Sermon for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee (2016)

Sermon for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee (2016) - Holy Cross Monastery

Understanding, O my soul, the difference between the Publican and the Pharisee,

hate the proud words of the one, and eagerly imitate the contrite prayer of the other,

crying aloud: God be merciful to me a sinner and have mercy on me

(Saturday Vespers, Tone Three at the Litia).

Today we enter into the period of the Lenten Triodion, which includes the three weeks before Lent begins and continues up to Holy and Great Saturday. The purpose of everything that takes place during this period is to “recollect the entire work of God’s benevolence towards us.”[1] These first three weeks instruct us and prepare us spiritually for the time of the Fast. On each of the Sundays before Lent begins, we are taught about a certain aspect of the spiritual life. Today we learn about humility and repentance. Starting today, until the fifth week of Lent after the hymn, “Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ…”, penitential troparia are sung to instruct us about humility which is the beginning of the Christian life and also, the beginning of Lent.[2] Repentance is the doorway to the Fast and humility is the foundation on which repentance is built. As Abba Dorotheos teaches us, we need humility more than anything else; no other virtue can be achieved without humility.[3] This is demonstrated through the services as we prepare ourselves for the Fast by looking to the Publican as an example of how we are to advance.

In today’s Gospel (Luke 18:10-14), we are shown a contrast between a proud Pharisee and a humble Publican. Both offer prayers to God, but only the Publican’s prayer is accepted.  At the end of the parable, we are told that the Publican is justified because of his humility, and the Pharisee is condemned because of his pride.[4] How is this shown?

The Pharisee says, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.” One could ask, “Should we not be thankful that we have not fallen into any of these sins?” Of course, but not by our strength is this done, which the Pharisee does not acknowledge. He goes even further by comparing himself to other people such as the Publican, thanking God that he is not like them, as though he has avoided these sins by his strength. His pride becomes still more apparent when he praises his virtues of tithing and fasting.

St. John Climacus writes, “This passion [of pride] often draws strength initially from the giving of thanks, and at first, it does not shamelessly urge us to renounce God. I have seen people who speak aloud their thanks to God but who in their hearts are glorifying themselves, something demonstrated by that Pharisee with his ‘O God, I thank You’.”[5]

St. Gregory Palamas sees in this passage that the Pharisee sets himself apart from all other men thinking that, “God saw fit to grant virtue to him alone.”[6] Moreover, in the Pharisee comparing himself to others, St. Cyril of Alexandria notes that even if he were better than many a bad man this does “not necessarily… prove him to be worthy of admiration.”[7] Instead, as St. John Chrysostom says, “Even if we should have mounted the very pinnacle of virtue, let us consider ourselves last of all… because… even if he was removed from [the] greed of gain and robbery he had rooted over his soul the mother of all evils – vain-glory and pride.”[8]

The Publican, in contrast, prays with these words, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” “Without any other intention or thought, he paid attention only to himself and God, turning over and repeating the supplication of a single thought, the most effective of all prayers.”[9]

The Publican reveals his humility not only by his words but also in that he was “standing afar off,” “would not lift up his eyes,” and “smote his breast.”

By his posture, presence and speech, the Publican shows us humility but what is this and how do we attain it?

In the Gerontikon, we read: “Humility has often saved many, even without effort; this is demonstrated by the Publican and the Prodigal Son, who said only a few words and were saved.”[10] St. John of the Ladder says, “Those who possess [humility] have won the whole battle.”[11]

Abba Dorotheos writes regarding humility that “what its nature is and how the soul obtains it, as I often said, none found or could understand, but only the soul which became worthy to learn about it by actions.”[12] What actions? Hard bodily labour accomplished with the full knowledge of what is being done, considering oneself under all and ceaseless prayer.[13] Hard bodily labour because since the Fall our bodies tend toward pleasures and the love of bodily comforts instead of the enjoyment of spiritual pleasures.[14] Considering oneself under all because one will not think himself greater than his brother, thus overcoming pride.[15] Finally, ceaseless prayer to God, ascribing every achievement to God and always thanking Him, calling upon His help, trembling that he might lose His help.[16]

Concluding on the humility of the Publican, let us pay attention to what St. John Cassian writes in regards to that perfection towards which we strive:

For however much effort may have been spent in fasting, keeping vigil, reading, solitude, and withdrawal for the sake of laying hold of the prizes of purity and integrity, which are so magnificent and so lofty, this diligence and toil cannot of itself be sufficient to obtain them. For never will a person’s own effort and human diligence be equal to the divine gift, if it has not been granted by the divine compassion to the one who desires it.

