Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
THIS WEEKEND OUR CHURCH opens the pages of the Triodion, the book containing the texts for all the services leading up to Pascha. This Lenten journey may be viewed on two levels, chronologically and spiritually. Both are important as we look ahead to our celebration of Pascha.

Chronologically, the period of the Triodion consists in three distinct sections: the pre-Lenten period, the Great Fast itself, and the Great and Holy Week. The first, the pre-Lenten period, progressively leads us to the coming Great Fast. It begins with two Sundays which introduce us to thoughts of repentance. Next we have a weekend of observances reminding us of our mortality: the Saturday of the Dead and the Sunday of the final Judgment. Finally, in Meat-fare Week, we are eased into the Fast by beginning to abstain from meat. The last pre-Lenten observance takes place on Cheese-Fare Sunday with the ceremony of forgiveness, in which we ritually ask the entire community to forgive us our offences so that we may begin the Great Fast with pure hearts.

The Publican and the Pharisee

On this first Sunday of the Triodion’s pre-Lenten period we are presented with the Lord’s parable of the Publican or tax collector and the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. As we begin our Lenten journey, we are reminded how the prayer of the Pharisee did not reach God while the Publican’s prayer was heard. The Pharisee’s devotions were “correct,” but, the Lord teaches, it is not enough to say the right words when the heart is not correct as well.

The basic attitude of the heart for which the Pharisee is faulted is pride: “I fast twice a week,” he boasts; “I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:12)… and that makes me better than that tax collector. The Pharisee is right in one sense: it is good to fast and to give tithes, but his good deeds are made void through his pride.

Reflecting on this parable in its hymnody, our Church describes the Pharisee’s prayer as “ungrateful.” He says, “I thank you, God,” but thankfulness to God is not revealed in his underlying attitude. His inner spirit is not focused on God’s gifts, but on his own perceived accomplishments. He does the right thing, but for the wrong reason.

A consequence of the Pharisee’s self-centered parody of religion is the judgmental way he regards his fellow man: “I am not like other men” (v.11): my devotions make me superior, more worthy in the sight of God. Christ takes the opposite view: “I tell you, this man [the publican] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v.14)..

Keeping a Proper Perspective

The Scriptures often return to the place of formal religious practices in our spiritual life. Some people – we might call them iconoclasts – reject such practices outright as hypocrisy. The Lord is not one of them. He affirms the value of devotional practices, when kept in a suitable way. He condemns the Pharisees for their attitudes, not their actions. He tells His followers, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works, … all their works they do to be seen by men” (Matthew 23:2, 5).

Our fasting should not be a matter of public display. “Moreover, when you fast,” the Lord says, “do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:16, 17).

In Matthew 23, Christ specifies the place of devotional practices in a mature spiritual life. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Matthew 23:23). Devotional practices are commendable, but not as a replacement for mutual love.

During the coming Fast we may become so concerned with its devotional aspects, such as attending special services or avoiding meat and dairy products, that we become irritable with others and make void our striving to keep the Fast. The mature approach is that outlined by Christ in the verse above: observe the devotional practices, but do not ignore or abuse others in the process. As the Greek saying put it, it is better to eat the fish than to eat the fisherman!

Isn’t Fasting Obsolete?

In the first century ad, some Christians coming from a Jewish background were concerned with keeping the ritual precepts of the Old Testament in addition to accepting Jesus as the Messiah. In the traditional Jewish view, it was keeping the precepts of the Law which makes a person righteous before God. St Paul repeatedly insisted that this was no longer the case. It is putting our faith in Christ, not the devotions we observe, which justifies us. The Law of Moses, the Apostle taught, was “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:17).

For us, observing the precepts of the Fast are meant to lead us to Christ, not substitute for a relationship with Him. We cannot earn ourselves a place in heaven by fasting, or by any other practice we might undertake. We can fast and pray, however, to express our gratitude for the gifts of God who has united us to Himself in Christ. We fast, not to improve our standing with God, but to respond with gratitude to what He has done for us.

The Canon from the Triodion

Every good deed can be made void through foolish pride, while every sin can be cleansed by humility. Let us then embrace humility in faith and completely turn away from the path of pride.

From Ode 1

God the Word humbled Himself and took the form of a servant, showing that humility is the best means to exaltation. All those who follow the Lord’s example, humbling themselves, will be exalted on high.

To lead us to exaltation with God, the Savior and Master revealed in His deeds the humility which can lift us up on high. With His own hands, He washed the feet of His Apostles.

