February 22, 2021

Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee (Elder Epiphanios Theodoropoulos)

By Archimandrite Epiphanios Theodoropoulos

As we said, the period of the Triodion includes first of all, as an arena of pre-preparation, the three weeks preceding Great Lent. The first week of the Triodion is the week that begins with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. On this day our Church brings before us the relevant parable of our Lord, which speaks of the prayers made by the "righteous" Pharisee and the sinful Publican. The prayer of the first was not accepted by God, due to the pride of the Pharisee, while the prayer of the second was heard, due to the humility which was shown by the sinful Publican.

From the book of our Church called the Horologion we copy the following teachings:

"The Pharisees were an ancient and official heresy among the Jews, who were evil and hypocritical, who hid their wickedness, while they made publicly known their hypocritical virtues, always doing their 'works to be seen by men' (Matt. 23:5), which is why everyone thought they were virtuous and righteous, and by appearing holy in their life, they were separate from the rest, thus signifying the name pharisee. On the contrary the publicans, who were purchasers of the royal taxes, because they committed a great deal of injustices and robberies due to their sordid love of gain, for this reason they were considered sinners and unrighteous. In the common opinion of that time, Jesus took a pharisee, which meant a virtuous man, and a publican, which meant a sinful man, and taught through a parable the damage that can be done by pride and the benefit of humility.

Because, after the course of three weeks, we are entering into the arena of Holy Lent and the spiritual struggle of virtue, and the first weapon towards virtue is humility, and pride is a great hindrance to it, for this reason the divine Fathers intended for our preparation of this struggle the reading of the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee for today, which is why this current week has been called Preannouncement (Profonisimon), foretelling and proclaiming in this way that a time for fasting is approaching. We are taught by it not to exalt ourselves when we do something good, nor to be boastful like the vainglorious Pharisee, but by learning from his example, that the smoke of self-conceit and foul-smelling boasting banishes the grace of the Spirit, and stripping man of all the virtues, he is hurled down into the pits of hades. But if we entreat God with a broken heart, in imitation of the humility of the Publican, even if someone is sinful, even if in the end he falls into wickedness, he will be justified and raised to great heights."

Humility is thus a great virtue. It is called "Exalted-making" (Ypsopoion) by the Holy Fathers, because it exalts man to unimaginable heights. Saint Pambo, the great ascetic, full of humility, prayed for three years, saying: "Lord, do not glorify me on earth!" The Lord, in return for his humility, glorified him so much, that his face shined like the sun, and it was impossible for the other ascetics to look upon him!

The humble man is not in danger of falling. "He who is below everyone else, where can he fall?" say the Fathers. That is, one who places himself at the very bottom, below all others, where can he fall? Anthony the Great would say: "I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, 'What can get through such snares?' Then I heard a voice saying to me, 'Humility'!"

Our Church, wanting to inspire us with the humility of the Publican and to protect us from the pride of the Pharisee, chants on this day:

"Let us flee the proud speaking of the Pharisee and learn the humility of the Publican, and with groaning let us cry unto the Savior: Be merciful to us, for Thou alone art ready to forgive."

Source: From the book Περίοδος Τριωδίου. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.