Byzantine Liturgy at Notre Dame
Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee
As a grandson of an immigrant from Greece, my Greek Orthodox grandfather Kiriakos Phidakis, I have a special appreciation and love for the Byzantine liturgy. I also appreciate the Byzantine Catholic liturgical calendar and seasons. I think it’s great that every year you celebrate this Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, the first Sunday of the Triodion, the three-week period in the Byzantine tradition to prepare for the season of the Great Fast, the Forty Days of the Great Lent. The Gospel parable of the publican and the Pharisee is a great reflection at this time since it teaches us the very heart of authentic prayer: humility. We can make all kinds of prayer resolutions for Lent, but if we lack the humility and honesty of the publican, our prayers will be fruitless.
Saint Paul wrote to Timothy, as we heard in the first reading today, encouraging him to remain faithful to what he had learned and received from the Scriptures since his infancy. He described the Scriptures as “capable of giving us wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Certainly, the parable of the publican and the tax collector gives us this wisdom.
What was the problem with the prayer of the Pharisee? After all, he did good things. He fasted and tithed. That took real effort. He observed many precepts of the Lord. But all that is exterior. Where was his heart? It was proud, I’d say even arrogant. When he prayed, he didn’t thank God; he praised himself. And he had this sense of superiority over “other men” whom he describes as “extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even, for example, referring to the other one there in the temple, “like this tax collector.” He had contempt for others. He held himself to be just, but in fact he wasn’t: he neglected the most important commandment: love of God and of neighbor. When he spoke to God, he was really praying to himself. Also, notice that he was standing in the temple; he didn’t feel the need to prostrate himself before the majesty of God. He felt secure and proud, like he was the master of the temple. He prayed with arrogance and hypocrisy so his prayer wasn’t fruitful. In fact, it wasn’t authentic prayer. His heart had lost its way. Reflecting on this Pharisee, Pope Francis said something that’s good for us to reflect on regarding our own prayer and the upcoming season of Lent “in life, whoever believes himself to be just and criticizes others and despises them, is corrupt and a hypocrite. Pride compromises every good deed, empties prayer, and creates distance from God and from others.” The Holy Father says the prayer of the proud does not reach God’s heart, but the humility of the poor opens it wide.” So let’s now consider the prayer of the humble publican or tax collector.
The publican was no saint. In fact, he was pretty bad. He was collecting taxes for a foreign empire and became rich by cheating people. He stole from his own people. That’s why the Jewish people considered publicans to be traitors, unclean, and sinful. They really did terrible things. So imagine the people who heard this parable of Jesus in which the good guy was the publican and the Pharisee was the bad guy.
What makes the publican the good guy and a model of prayer for us? He wasn’t egotistical like the Pharisee. His great virtue, maybe his only virtue, was humility. He prayed with a humble and contrite heart, a heart that the psalmist says, “God will not spurn.” The publican had a lot to be humble about. He committed serious sins. But he was sorry and repentant. With true humility, he prostrated himself before God and prayed from his heart not a lot of words like the Pharisee, but a few words full of depth and truth: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” God heard and approved this prayer of the publican because it came from a humble and contrite heart. The publican was probably the very kind of person the Pharisee believed him to be: greedy and dishonest and maybe other vices. But the publican admitted his guilt and begged God for mercy.
Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that “the sinner is justified by God moving him to righteousness.” This happens when a person is humble and opens his or her heart to this grace. Saint Basil the Great gives us this advice, in the light of this parable: “Never place yourself above anyone, not even great sinners. Humility often saves a sinner who has committed many terrible transgressions.” Now God is the God of all, including of the Pharisee, but He is the Savior of the humble and contrite. The publican left the temple justified; the Pharisee did not.
As we prepare for the Great Lent, let us think about our lives and our prayer life in light of the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. If we see some of the Pharisee in ourselves, let us ask God to help us to get rid of it, to conquer our pride. Fundamentally, it means recognizing in truth that we need God and we need His mercy because we are sinners. It is good to pray often in the words of the publican: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
May the humble Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Mother of Mercy, help us to pray always with humble hearts!