From Ode 4

Let us hasten to follow the example of the Pharisee in his virtues and to imitate the Publican in his humility. Let us flee what is wrong in each of them: foolish pride and the defilement of transgressions.

From Ode 5

O faithful, let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee! Let us never claim, ‘We are pure,’ as he did. Let us rightly follow the Publican in his humility and gain the mercy of our God.

From Ode 8

Like the Publican, let us pray to the Lord, entreating His mercy and flee from the Pharisee’s ungrateful prayer and the proud words with which he judged his neighbor, that we may gain God’s forgiveness and light.
 
ONE OF THE PRINCIPAL CITIES in Asia Minor, Ephesus was an important commercial hub in the ancient world. A Jewish colony had prospered there long before St Paul preached there in the first century ad. The community he established was significant enough for him to leave his dearest spiritual son, Timothy, at its head. The two epistles which St Paul wrote to Timothy give us a glimpse into the life of this important early Church.

Expect Persecution Reminding Timothy that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (v. 12), St Paul alludes to the persecutions he endured “at Antioch, Iconium and Lystra” (2 Timothy 3:11) in his missionary journey of ad 47-49. The Roman persecution of Christians had not yet begun; Paul’s trouble came from those Jews who did not accept his teaching: “The Jews stirred up the devout and prominent women and the chief men of the city, raised up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region” (Acts 13:50). The same thing happened at Iconium, so the apostles fled to Lystra. Acts 19 tells of Paul’s own experience in Ephesus where persecution came from another source. Ephesus was the center of an important cult to the Roman goddess Diana. There a certain silversmith, Demetrius, incited people to riot, saying that “not only at Ephesus, but throughout almost all Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are not gods which are made with hands. So not only is this trade of ours in danger of falling into disrepute, but also the temple of the great goddess Diana may be despised and her magnificence destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worship” (Acts 19:26-27). Thus it was the devotees of the pagan gods who were the main opponents of St Paul and his teaching in Ephesus. The very fabric of Ephesian society was bound up with the Roman deities, especially “Diana of the Ephesians,” whose cult attracted numerous worshippers from the entire region.

Expect False Teachers

Church life in the first century was much more fluid than in later years. The great councils and primatial synods were not yet envisioned so there was no doctrinal authority beyond that of the local bishop. Self-proclaimed teachers often mingled aspects of the Christian Gospel with Gnostic or even pagan ideas. St Paul warned Timothy that these “evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13). Many historians think that St Paul’s prediction was fulfilled. Some teachers began promoting pagan practices such as ritual prostitution and use of intoxicants in worship. They felt such behavior was justified because faith in Christ had replaced the Law as the means of salvation. And so, they reasoned, all prohibitions of the Law were no longer binding. The problem continued throughout the century. The Book of Revelation begins with letters written by John to the seven Churches of Asia. In the letter to Ephesus, he wrote: “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars” (Revelations 2:2). John goes on to commend the Ephesians for combating the Nicolaitans, who some think tolerated adultery and ate foods sacrificed to idols.

The Remedy: Follow the Tradition

St Paul’s solution to the problem of the false teachers is what we would call the appeal to Apostolic Tradition. He tells Timothy to “… continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them” (v. 14). What Timothy would have learned came from the oral teaching of St Paul, his letters, and the apostles’ interpreting of the Old Testament, as not even the Gospels had been written at this time. Paul saw himself as passing on what he had received from others. The Greek terms for passing on and receiving are forms of the word paradosis, which we translate as Tradition. The Church considers that the Holy Spirit dwells actively in the Church, according to Christ’s promise, and that the outward forms of Holy Tradition – both the content of Tradition and the process of passing it on – are the work of the Holy Spirit living within it. While St Paul does not use the term Holy Tradition, we see from his writings that he considered his doctrine as both received and passed on (i.e. an element of Tradition): “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures …” (1 Corinthians 15:3). He also saw the Church’s practice as elements of Tradition, both received and passed on: “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread… (1 Corinthians 11:23). Thus, in telling Timothy to focus on what he has learned from the Old Testament and the apostolic preaching, Paul was instructing him to remain faithful to the elements of God-given Holy Apostolic Tradition which he had come to know. In the centuries that followed the Church came to see that Scripture and liturgy are not the only elements of Holy Tradition. The fruit of the Spirit’s presence in the Church also includes writings of the Church Fathers, the Creeds and teachings of the Councils, the holy icons and the witness of the saints. Reverence for Holy Tradition is perhaps the most basic characteristic of the Eastern Churches.

