Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee

Second Sunday before Great Lent

Themes of Great Lent

Luke 18:10-14

In the name of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


We must become humble to be saved.

Today, brothers and sisters, in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, we have witnessed the one of the themes of Great Lent being proclaimed. We must become humble if we are to become justified. This is the whole reason why we go through all of our exercises, the fasting, increased prayer, increased almsgiving, more introspection, increased prayer at home and in the church. The reason for it is not so that we can feel good about ourselves. Christianity is not about feeling good about yourself; Christianity is about becoming good. The only way to become good is to become humble. If we are humble, we see the truth; we see ourselves; we see God; we see what we need and what God can give.


We know God can give us everything, but we are not humble enough to see everything that’s wrong with us and all the darkness in us. So basically, Great Lent is a time when we especially try to learn to become humble so that we can become, as the Publican was, justified.


Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand

Another theme of Great Lent was proclaimed in the Gospel for the Sunday after Theophany because the Lord said, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”[1]

Truly when we enter upon Great Lent, we should think the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand because if we can become humble, if we can know ourselves just a little bit more, then that means we will know God more, and we will become more holy, more purified. And only the holy are happy. Only the good know God. So the Kingdom of Heaven truly is at hand if we are becoming humble.

Now, there are many paths to humility. We can’t just sit in a corner and become humble. We can’t just act in a humble way and become humble. Truly, full humility is a gift of God, given by grace. But we must, with great effort, with our blood, pursue humility.

Now, one of the ways that one pursues humility is, of course, through the knowledge of what the Scripture teaches us so that we can learn by example, but example only goes so far.

An awful lot of people know the story of the Publican and the Pharisee, but they don’t see that they are the Pharisee. I hope you see that you are the Pharisee, and maybe a little bit the Publican. And the more we become like the Publican, not in his deeds, but in his humility, then we will become justified.

We are all like the Pharisee. How is the Pharisee? He had an inflated view of himself. He could tick off easily a laundry list of all the good things he had done, but he didn’t said anything about anything bad he had done because the good sort of obliterated his knowledge of the bad, sort of like when you look into a bright light and then you look into the darkness and you can’t see anything. So, yes, he did good things, and we do good things too. People who are unbelievers do good things. But he didn’t see also that there was darkness in his heart because he had an inflated view of himself. Does that sound familiar to you? It should because it is the human condition. So it applies to us.


Also, the Pharisee judged the Publican. And that goes hand in hand with pride and not knowing yourself. And so that judgment of the Publican obliterated his ability to see himself at all.

Truly, the path to salvation is to not judge because judgment is only for God. Those that are proud judge others. And judgment of others doesn’t just mean that we say, oh, you know, that person is a drinker or that person is lazy or that person has been through three marriages or something like that. No, judgment is also when we’re irritated with others because they don’t act up to our standards. So judgment is not just what we think; it’s how we act towards people too.

There is a story from the Fathers, Abba Moses, the Ethiopian, a beautiful story. The fathers would gather together if they had to judge a brother for something that he had done. And Moses was one of the senior monks, and he was called to this judgment, and he came; he was a big man, very large. And he was carrying this giant barrel. In some stories it’s sand; in other stories it’s water. But it had a hole in the back of it. And as he was carrying this barrel, the water was going out behind him. It doesn’t make much sense to carry water in the desert and be losing the water. People asked him, what are you doing. He says, well, I’m going to judge a man while my own sins are unnoticed behind me. He understood humility. He understood that he had sins that he didn’t even know about. So do we.

Brothers and sisters, this is the time now; it’s always the time. But because of our nature, we have to concentrate more on certain things at certain times of the year. It’s always good to repent. It’s always good to be humble. But this time especially, this time when you must have as a goal that you would just be more humble. Like I said, it’s not from acting humble. It’s not whispering and putting your head down when you talk to people. That’s not humility. That’s just contrivances.

What humility is, is to know that in your heart you’re a sinner, and at the same time, to know that God will save you and God will help you. The Kingdom of Heaven truly is near.

Now, there is a question that the world would ask us: Why would we think like this? Some people in the world think, “This is mental illness to think poorly of ourselves. We should have better self-esteem. We should think better of ourselves. We should recognize that we are unique individuals in the world, blah, blah, blah.” The world thinks that way. Even people who are Christians are affected with this idea. I’ll tell you why.

