The Lord said this parable, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted. – The Gospel According to St. Luke 18: 10-14
Like most people, I have no appreciation for my own sinfulness. When all is said and done, I do not consider myself to be a sinner, not really. Sinners are anyone other than me. This has perhaps been my most difficult challenge in my spiritual journey, trying to learn how to comprehend that I am truly and irrevocably a sinful man. But, this lesson, I am coming to realize, is perhaps the most important of all others in growing into the likeness of Christ.
Yesterday was the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee in the Eastern Church. In the Orthodox Church it is not enough to have Lent and 40 days of fasting and prayer. We have to have a three-week preparation for Lent. So, the first three weeks before the start of Lent (which starts later than Lent in the Western Church) are three weeks of preparation for Lent. On the first of these Sundays we contemplate the Publican and the Pharisee. Perhaps nothing illustrates the importance of our awareness of our own sinfulness more than this story.
The Pharisee has no understanding that he is a sinner, while the depth of his sinfulness is the only thing the Publican is aware of. This is the key difference Christ tells us. Both men were Jews, both went up to the temple to pray, both performed the rites as set out in the law, but only one went away justified – the one who knew how sinful he was. The Pharisee prayed, but even though he showed the outward signs and kept to the forms of faith, in reality he did not repent. He did not repent because he did not know that he was a sinner. He could see the sins of others clearly, but not those of himself.
There is no forgiveness it seems where there is no repentance. We also see that the prerequisite to repentance is humility, and that we will never be humble unless we first learn how sinful we are. Easier said than done, I know. Of all the things we have to learn in life, this is perhaps the most difficult lesson of all.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me a sinner.