On the Apostolic Tradition

“Of the dogmas and sermons preserved in the Church, certain ones we have from written instruction, and certain ones we have received from the Apostolic Tradition, handed down in secret. Both the one and the other have one and the same authority for piety, and no one who is even the least informed in the decrees of the Church will contradict this. For if we dare to overthrow the unwritten customs as if they did not have great importance, we shall thereby imperceptibly do harm to the Gospel in its most important points. And even more, we shall be left with the empty name of the Apostolic preaching without content. For example, let us especially make note of the first and commonest thing, that those who hope in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ should sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross. Who taught this in Scripture? Which Scripture instructed us that we should turn to the east in prayer? Which of the saints left us in written form the words of invocation during the transformation of the bread of the Eucharist and the Chalice of blessing? For we are not satisfied with the words which are mentioned in the Epistles or the Gospels, but both before them and after them we pronounce others also as having great authority for the Mystery, having received them from the unwritten teaching. By what Scripture, likewise, do we bless the water of Baptism and the oil of anointing and, indeed, the one being baptized himself. Is this not the silent and secret tradition? And what more? What written word has taught us this anointing with oil itself? Where is the triple immersion and all the rest that has to do with Baptism, the renunciation of Satan and his angels to be found? What Scripture are these taken from? Is it not from this unpublished and unspoken teaching which our Fathers have preserved in a silence inaccessible to curiosity and scrutiny, because they were thoroughly instructed to preserve in silence the sanctity of the Mysteries? For what propriety would there be to proclaim in writing a teaching concerning that which it is not allowed for the unbaptized even to behold?” (St Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, ch. 27).
 
THE GREATEST JOY OF EVERY PRIEST or other mentor may be seeing a pupil follow in his footsteps. St Paul was no exception. He traveled with several disciples at one time or another: Barnabas, John Mark, Silas (all of whom we honor as saints). His favorite, the one he called his “true son in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2), was Timothy. According to Acts 16:1-9, Timothy was a believer, the son of a pagan father and a Jewish mother in the Anatolian town of Lystra. St Paul had first visited Lystra with Barnabas in c. ad 48 and preached the Gospel in the surrounding area. Possibly Timothy’s mother, Eunice, and his grandmother, Lois, became believers at that time (cf., 2 Timothy 1:5). When Paul returned to Lystra three years later he proposed taking Timothy along on his travels. Although Eunice was Jewish, her husband was not and Timothy had not been circumcised. Paul arranged for that to be done (cf., Acts 16:1-5) and the two set off together. For several years Timothy accompanied Paul on his travels in Europe and Asia Minor. Timothy worked with Paul as he evangelized Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonika, Corinth and Macedonia, sometimes visiting churches on his own as Paul’s emissary. In witness to their relationship, Timothy is listed along with Paul as the author of several New Testament epistles: 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon. “He served with me in the gospel,” Paul would write, “as a son with his father” (Philippians 2:22).

Timothy in Ephesus

In the early 60s Paul sent Timothy to Ephesus to personally oversee that community where doctrinal speculation was rife. St Paul’s two Epistles to Timothy offered his former companion guidance in shepherding the Ephesian Christians. According to the fourth-fifth century Acts of Timothy, this disciple remained in Ephesus even after Paul’s death. Timothy himself was slain by a mob during a pagan festival in AD 97. Based on his own experience Paul warned Timothy that, “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). Paul himself was one of the first to persecute Christians when he was an observant Jew. This persecution began as soon as the apostles started proclaiming Jesus as the risen Messiah. The Romans, who cared nothing about Jewish messiahs, feared the Christians, who preferred the Kingdom of God to the Roman Empire. They refused to honor the Roman gods – considered a civil duty – or to venerate the emperor as a god himself. They appeared to be a divisive force and they continued to grow. All the apostles except for John died at the hands of either Jews or Romans intent on eradicating this new sect. Paul himself would suffer death for his faith, beheaded in Rome in c. AD 68. Sometimes Christians suffered in sporadic attacks of random mobs. In the second and third centuries it was the state itself which was responsible for many deaths. It is thought that, before the Roman persecutions ended in the early fourth century, upwards of 100,000 believers had lost their lives or been deprived of their possessions. In the face of persecution St Paul proposes what may at first seem an inadequate, if not strange, response: a two-pronged fidelity to the teachings that Timothy has learned and from whom he learned them. The Word of God and the living witness of the believers who mentored them, Paul affirms, should be the most compelling supports for committed Christians under threat of persecution.