It’s quite obvious from our Services; it’s quite obvious from the Psalms and all the rest of the Scriptures: joy only comes from purity and holiness; happiness is only for the holy. Because otherwise, there’s stuff in you that’s always going to make you unhappy. There’s impurity and there’s darkness. We were not made for darkness. We were made for light, and yet there is darkness in us. The only way to get rid of the darkness is to recognize it’s there. You can’t fix what you don’t know about. Nobody goes to the doctor if they don’t know they’re sick.

So we must know we are sick, and the Publican did. It’s really the whole essence of Great Lent. We are sick. Let’s just go ahead and admit it, not just like in conversation, but deeply in our heart: We are sick; there is darkness; there is ugliness in us. But God said it could all get out, every bit of it. Because He called us to be perfect, and in the perfect there is no darkness; it’s all light.


But since we know that we have darkness in us, we need the grace of God to have that become light. And God does not come to those who are not humble. God gives grace to the humble but not to the proud. To the extent that you’re proud, is the extent to which you have darkness in you.

So Great Lent is a time of light. A time to become light. But the only way to become light is to know that you’re dark. And that’s what the Publican knew. The services make it very clear. The Publican was exalted because of his humility. We do not praise him for his acts of depravity. We do praise the Pharisee for his acts of goodness, but we censure him for his pride, for his blindness and for his stupidity.

So let’s be intelligent about the Publican. Let’s know that we have sins in our heart. Let’s know that we need God’s grace to be rid of all these sins. And let’s pursue God as if we were pursuing a stag through the wilderness, running after it, trying to get to God’s grace as much as we can, and knowing that only with His help can we attain it. That’s what the Publican knew.

I’ll tell you one more thing. Remember, this is a parable. Parables usually are life in microcosm. Just about all of them are really about our entire life. So this describes this one event which might have taken place in maybe 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes where they were in the temple. Is actually describing the entire life of a man, the life of a man that leads to death, which is pride, arrogance, judging others, not knowing ourselves, not knowing our sins and therefore not seeking the grace of God for those sins. Or the way of life, which is humility and knowing that we are sinful and begging God to help us.


The meaning of “Justified”

And this way of life makes us justified: One of the most misunderstood words in all of our language. Because to be justified means to become righteous. Many think to be justified means that God forgives us because of His Son. No, to be justified is God helps us to become righteous because of His Son. This is a process. It didn’t happen immediately when he left the temple. It happened over the course of his life, many times going to the temple and saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” many times falling, many times getting up. But every time having in his heart, “God help me; I’m dark, and I want to be light.” This is how he and we become justified: By going to the temple many times and beating our breast and saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”

And as we go and things change in us and we don’t judge people so readily and we’re more patient with people and kind with people and there’s less turbulence in our soul and there is less mud and we see things more clearly and we are happier even though we see our sins more clearly. And maybe there will be times when we see our sins so clearly that we feel that we are further away from God than we ever were. That’s an illusion, that’s a mirage. We’re already far from God. We just don’t see it.


To the proud, God appears very close, very near, even as a friend, even right in the same room. To the saints, they know that God is far from them in terms of their righteousness vs. His. But they also know that He will forgive them because – we are going to talk about this in a week – the father will forgive His son even when His son is far away.

We have to keep these things uppermost in our minds. And when I say that, I don’t mean that you should be thinking, okay, how can I be humble in this moment or in whatever is happening in my life at the moment. No, it has to be in the heart. Not the mind, meaning the brain, but the heart meaning that the highest part of the soul that knows truths about ourselves and about God.


This parable describes our entire life. So let us be like the Publican. Let us take this period of Great Lent to try to become a little more humble so that God will help us and we will be justified. Amen.


Transcribed by the hand of Helen. May the Lord save her and her loved ones.



Priest Seraphim Holland 2011.    

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[1] Sometimes, the Lenten Triodion begins very early, even just after Theophany, as in this year (2010). The Gospel for the Sunday after Theophany is: “Now when Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, he departed into Galilee; 13 And leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim: 14 That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, 15 The land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles; 16 The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up. 17 From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:12-17)