Many wonderful homilies have been delivered on Christ’s parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. Truly, this short teaching is a fruitful source of much wisdom. It is a study in contrasts: the Pharisee is outwardly righteous but inwardly unwell. The Publican, having no virtues to display, stands “afar off” and pleads for mercy. Our Savior declares the Publican justified rather than the other. There is something about what was going on inside the Publican that was right, and the parable invites us to explore and discover what it is.
This Sunday Gospel lesson is placed at the beginning of the Triodion period for a reason. Our Mother, the Church, desires that we, her children, receive great spiritual benefit from these upcoming days of Lent. We must be prepared and approach the forty days with the right inner disposition. I believe that the attitude we must assume is that of being a debtor.
Being a spiritual debtor begins with an awareness of our own sinfulness. It is a deep-seated realization of the enormity of sin that weighs upon us. It includes a vision of how that sinfulness has adversely affected our own lives and those around us. A debtor is unable to compare himself with others because he is so conscious of his extreme need for God’s mercy. Thus, he has no opportunity for fault-finding. A debtor relates to God with a correct disposition. He does not consider his salvation guaranteed. He is aware that without real repentance, he is in danger of being eternally lost. He is willing to do whatever it takes to allow God to heal him of his extreme spiritual sickness.
The hymnography of the feast directs us to follow the Pharisee in his virtues and to emulate the Publican in his humility. To those hearing the parable, Our Saviors uses emphatic words: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” The Publican’s attitude and disposition won the mercy of God. As he stood afar off, unable to lift his eyes to heaven, the Publican displayed a healthy shame for what he had done. Yet, he did not despair. He still regarded God as capable of hearing him. He had enough hope to at least ask for His mercy. In the brief description of the Publican, we are given a picture of what humility looks like. Thus, with a consciousness of our own sinfulness, an awareness that we are debtors, yet with a sure hope in God’s mercy, let us begin these blessed forty days of repentance.