Reading: Luke 18:10-14
The Lord said this parable, “Two men went up into 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 like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up 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, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee!
And learn humility from the Publican’s tears!
Let us cry to our Savior,
Have mercy on us,
Only merciful One
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, there is a three week preparation period before Lent begins. This parable, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, is presented to the faithful before Lent starts, to stir their hearts to humility and forgiveness as a preparation for the penitential season. In fact, the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates a three week Pre-Lenten time in order to prepare souls more greatly. This particular gospel reading and prayer mark the beginning of the sinner’s transformation and focus on humility.
I am and continue to be particularly fascinated by Lent. It is a season on the liturgical calendar that many fear. For me, it is a season I welcome, as I understand how to live and move and have my being amidst darkness and sorrow. The beginning marks the soul’s journey into focus and communion on God, and the challenges He will be sure to bring when a wanting soul drags itself before Him. And even as my joy reigns in sorrow, there is a always a period in Lent where I experience the weariness of a journeying pilgrim. Self-doubt, exhaustion, and the inability to move. Maybe it’s because God moves the mountain farther every time. Or maybe it’s because His work in me goes deeper as I shed myself for Him a little more each time.
Preparation for where we will and want to be is key. And while the official start of Lent for Catholics is three weeks away, I think it a marvelous idea to borrow a page from our Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters. Three weeks is a perfect and extraordinary amount of time to begin to contemplate what we will give up, what we must let go of, how we are looking for God to renew us. In three weeks we can set our commitments in stone, train our minds to read the gospel everyday and set aside an extra fifteen minutes for prayer.
And if our minds are right, we will be like the far off publican who cries in the back of the temple, I know who I am God, have mercy on me! It is not a state of self-deprecation, but rather a state of smallness.
He must increase, I must decrease
The publican’s cry puts into perspective the words of preparation for a successful Lent.
I am small. I am a sinner. I am sorry.
And while those words take years and miles of journeying for some, we can simply just choose to embrace them. I find so many faithful come in with the prayers of the Pharisee instead.
I have been a Catholic all my life. I pay my tithe and attend mass faithfully. Thank you that I am not like these other wretched sinners.
Sometimes, we the faithful miss the entire point of Lent. The focus is not on our greatness as Christians but on our lowliness before a perfect and awesome God. It is a recognition of His greatness. It is the focus on our own sins and not the sins of others.
It is the turning of the eyes of the soul inward, to call ourselves out
We don’t have to practice physical mortification of the body in order to train the soul. Our prayerful mortification comes from our intentional inward turning, our I’m sorries, and our stroll with humility that leaves us in the last row with the tax collector.
Start here, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
You have three weeks. Make sure to start by switching places from the Pharisee to the Publican.