About Repentance and Humility, and Substituting Prayer for Proud, Condemnatory Thoughts


        Brothers and sisters!


        Great Lent is drawing near:  the time during which the Orthodox Church exhorts her children to exert themselves to the utmost of their ability in repentance, prayer, and fasting.  As our loving mother, the Holy Church well understands how difficult it is for us to change our spiritually lax ways, and that we must be prepared gradually to do so.  This is why Lent is preceded by several initiatory weeks, which began last Sunday with the Gospel lection about Zacchaeus – a story that has as its theme repentance and conversion.  This Sunday, she continues the preparation with another lection from the Gospel, this one about the Publican and the Pharisee, which has as its subject repentance and humility.  Today she also introduces the use of the beloved liturgical book known as the Triodion, which includes all the special texts for the pre-Lenten and Lenten periods, and for Passion Week as well.  Those who were present at the Vigil last night heard the hymns and canon about the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, and this morning we heard the Gospel.  The holy hymnographers of the Orthodox Church, who were saints whose minds and hearts were brightly illumined by the Spirit of God, provide the best explanation of the story in their compositions; but especially for the sake of those who could not be present last night, today I will add a few words of my own to theirs.

        In the parable, Christ says that two men went up to the temple to pray.  One was a Pharisee; that is, a member of what Saint Paul calls the strictest sect of the Jewish religion.[1]  The other was a publican, a hated tax collector employed by the Romans.  The publicans were detested by all of Jewish society, because they enriched themselves by extortionate fleecing of the defenseless common folk.  Although both men went up to pray, their spiritual dispositions were each the opposite of the other.  The first thanked God that he was more righteous than other men and altogether superior to them; the second begged forgiveness for his sins.  The Pharisee shamelessly pushed his way to the front of the building, so that everyone could see him.  If he had simply thanked the Lord for His blessings, he would have done well, but instead he congratulated himself on how much better he was than others and praised himself for his excellence.  God, he said, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.  I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.

        How did the Pharisee dare say such things, knowing the words of the truly righteous Job:  Who shall be pure from uncleanness?  Not even one, even if his life should be but a single day upon the earth![2]  Rather than wasting his time studying Pharisaic nonsense, the man would have done well to hearken unto Christ, Who explains, When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants:  we have done that which was our duty to do.[3] 

        The Pharisee was so caught up with praising himself that he did not notice how grievously he was sinning by condemning his brother.  Is this not very much the case with us too, dear Christians?  Well is it said that we carry two loads:  one before us, consisting of our brother’s sins, which we see all the time; the other slung behind our back, consisting of our own, which we rarely glance.

        As for the publican, he remained in a corner at the back of the temple, not daring to lift up his eyes, but gazing into the interior temple of his heart.  Humbled by the sight of the multitude of his sins, he smote his breast, saying, God, be merciful to me, a sinner.  On account of this, Christ concludes the parable with these words:  This man went down to his house justified, rather than the other:  for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

        Brothers and sisters, if we examine our thoughts objectively, then we know very well how much we resemble the Pharisee, in that a good deal of what passes through our mind consists either of self-exaltation or condemnation of others.  But in truth, the Lord has charged us with assessing others only in certain very particular circumstances, such as those in which a preacher, a spiritual father, a parent, or a supervisor finds himself, or perhaps when someone else is inflicting absolutely terrible harm.  Yet even here, we must exercise the utmost caution, making certain that we first cast out the beam out of our own eye, and only then cast out the splinter out of our brother’s eye.[4]  It is one thing to condemn sin as such (which one should and must do, especially when it is in oneself), but quite another to condemn particular individuals.  Condemning others is especially pernicious when combined with a feeling of self-satisfaction on our part.  Its usual outcome is that we add to our own sins, rather than protect others or help the sinner to stop sinning.

        So then, what to do?  For we have wasted the days of our life in vanity of vanities,[5] tearing down our own house rather than building up another’s.  What else but than to turn to the Lord and cry out as did the publican, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” or, as we say in the New Testament Church, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  If we learn to pray thus, repeating this entreaty whenever we notice that we are exalting ourselves and condemning others; humbly substituting the prayer for the soul-destroying thought; and casting ourselves in repentance upon God’s compassion, then grace will hurry to our assistance.  Little by little, things will turn to the better, even without our noticing it at first.  Best of all, our inner state will gradually become oriented toward repentance and humbleness most of the time, rather than rarely or not at all. 

        With the Lord’s assistance, may this effort be our foremost task during the approaching weeks of Holy Lent, and may we make a new beginning of it now, dear Christians, during these days of preparation for the great season of repentance.  Amen.


[1] Acts 26:5

[2] 2 Job 13:4

[3] Luke 17:10

[4] Matt. 7:5

[5] Eccl. 1:2; 12:8