O Lord, Thou didst reproach the Pharisee when he justified himself, boasting of his deeds; and justified the Publican when he approached humbly, seeking forgiveness with sighs; for Thou dost not draw near to arrogant thoughts, nor turn away contrite hearts. Wherefore, we also kneel before Thee meekly, O Thou Who didst suffer for our sakes. Grant us forgiveness and the Great Mercy. – Doxasticon from Orthros, Tone 8
When the Pharisee went down with empty glory, and the publican bowed himself in repentance, they came to Thee alone, O Master. But the one through boasting lost his reward, and the other by his silence deserved gifts. Wherefore, by those sighs confirm me, O Christ God, since Thou art the Lover of mankind. – from the Praises at Orthros, Tone 1
Every year this Sunday hits me like a pile of bricks. Every time I read the story, I think of myself more as the Pharisee than the Publican. G.K. Chesterton had a character named Father Brown. In one of Chesterton’s book, he has Father Brown comment:
You see, I had murdered them all myself…. I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully. I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.
Of course Father Brown had not actually murdered anyone. What he did was to use the sin that dwells within all of us to solve crimes. That is, he realized that each and every one of us is capable of repeating the sin of Cain and the sin of Adam and Eve. Father Brown is in touch enough with his indwelling sin that he is able to use it to solve crimes by imagining what he would do if he were the criminal.
I am not that in touch with myself. And so, the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee hits me with unexpected strength every year. Every year I realize that I have let myself lapse during the course of the year and have not truly followed Our Lord Jesus Christ. What happened to all my well meaning commitments??!!
This Sunday, every year, begins anew my Lenten journey. Each and every year, I am surprised. I arrive at this Sunday and wonder where all my commitments and promises have gone. I look back at the year and mourn the commitments that I have not kept, the sins that I have committed, the people I have hurt by my sins.
Yes, this is the Sunday that speaks to me and reminds me in very clear terms that I am a sinner and that had Our Lord Jesus Christ not died for me and Risen for me that I would have no hope of resurrection to eternal life. This is the Sunday that humbles me and reminds me to forgive others lest I not be forgiven. This is the Sunday that begins my Lenten journey and both discourages and encourages me.
It discourages me because I can look back and see all my sin and all my broken promises. It encourages me because it tells me that if I am honest and confess all my sins and beg for God’s mercy that I will find that mercy.
So, let us begin the preparation period for Lent, for inner examination and for repentance. Let us commit ourselves to be like the Publican, to realize that we are but shoddy sinners in need of redemption. Let us commit ourselves to allow God to cleanse us during Lent so that we might be able to keep on walking in God’s paths with the assurance that we have received God’s mercy.