What Scriptures Does Paul Recommend?

“…from childhood,” St Paul reminds Timothy, “you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15-17). Just which Scriptures could Timothy have known from his childhood? When St Paul first met Timothy’s family in c. AD 48, and for decades afterwards, not all of the New Testament books had yet been written. In the next 50 years the Gospels and most of the epistles were being circulated but it took some time for all the local Churches to become aware of them or to accept them as inspired. For most of this time – and certainly while Paul was writing to Timothy – when Christians spoke of “the Scriptures,” they meant the Old Testament. St. Paul is encouraging Christians under persecution to resort to Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. As St Clement of Alexandria wrote in his Exhortation to the Heathens, “These books are truly holy as they sanctify and deify.” In this Paul echoes the witness of Abraham in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). When asked to send an emissary from paradise to the rich man’s brothers, Abraham replies, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (v. 29). When the rich man protests, Abraham answers, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead” (v. 31). Spectacular wonders amaze us but don’t necessarily lead us to faith; the Scriptures speak to truly believing hearts and strengthen the gift of faith within them. This is why St John Chrysostom would comment, “One single word from the divine Scriptures is more effective than fire! It softens the cruelty of the soul and prepares her for every good work” (Ninth Homily on 2 Timothy).

Witness of the Saints

Besides the Scriptures, St Paul commends to Timothy “the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them” (v.14). Timothy had worked with Paul for several years and knew his teaching, which, earlier in the chapter, he called “my gospel” (2 Timothy 2:8), the saving mystery of Christ which would later be put in writing in the four Gospels. He also knew how Paul lived out his faith in daily life and how he behaved under trials and persecution. The living witness of Timothy’s mentor would be a source of strength for him when he too suffered for his faith in Christ. Over the centuries until today, the encouragement of believing parents and spouses as well as teachers and fellow Christians would provide the support from which martyrs drew the strength to face the suffering they endured for Christ.
Called before time by God and becoming a disciple of holy Paul, you were an initiate in the divine mysteries. Outstanding in your life, keeping the Faith intact until death, you became a faithful hierarch of God, O holy apostle Timothy. After denouncing the worship of idols as foolishness, you were stoned and beaten, receiving the crown of martyrdom. O blessed one, intercede for us who celebrate your sacred memory with faith. Come, O people, let us sing to Timothy, the apostle distinguished as a herald of the Gospel. Let us say, “Hail, venerable offshoot of the Faith, who were like a son to holy Paul! Hail, venerable model of virtue, thrice-wise mouth of the divine Word! Hail, divine flute announcing God to the whole world! Hail, pillar of Faith, on which the Church finds support!”
Vespers Stichera, Feast of St. Timothy (Jan 22)
 
BEGINNING TODAY, the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, the Church calls on us to start preparing for the Great Fast. And how does it tell us to ready ourselves? – by telling us not to fast! Since the beginnings of the Church Christians have fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, remembering Judas’ betrayal and Christ’s passion. This coming week, however is one of the fast-free weeks of the Church year, when fasting is not prescribed. The other such weeks are part of a Great Feast – the Nativity, Pascha, and Pentecost. This is the only fast-free week not connected with a feast. What is the reason for not fasting this week?

