The pre-Lenten season in the Orthodox Church begins with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. On this particular Sunday the liturgical book called the Lenten Triodion begins, and this liturgical book would be used in the Orthodox Church all the way through to the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection—the holy Pascha—and then from the holy Pascha—from Easter, the resurrection of Christ—to Pentecost another liturgical book is used.
Now the Lenten Triodion begins with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee; on this Sunday the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is read at the Divine Liturgy and on this Sunday also, at the services of vespers and matins, hymns are sung during the services that relate to this Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. And this hymnology and these Scripture readings are intended to focus the believers’ minds on the approaching Lenten season that will prepare them for the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, so that the whole journey begins after the reading about the Canaanite woman and Zacchaeus that precedes this Sunday; it begins with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. Also on this particular Sunday a penitential hymn is introduced at the Sunday matins service after the reading of the resurrection Gospel—because at every Sunday matins service in the Orthodox Church an account of the Lord’s resurrection from the dead is read, because Sunday is always a celebration of the Lord’s resurrection.
But on the Publican and the Pharisee Sunday, for the first time—and this is sung all the way up until Palm Sunday—you have these particular hymns which are sung at the service. They go like this: “Open to me the doors of repentance, O Life-giver, for my spirit rises early to pray toward your holy temple, bearing the temple of my body all defiled, but in your compassion, purify me by the loving-kindness of your mercy; lead me on the paths of salvation, O mother of God, for I have profaned my soul with shameful sins and have wasted my life in laziness, but by your intercessions deliver me from all impurity. When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am, I tremble at the fearful day of judgment, but trusting in your loving kindness like David, I cry out to you: have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercy.”
And these hymns are sung together with Psalm 51, the penitential psalm of David, which is actually read at every single matins service, in every compline service, too, and the third hour service, too, at Orthodox services, Psalm 50 (51), the psalm of David repenting after his sin of murder and adultery when the prophet Nathan rebuked him; that psalm: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercy, according to the multitude of your tender mercy.” is read daily in the Orthodox Church rule of prayer and it’s read at three of the daily services: third hour, matins, and compline.
Now this Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee we have this parable being read. And I always recall when I was a parish priest how I would discuss this parable with children. Inevitably when you’d ask children about this parable, they would answer something like this: you’d say, “Children, what do you think is the meaning of this parable?” and almost inevitably the child would answer and say, “O Father, the Pharisee thought he was a good guy, but really he was bad, but he didn’t know it, he thought was good, but the tax collector, the Publican, he thought he was bad, but really he was good, he didn’t know he was good, but he thought he was bad.”
And that is a kind of an interpretation that I noticed, that even many adults have when they hear this parable, they think that the Pharisee was really bad and the Publican was really good, and they didn’t know it, but the Publican was humble and therefore God accepted him because he really was a good guy.
But that is not the parable at all; the parable is that this figure symbolizing the Pharisee had done all the external rules of uprightness according to the Law properly: he fasted twice a week, he gave tithes of what he possessed, and that he really kept all the rules. And this was true; he really did keep all the rules: he did it externally correctly. The tax collector, on the other hand, had broken all the rules. In fact, the tax collectors, as we all know, were kind of the paradigmatic sinners at the time of Jesus; they were Jews who betrayed their own people, who worked for the Romans, who extorted money from the people, who collected more money for taxes than they needed to collect, who gave that money to the Roman occupiers and kept the rest for themselves and basically were considered to be very sinful people.
So this tax collector really was a sinner. He did not keep the laws, he did not fast twice a week, he did not give tithes; on the contrary, he stole money. Nevertheless when he came into the temple, he didn’t dare stand up in front, like the Pharisee did; he didn’t dare thank God that he was not like other people, at least that that moment he knew who he was and what he was because he had had a real encounter with God and in that encounter with God he knew his sin and he said, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Now Jesus says that when both these men left the temple, it was the Publican who was justified; it was the Publican who was heard and not the Pharisee. And then the interpretation is that if we keep all the rules and boast about it and think that in those rules is our merit, is our religious life, is our standing before God, then we are greatly deluded and we even, if we dare to boast of these things, we are even more deluded.
Now the Pharisee’s problem, so to speak, was he had not really had an encounter with the living God, he had never met the righteous, holy, glorious God, who is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and mercy. He really thought that by these external regulations and keeping them properly that he was justified before God, but the Lord Jesus said that he was not.
And that Publican, who really was a sinner, it seems clear, had an encounter with the living God. He knew that he was a sinner, and whenever we encounter God we know that we are sinners; whenever we encounter God we know that, however well we keep rules and regulations, that that is not the heart of the matter.
Now the Orthodox Church tradition following the Bible would be very very firm and strong and affirming that the rules have to be kept. Yes, the rules have to be kept: we should fast; we should say prayers three times a day, seven times a day; we should tithe, we should more than tithe; we should give what we can to the poor and the needy; and we should keep vigils and we should watch and we should do the Church services and we should keep doing prostrations and we should be careful of our diet; we should read the Bible—all of these things are essential, they are absolutely essential. They are what prove that we have faith, and they are the ways that we open ourselves to the grace of God and encounter with God. However, as all of the holy Church Fathers and saints teach, these are means to an end; they are not an end in themselves. They are means to an end. Now if we neglect these means, our life really will be sinful, but if we deify these means, idealize these means, think that in these particular actions is lying our whole righteousness, then we are very far from God; we are actually deluded. In fact, some of the Church Fathers would say we are even idolaters because we are worshiping the laws and not the Law giver.
