Today, the first Sunday of the Lenten Triodion, is dedicated to our Lord’s parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. This story is, among other things, a lesson on prayer. And Jesus’ point here is something contrary to most modern spiritual or religious advice: that there is a right way and a wrong way to pray. These are challenging words, but if our families and our church communities are to benefit at all from the holy season of Lent, we have to allow ourselves to be challenged by the Word of God!
Today we come to the temple, and we meet a Publican—a tax collector—who knows he has been a terrible person; he knows he has wasted his life doing terrible things to people. For some reason he feels the need to come talk to God, but he can barely do it at all. He cannot even raise up his eyes. He cries out to God: “Have mercy on me, a sinner!”
Meanwhile the Pharisee, the religious scholar and teacher, comes to the temple and brags to God about all the great things he has done.
One of these prayers ends up being pleasing to God’s ears; the other one, not so much. One of these men goes back home “justified” (righteous in God’s eyes), and the other one does not. So we have to ask ourselves: Is my prayer pleasing to God? How can I learn to pray the way God wants me to pray? Today Jesus invites us to accept this sinful tax collector as our teacher in the school of prayer.
St. John of Kronstadt says:
In this parable, the Lord instructs us with what disposition of soul we ought to pray in church, or anywhere else for that matter. We listen to how each of them prayed, which one of them pleased God through his prayer, which one didn’t, in order that we may also learn how to always pray in a God-pleasing way.
How was the Publican’s prayer pleasing to God? It was so because he was humble and had a contrite heart during prayer. …And why was the prayer of the Pharisee not pleasing to God? … “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes. And prudent in their own sight” (Is 5:21). …The Pharisee, in his blind self-conceit and pride, has forgotten who he is and whom he addresses. The sinner imagined himself to be righteous; the sinner forgot he speaks with the all-seeing and all-just God.
Two points come to mind.
First of all, the Orthodox spiritual tradition almost always encourages us to be skeptical of ourselves. Christian faith is not about self-esteem, it’s not about finding yourself or believing in yourself. It’s about trusting in God, and doubting yourself. If you think God is talking to you—you really want to make sure it’s God and not something evil. If I think I am a wonderful person, pleasing to God in every way—well, that’s not something I should presume about myself. The words of Jesus and the Apostles, the words of the Holy Fathers and Mothers of the Church, are full of this kind of advice. This is a hard word for most of us modern folks, but the point is not that we are to be down on ourselves and depressed all the time. The point is that in order to find ourselves, we must lose ourselves and be found in Jesus. Following Jesus and His commands is all that matters in this world and in the next; He will take care of the rest and allow us to find true joy in His loving embrace.
Second, true prayer is not possible if we insist on putting others down. When I pray, do I harbor disdain for “sinners” and “undesirables?” Do I secretly thank God that I am not like “those people”—immigrants, Trump supporters, homosexuals, conservatives, liberals…(fill in the blank)?
St. John of Kronstadt again sums up the right attitude:
There is no doubt that each one of us has incomparably more sins than good deeds…. Regarding my good deeds, if I have any, I will be silent, or altogether forget about them before the face of the Lord, in order not to imagine myself a righteous person, deserving of a reward from Him because of my virtues.
Christ our Lord, who can see all of our hearts and every single thought that ever crosses our minds, and every word that passes through our lips, advises us: When you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, “We are unprofitable servants. We have done only what was our duty to do” (Lk 17:10).
Father Andrew Kishler is the pastor of St. George Orthodox Church, Spring Valley IL, in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.