Challenging Our Religious Complacency

The answer is found in the verse introducing the parable of the publican and the Pharisee read today: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable” (Luike 18.9). Religious people who are “confident of their own righteousness” are complacent, self-satisfied with their level of observance. That level may be minimal – attending church on Sundays or even the greatest observances – or it may be more. The fault is the same whatever the level of observance: the complacent person feels no need to change his or her outlook; and so he allows no place for God to act within him. The complacent person thinks that he has complied with all of the requirements of religion. What more can be asked of him? By setting aside the regular fasts this week the Church is telling the complacent person that what we do is not as important as the spirit in which we do it. Do you take pride in your fasting? Then don’t fast lest it leave you like the Pharisee. In addition, religious complacency invariably sets us against others. When we take pride in our level of religious observance our next thought is often “I come to church regularly, not like him…. They’re not here for every lenten service … She’s half my age – why does she have to sit down when everyone else is standing?” and the like. We may not make these comments aloud but we don’t have to. They have already sullied out heart. As St Cyril of Alexandria reminds us: “What profit is there in fasting twice in the week, if your so doing serves only as a pretext for ignorance and vanity, and makes you supercilious and haughty, and selfish?” (On the Gospel of Luke, Sermon 120) Religious complacency also sets us against God, as odd as that may seem. When we see our acts of religion as our passport to heaven we are telling God we have no need of Him. We are saving ourselves. Blessed Theophylact of Ochrid, in his Explanation of the Gospel of St Luke, says that there are many offshoots of self-love. “Presumption, arrogance, and vainglory all stem from this root. But the most destructive of all these kinds of self-love is pride, for pride is contempt of God. When a man ascribes his accomplishments to himself, and not to God, this is nothing less than denial of God and opposition to Him.” The error of the Pharisee is to confuse the means with the end. Acts of virtue or piety are meant to dispose our hearts towards communion with God, not turn us in on ourselves. As the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom wrote, “From the [Pharisee] learn his works, but by no means his pride; for the work by itself means nothing and does not save.” We may – and should – do good things as responses to God’s love for us. We should not think that fasting, churchgoing or Bible reading automatically bring us to communion with God, merely because they are outwardly observed. Even when we practice religious observances from the best of motives, we can find them emptied of virtue through pride. In the words of St Gregory Palamas, “The unseen patron of evil … can bring down the roof of good works after its construction, by means of pride and madness.”

Humility Transforms Us

The antidote to the boastfulness of the Pharisee is humility which is nothing less than a return to the genuine order of things, the restoration of a realistic view of ourselves and of God. Only He can transform us by granting us a share in His divine life. Of ourselves we can do nothing to earn God’s love or to share in His holiness. We can only respond to His eternal love for us by embarking on the path of repentance – that dying to self-love and egocentricity which leads us to life in the Kingdom. Humility – authentic self-understanding – doesn’t come easily at any time. It is deeply opposed to the values of the world. The late Father Alexander Schmemann saw how humility has no place in our secular culture. He wrote: “If there is a moral quality almost completely disregarded and even denied today, it is indeed humility. The culture in which we live constantly instills in us the sense of pride, self-glorification, and self-righteousness. It is built on the assumption that man can achieve anything by himself and it even pictures God as the one who all the time ‘gives credit’ for man's achievements and good deeds. Humility – be it individual or corporate, ethnic or national - is viewed as a sign of weakness, as something unbecoming a real man. …” Our culture also teaches us to feel superior when others fall. As a rule, the newspapers, TV and other media don’t tell us about the positive things people do – that doesn’t sell papers. A steady diet of looking at other people’s failings leads us to imitating the Pharisee’s “I’m not like that that.” A more helpful approach comes from the nineteenth century Russian Saint, John of Kronstadt. He writes: “When the foolish thought of counting up any of your good works enters into your head, immediately correct your fault and rather count up your sins, your continual and innumerable offences against the All-Merciful and Righteous Master, and you will find that their number is as the sand of the sea, whilst your virtues in comparison with them are as nothing.” In the vision of the Gospel, repentance and humility are more important and higher than all of the other virtues, continuing until the end of our life. Today’s kondakion sums up the Church’s prayer for all of us: “Let us shun the boastful words of the Pharisee and learn from the Publican humility with sighing; let us cry out to our Savior: ‘Have mercy on us, You who alone are merciful!’”
Troparia from the Canon

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. (From ode 1)

Vainglory disperses the treasures of righteousness, but humility scatters the multitude of passions. Then grant that we may seek humility, O Savior, and bestow on us the portion of the Publican. (From Ode 3)

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. (From Ode 4)

The Pharisee thought to drive swiftly in the chariot of the virtues; but on foot the Publican outran him, for he yoked humility with compassion. (From Ode 5)

Faithful, let us avoid the pride of the Pharisee: Let us not say We are pure! as he did; but rightly follow the Publican in his humble thoughts which gained for him God’s mercy. (From Ode 8)