Now no one would justify the behavior of the tax collector; the tax collector has to repent, and it’s very interesting that in this parable we don’t know whether he repents or not. We know that Zacchaeus the tax collector did repent when Jesus came to his house, but we don’t know about this publican. Jesus doesn’t say. He simply said he prayed, “Be merciful to me,” [and] left the temple. Maybe he kept on sinning; how do we know? But in any case at that moment before God, bowing down to the earth in the back of the building, his prayer was heard because his prayer was true. But the Pharisee’s prayer was not even a prayer; it was just a rehearsal of his own righteousness before his own mind.
So as the hymns of the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee say—they say we do not even have the righteousness of the Pharisee and yet we tend still to boast how great we are. And we do sin like the publican, like the tax collector. And especially if we’re Christians we are told, not only not to steal, we are told to share our goods, and if we don’t share our good then we are crooks, we are stealers ourselves according to the sermon on the mountain, so there is a sense in which we have sinned more than the publican, or more gravely at least, being Christians, but do not have that same compunction, that same sense of contrition before God.
And here we know that we cannot pray prayers of contrition; we cannot sing hymns like: “Open to me the doors of repentance. I bear the temple of my body all defiled. I’ve wasted my life in laziness.” We can’t know these kind of things unless we have had an encounter with the living God, though if we have had an encounter with the living God then we will always repent of our sins. We’ll know that we’re creatures; we’ll know that even if we have kept all the rules we are still unworthy servants, and we will know that the rules do not save us. Only God can save us by his grace by faith; yet if we are believers then we will keep the rules, but we will not deify the rules; we will not idealize the rules; we won’t worship the rules or the laws in the place of the one who gives us these rules and these laws.
There is a popular book in Russian Orthodoxy. It was published in 1867 in Russia. It was by a saint named Ignatius Brianchaninov; he was a bishop, and he wrote this book for his fellow monks and nuns because he was terribly worried that the monastic people of his time were deifying and idealizing all the rules, but were not keeping the commandments of the Gospel and were not really living a deep authentic spiritual life, they were just going according to external practices. He said that they were idealizing dried bread and beans and formal readings of prayers and liturgical rituals and so on, and he said the following.
He said, “If we think about the parable of the sower we will understand everything.” He said, “In the parable of the sower, God is giving us his words as seeds, and only he can give them; we have no right, no demand, no deserving that we would have these words; God gives them by sheer grace, just as a gift.” And then he also said, “God gives the growth to these seeds in us. He makes them grow up bearing “the fruit worthy of repentance,” to use John the Baptist’s expression, “the fruit of the holy spirit” as St. Paul said: “love and peace and joy and patience and kindness and goodness and gentleness and self-control.”
So God gives the seeds, and God makes the seeds grow and this St. Ignatius, this bishop, even said, “And the Holy Spirit is like the water that waters these seeds and makes them grow. The Holy Spirit is the power of this growth, and the Holy Spirit is also a gift; it’s also a grace. We can’t force it; we can’t demand the Holy Spirit. God gives it, so God gives his word and his spirit to us.” But then St. Ignatius said, “We have to receive it; we have to accept it.”
And then he said, “In the parable of the sower we are the earth.” In fact, it’s interesting that the name for man is “earth-man,” Adamach. Adam in the Bible means “earth-creature,” “clay-creature.” St. Paul even said we have our treasure as clay pots, earthen vessels, dirt, mud, clay. You know that’s what we are, but we have to prepare that earth. And so in the parable of the sower, St. Ignatius says, “Where the earth is hard and rocky you’ve got to get rid of the rocks; where there’s weeds and thorns, you’ve got to get rid of them; where the soil is shallow you’ve got to deepen it, you’ve got to cultivate it, you’ve got to put in fertilizer, you’ve got to make it ready to receive the words of God,” and he said, “That is what ascetic practices are, that is what the rules of the law are: fasting, saying prayers, going to church, keeping vigils, doing prostrations, tithing with our money. That is nothing but cultivating the soil.”
And then he went on to say: if a farmer would try to plant a field and just take the seeds and just throw them all over the place without preparing the soil, nothing would grow. Some would be on rocks, some would be in weeds, some would be in thorns, some would be in shallow earth, but nothing would grow. On the other hand, if a farmer just kept cultivating the soil: digging it deepening it, getting rid of the rocks, getting rid of the weeds, getting rid of the thorns, manuring it, making it really fertile, but never put any seeds in it, that man would be insane, too, because nothing would grow.”
So he says, “We must cultivate the earth, and that’s what ascetical practices are, that’s what the rules are. But we must also receive the seeds, we must receive the word of God and the Holy Spirit by grace, otherwise there is nothing.” And so St. Ignatius said, “If a person puts all their righteousness in these external actions—like it seems that the Pharisee did—and thinks that they’re really the spiritual life, well, they are just in the hands of devil.” He said, “On the other hand if people never practice the rules, don’t keep the rules, don’t keep the commandments, don’t read the Bible, don’t say their prayers, don’t go to the Church, don’t share their goods, then they are just given over to the crudest sins and passions: gluttony, pornea, sexual unchastity, greed, anger.”
So he said, “The narrow path, the royal path, is, yes, to be like that Pharisee and to keep those rules, but to keep those rules with an encounter with the living God, so that those rules open us to the grace of God in humility and gratitude and not thanking God [we] were not like other people, but thanking God that he has been gracious to us. And then, when we keep those rules, then the strange thing is, no matter how righteous we are, externally, we will still pray the Publican’s prayer. We will stay pray, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
So the pre-Lenten season begins when we meditate [on] this parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. So as the hymns of the Church say, “Let us flee from the boastfulness and the pridefulness of the Pharisee who just kept the rules externally, and let’s learn from the Publican’s tears.” And even the Holy Fathers say, “Without tears, no one can be saved.” But what’s so interesting is that the more righteous, the more holy, the more full of grace, the more the fruit of the Holy Spirit is in a person, the more they repent, the more they weep, and the more they pray the Publican’s prayer: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”