The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (18:10-14)
Great and Holy Lent is a preparation for the after-life, namely the standing before the fearful and awesome throne of God, who is King and Judge of all souls. This time before Lent is considered a preparation for the great preparation that is Lent.
Today we hear the short and truly powerful parable of the Pharisee and the publican or tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself “God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” We should be amazed by the Pharisee’s attitude towards prayer. He has a certain boldness but it is not born of hope in the Lord and in His generous mercy. The boldness has another source, the man’s ego and pride. He speaks to God as if he has absolutely no need of Him.
Perhaps this should be our first lesson today: If you don’t feel that you have a need for God, if you don’t pray like you have a need for God, do yourself a favor and don’t pray. “But Father, isn’t that a bit harsh”? Well let’s look at the result. The Lord Jesus tells us that the Pharisee did not leave justified before God. This alone tells us that his prayer was a waste. It was fruitless because it did not draw him near to God and because God did not draw near to the man.
What is worse is that the Pharisee sinned greatly in his half-hearted attempt to go through the motions of prayer. How did he sin greatly? The basis of his prayer was a judgment and comparison with other men. He went even further than that. He did not stop at judging other men in a general sense. He continued by looking at another poor soul and judging him directly. Through all of this we learn that the Pharisee’s practice of religion was impure and unfruitful. Yes he tithed, and yes he fasted twice a week, and yes, he even made the motions of prayer. But all of it was for nothing, in fact it was for his own condemnation. The Lord says of such a one “judge not, lest ye be judged.”
In the exact opposite measure, we see the success of the tax collector in entreating the Lord to come to his aid. He went to the temple knowing that he was no good. In fact, each and every one of us should only come to prayer if we first understand that we are not really very good at all. We sin all day long, whether in word or deed or thought, whether we know it or whether we don’t. One of the worst things that we can do when we pray is to minimize our sins while maximizing the sins of others. In fact that is the opposite of love. When we have love we understand our need for God and when we pray we also pray for others to be saved.
The tax collector approached God with a spirit of contrition and extreme humility and this is pleasing in the sight of God. When He sees this spirit within us, He draws near to us quickly because God Himself is a humble Spirit. As Elder Zacharias of Essex says “We have to become nothing, so that God can use us, because God creates from nothing.” All of this is fairly straightforward but it is not necessarily easy. To pray properly means to sit alone and to dig deep and understand just how far we are from God. We have to get to the point that the publican’s prayer becomes our prayer “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Saying it with words is not enough.
The saints of our great and holy Church tell us that we have to say these words, mean these words, and live these words. St. Dorotheos of Gaza says “In the mercy of God, the little thing done with humility will enable us to be found in the same place as the saints who have labored much and been true servants of God.” What a treasure we have if we have humility! To see ourselves as last and everyone around us as better. To see ourselves as poor and sick and in need of a great physician is the best state of all because the great physician Jesus Christ will come to our aid and will give us healing and strength beyond anything that we can imagine or hope for. He will give us strength beyond strength as He shares His very divine nature with us. This is God’s desire and good pleasure for His children. Glory be to God forever AMEN.