 
WHEN EARLY CHRISTIAN WRITERS FIRST BEGAN to list the deadliest passions that can consume a person they invariably considered pride as the most serious. Gluttony, lust or greed focus on material pleasures which can be tempered by physical conditions such as age or health. Pride, however, that increasing fixation with the self, can be with us to the moment of our death. Pride, called the queen or head of the passions, can egg us on to justify ourselves even before the awesome judgment-seat of Christ. People rarely put their prideful feelings out there for all to see. We learn to keep those thoughts – “I’m better than you… I’m smarter than you…” – to ourselves. But we have them throughout our life and they can poison our relationships with others and even with God. Pride here does not mean self-respect or taking satisfaction in one’s legitimate accomplishments. It rather has the idea of arrogance or superiority toward others because of one’s abilities or accomplishments. “I’m cuter than you… I have more toys than you.” Pride uses the circumstances of our life to make us disdain others whom we perceive to be weaker, poorer, less educated than ourselves. While envy, wanting what others have, looks up to others more successful than we, pride is the opposite. We look down on those whom we perceive are less than we are. The Pharisee in the Lord’s parable (Lk 18:10-14) does put these feelings into words for us. “I do this, I do that, I’m not like him!” This is a particular temptation of religious people. They may be able to eat or drink in moderation. They may not be troubled by sexual enticements or the lure of possessions. But they are often quick to compare themselves with others whom they perceive as less perfect, if not as sinners.

Trusting in Our Own Righteousness

St Luke tells us that Jesus “spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others” (v.9) When we indulge feelings of self-importance and trust in ourselves how can we be trusting in God for our salvation? How can we commit ourselves to any authentic repentance? The Pharisee saw his actions as guaranteeing his righteousness before God. He did fast twice a week, probably every Monday and Thursday, as was the Jewish custom. He did tithe, giving away ten percent of his income. But he trusted that these actions guaranteed his righteousness before God. Weekly fasting and contributing out of our material resources are excellent practices, commended in both Jewish and Christian traditions. But it is God alone who makes people righteous through Christ. We do not justify ourselves through any acts of devotion we might adopt. As St Paul would clearly teach, righteousness “…is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph 2:8-9). Nevertheless, good works have their place, an important one in God’s plan for us. St Paul goes on, “We are His [i.e. God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). The Christian people are “a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17), made by God in Christ for a purpose. As a people justified by God’s grace, we exist to perform good works according to God’s plan. While it is God’s grace, not these works that make us holy, we fulfill our new nature by performing them.

Trusting that We Are Superior

The Pharisee is faulted on another score as well. He used his good deeds as clubs to beat down his neighbor. First of all, he judged that the publican did not do any of these things. And in that he may have been right but he also judged that he was better than the publican because of these works. The publican, on the other hand did not reproach the Pharisee for his judgmental words. As St John Chrysostom points out, “The publican did not say, ‘Who are you to tell me such things? From what source did you learn of my life? You did not live with me. We did not spend time together. Why are you so haughty? …Why do you praise yourself?’” (On Repentance and Almsgiving, 24) Rather he prayed humbly repenting over his own sins. In one sense the Pharisee was right; the publican was a sinner. Publicans lived by extorting payments for themselves over and above what the Roman governors demanded. But the publican here is shown repenting for his sinfulness while, “The Pharisee totally ruined the righteousness of his deeds” (v. 25) by claiming superiority over the publican. St Augustine in his Sermon 45 on the New Testament, dramatically recasts this scene in the form of a courtroom trial: “You have heard the case of the Pharisee and the publican; now hear the sentence. You have heard the proud accuser and you have heard the humble criminal; now hear the Judge. ‘Truly I say to you,’ says God the Truth, God the Judge, ‘The publican went down from the temple justified rather than the Pharisee... because everyone who exalts himself shall be abased and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.’” In icons the publican is often represented leaving the temple “justified,” with a halo around his head. We see this praise of humility returning again and again in the pages of St Luke’s Gospel. It forms a major part of Mary’s canticle, the Magnificat: “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly” (Lk 1:51-52). It appears in a warning from Christ on jockeying for the first places at dinners. “He told a parable to those who were invited, when He noted how they chose the best places, saying to them: ‘When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him; and he who invited you and him come and say to you, “Give place to this man,” and then you begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes he may say to you, “Friend, go up higher.” Then you will have glory in the presence of those who sit at the table with you. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 14:9-11). As pride is the queen of the passions, so humility is the queen of the virtues. The parable of the Pharisee and the publican is read as we begin our journey through the Triodion to Pascha as a reminder that, although we may fast more than twice a week during these days, we should not be congratulating ourselves on having earned something. Rather, like the publican we should be ask for God’s mercy since even in doing something good we have the tendency to pervert it as did the Pharisee.
Troparia from the Canon
~Every good deed can be made void through foolish pride, while every sin can be cleansed by humility. Let us then embrace humility in faith while we completely turn away from the paths of pride.

~The righteousness of the Pharisee proved useless and was condemned because it was joined to pride. The Publican gained humility, the mother of the virtues which lifts us up on high.

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