The Church provides us with a series of Sundays to prepare us for the journey of Great Lent. The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee is the next signpost on our journey.
Today’s Gospel reading is Luke 18:10-14. In this passage we meet a pillar of the church who believed his fasting and good works made him righteous, and a sinner who never fasted at all, who could offer no works of righteousness, but clung to the mercy of God.
This week, the Church instructs us to prepare for the Great Fast – by not fasting. For those who have always kept the fasts of the Church, today’s Gospel and this week without fasting removes any occasion for boasting: We are all in the place of the publican who never fasted, and our salvation is only in the mercy of God. No one else will be fasting either, so it is impossible to compare ourselves and feel superior to anyone.
For those who have neglected the Church’s seasons of fasting, Advent and Wednesdays and Fridays, this and the coming weeks are a call to enter wholeheartedly into the arena of repentance and travel with the Church through Lent to the bright resurrection of Christ. None of us will fast at all this week; next week we will fast only on Wednesday and Friday; the following week we will all fast only from meat. No one will be dropped suddenly into drastic ascetic labor. Together we will take this moment to collect our attention and our resolve, and then we will slowly advance into the Fast, a step at a time, a week at a time.
Some of the hymns from today’s services:
Brethren, let us not pray as the Pharisee, for he who exalts himself shall be humbled. Let us humble ourselves before God, and while we fast let us cry aloud as the Publican: “God, be merciful to us sinners.”
A Pharisee who was full of vainglory, and a Publican who bowed down in repentance, came to Thee, the only Master. The one boasted, and he was deprived of blessings. However the other kept silent, and he was reckoned worthy of gifts. Establish me, O Christ our God, in his cries of sorrow, for Thou lovest mankind.
My eyes are weighed down by my transgressions, and I cannot lift them up and see the height of heaven. But, O Savior, receive me, for I repent as the Publican, and have mercy on me.
Let us flee the boasting of the Pharisee and learn the humility of the Publican, while we cry out unto the Savior: “Be gracious unto us, O Thou Who alone dost readily forgive.”
Every good deed is made of no effect through foolish pride, while every evil is cleansed by humility. In faith let us embrace humility and utterly abhor the ways of vainglory.
Vainglory brings to nothing the riches of righteousness, but humility scatters a multitude of passions. Grant then that we may seek humility, O Savior, and do Thou bestow upon us the portion of the Publican.
Though he was rich in virtues, foolish pride brought the Pharisee to poverty, but in his great need the Publican was justified through humility. Let us also gain this humility.
The Pharisee thought to drive swiftly in the chariot of the virtues; but on foot the Publican outran him, for he had yoked humility with compassion.
O ye faithful, let us avoid the pride of the Pharisee; let us not say, as he did, “We are pure,” but let us rightly follow the Publican in his humble thoughts which gained God’s mercy.
Each of the Sundays between now and the beginning of Lent will teach us something about how to approach the struggle. Today’s lesson is that we bring nothing to boast about, and we cannot compare ourselves. Saints and sinners alike rely on the mercy of God, who opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).