I do not say this in order to nullify human effort or in an attempt to turn anyone away from diligence and intense toil. Rather I declare clearly and most firmly – not by my own say-so but by that of the elders – that without these things perfection cannot be grasped at all, yet that no one can attain these things alone and without God’s grace.[17]

Therefore, St. John concludes this for us by writing:

And so it is apparent that a person cannot attain the end of perfection and purity except by true humility… in the belief that, unless [God] offers him [H]is protection and help at every moment, he cannot ever reach the perfection that he desires and after which he is running with all his might.[18]

Elder Ambrose of Optina was a “strict ascetic and precise keeper of the rules of the Church.”[19] He was known to have quoted St. John Climacus as saying: “David did not say, ‘I have fasted,’ ‘I have kept vigil,’ or ‘I have lain on the bare earth,’ but ‘I humbled myself, and straightway the Lord saved me.’”[20]

This is the reason we do not fast this week so that we would lay the groundwork of humility before all of the bodily and spiritual labours which will follow during Lent. May God help us to make a good beginning.




[1] Kidd, Fr. David and Ursache, Mother Gabriella (eds.). Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion. (HDM Press: Rives Junction, 2005), 12.

[2] Sokolof, Archpriest D. A Manual of the Orthodox Church’s Divine Services. (Holy Trinity Monsatery: Jordanville, 2001), 98.

Penitential Troparia: i) “The doors of repentance do Thou open to me, O giver of life, for my spirit waketh at dawn toward Thy holy temple, bearing a temple of the body all defiled. But in Thy compassion, cleanse it by the loving-kindness of Thy mercy;” ii) “Guide me in the paths of salvation, O Theotokos, for I have defiled my soul with shameful sins, and have wasted all my life in slothfulness, but by thine intercessions delver me fom all uncleanness;” and iii) “When I think of the multitude of evil things I have done, I, a wretched one tremble at the fearful day of judgment; but trusting in the mercy of Thy loving-kindness, like David do I cry unto Thee: Have mery on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy.”

[3] Scouteris, Constantine (trans.). Abba Dorotheos: Practical Teaching on the Christian Life. (Athens, 2000), 89.

[4] Chamberas, Fr. Peter (tans.). Elder Paisios of Mount Athos, Spirtual Counsels Vol. III: Spiriual Struggle (Holy Monastery of “John the Theologian”: Souroti, 2010), 13.

[5] Luibheid, Colm and Russell, Norman (trans.). John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent.(Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1982), 207.

[6] Veniamin, Christopher. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies. (Mount Thabor Publishing: Dalton, 2014), 10.

[7] Homilies on the Gospel of Luke, Semon 120 from accessed on 2/10/2016.

[8] on 2/10/2016.

[9] Saint Gregory Palamas; The Homilies, 11.

[10] Archbishop Chrysstomos and Hieromonk Patapios (trans.) The Evergetinos: A Complete Text.(Etna: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2008) 1:385.

[11] Luibheid, Colm and Russell, Norman (trans.). John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent.(Paulist Press: Mahwah, 1982), 236.

[12] Abba Dorotheos, 96.

[13] The Evergetinos, 1:398.

[14] Abba Dorotheos, 97. See also, Camberas, Peter A. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain. (Paulist Press: Mahwah, 1989), 228-233.

[15] Abba Dorotheos, 96.

[16] Abba Dorotheos, 97.

[17] Ramsey, Boniface (trans.). John Cassian: The Institutes. (The Newman Press: Mahwah, 2000), 261.

[18] Ibid., 267.

[19] Chetverikov, Fr. Sergius. Elder Ambrose of Optina. (St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood: Platina, 1997), 167.

[20] Ibid., 167-168.

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