The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (18:10-14)
As we march down the road to the start of the spiritual battle of Great and Holy Lent we encounter or rather, are encountered by the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. This profound story from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is one that should, and must shake each of us to our very core.
As we begin to prepare for lent we are likely to focus on many external things, what we eat, how many times we pray, how often we attend services, how much we give to or serve the poor and needy and the list goes on. Yet this parable of the Lord serves as a rebuke and a reminder for us. God is not so much interested in what we do as a matter of external religious observance, rather He is quite interested in how the disposition of our hearts are transformed. To put it another way, God is not interested in all of the things we do to look and act religious, but in how we approach Him and our fellow brothers and sisters. Indeed, this is precisely what the Lord says when He is tested and asked “What is the greatest of the commandments?” He answers that the greatest commandment is to love your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”
One aspect of a religious life is that it can be very easy and comfortable to go through the motions and to get stuck on the outward observance of rules. We can go even further. One of the real pitfalls of a religious life is that it can make us comfortable with following the rules perfectly and feeling that we are then justified before God and all men because of our adherence to the rules. The Pharisee was quite accomplished at this kind of thinking. He was a legalist. He thought that he would be saved because of his perfect keeping of the outward laws and religious actions. He fasted, he prayed, he gave tithes. Yet St. Paul in many of his letters corrects and rebukes those who trust in the law. He says “For I through the law, died to the law in order that I might live to Christ.”
So why did the law exist and why do these works exist, listen again to St. Paul “For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, [f]kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Gal 3:21-25).
What the Apostle says is that we were given the law and the works to do them because they would train us to act righteously, but he makes a critical point. He says that we are not made righteous by observing the law, we are made righteous by the sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross. With one, we learn to behave righteously, and in the other we are actually transformed and become righteous. The Pharisee learned to behave righteously, but where was his heart as he stood in the temple to pray? It was not humble, loving and merciful. It did not have the qualities that demonstrate that God was present there. In fact he was quite far from God. He prayed as a matter of formality and to congratulate himself. He went so far as to compare himself to and condemn another poor soul who was praying in the temple at that time.
How do we pray here in the temple? And how do we pray in the temple of our hearts when no one is around? Do we compare ourselves to others? Do we believe that God will look favorably upon us because of our ability to keep the outward observances or because of our outward accomplishments?
Sadly today we even apply this sort of thinking to other parts of life. We judge people quite frequently based on what they do or don’t do. And the world tells us that it is ok to judge people, even based on opinions that we think they should or should not hold. In all of this we are losing sight of the one needful thing, Christ our true God. What matter is not what my brother or sister is doing, they have to stand before God on their own, they don’t need my criticism or judgment. What matters is that my heart is broken and I confess my sins because I am hungry and thirsty for God’s mercy and forgiveness. What matters is that I understand that I am a great sinner who does not in any way, deserve God’s mercy and love. What matters is that I am convinced that nothing that I can do will, on it’s own, be enough to allow me to stand before God or to compare myself favorably to others around me.
As we enter lent let us not be tempted to think that keeping the rules and the guidelines will be enough to make us good and holy and righteous. The rules and order of Great and Holy Lent are not meant to puff us up or make us proud. The Lord does not need that kind of religious person. He has enough Pharisees in the world, and He does not hear them when they pray. But His ear is ever towards those who are like the Publican. I hope that Lent will be a time for us to cultivate our hearts and ask the Holy Spirit to show us our true broken condition. When we sense our own brokenness and our deep need for the Lord, and we confess our sins, then and only then, are we are on the right path. Our prayers will become deep through our pain and the path will lead directly to Christ because our prayers will be pure and without any obstacles.
All of Lent is built for us by the Church as a gymnasium to help us train to find the deep and broken heart required to repent and to seek God from a pure heart. We are being trained to become like the Publican and if we become like the Publican there is no doubt that we will leave the temple justified in the eyes of the Lord our God.
I will end with a quote that I mentioned a few weeks ago from St. John of the Ladder who wrote “Let your prayer be completely simple. For both the publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single phrase.” + St. John Climacus, Step 28.5, Ladder of Divine Ascent