The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke 18:10-14
Once again, as an old friend or perhaps an enemy, we encounter the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. This reading comes to us each and every year as a harbinger, a warning that Lent is around the corner.
The Church is a wise mother and wise mothers are always teaching their children. During the next few weeks we will get a primer on what our faith is all about. We will get a reminder of what it takes to make progress in our spiritual lives. We will be encouraged to focus on these pre-lenten lessons as a way to build a proper foundation for the holy and worthwhile Lenten struggle. In all of this we are being directed to direct our lives back to God and His beloved Son Jesus Christ who alone can save our souls.
The period of preparation for Great and Holy Lent has an important purpose. It is to make sure that our Lent will indeed be Great and Holy. Lent is a wonderful and difficult challenge, much like a marathon. No one enters a marathon without some training beforehand. So now we begin our training. It starts with a light warm-up, and a bit of stretching. The pace is at first slow and gradual. Later the pace will pick up and the race will be run at full speed. The Church does not want any of its athletes to be left behind either during the great fast or in eternity.
So what it this first foundational aspect of preparation for Lent? The first aspect of our preparation is this: outward practices mean nothing if we are proud on the inside. The Pharisee did all the right things as I’m sure many of us do. He fasted twice a week, like all good Orthodox Christians, he also gave tithes of what he had. Yet in all of this we see that his outward faith was quite shallow. None of it went deep into the heart. We know this because his prayer is that of a proud man. His prayers show us that he had not learned to repent, he had not realized how far he was from God, he had no room in his heart for a savior because he did not suppose that he needed one.
On top of all this he commits a sin that is among the worst. He sins while supposedly praying to the Living God. Even his prayers are said in a way that demonstrates that they are superficial in nature. The prayers aren’t being said because the Pharisee has an interest in speaking with the Lord and communing with Him. The prayers are being said as a matter of religious habit. But it gets even worse. His prayer becomes utterly useless and an offense to God when he finally stops bragging about himself and then decides to turn his judgement and pride against the lowly tax collector who has also come to say his prayers. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ tells us that the Pharisee was not justified, his prayers were worthless. In fact it would have been better for him not to pray at all then to pray in such a perverse, self-glorifying manner.
But there is hope for us. Our hope is the faith of the tax-collector. His faith and his way of praying is what is required for us to become saints. His approach to God is one of utter humility. He doesn’t approach God with pride in all the things he has accomplished. No one alive can boast before the living God. Instead he stands in the back of the temple not even daring to raise his head. He looks down at the ground with shame for who he is and the many sins he has committed in his life, in his thoughts, in his words, in his deeds. He was overwhelmed by his sinfulness and so he simply beat his chest and cried “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”
And something wonderful happened. God heard this poor soul’s prayers and had mercy on him! God saw him and his need for forgiveness and He provided it swiftly.
The Lord Jesus wants us to learn to pray like this man. We are so very blessed to hear it from His own lips! Pray with a deep understanding of how far your sins have separated you from God. Pray with a sense that you are the only one who will stand before God at the judgement seat. Pray to God as if He is the only hope you have. And pray to God with full faith and hope that He will draw near to you and comfort you through such heartfelt prayers.
Sometimes we can be overwhelmed by long prayer rules and lengthy prayer books. But it is important to know that all those things are not requirements. They are used to train the heart to train correctly. But the most encouraging point is to know that God isn’t waiting for our long prayers said with pride as a matter of habit. We can fall to our knees and pray from the depths of our heart with just a few simple words and the door of the kingdom will be opened for us. God will hear our prayers and pour out mercy upon us…..if only we can learn to say “God have mercy on me, a sinner!”
Glory be to God forever and ever AMEN.