By John Athanasatos
In 2019, the terms publican and pharisee are not commonly heard. Yet, this Sunday is known as the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee. It marks the beginning of Triodion which is a pre-lenten period comprised of the four Sundays that precede Great Lent. The word Triodion, what does it mean? It is called Triodion because the canons in matins have only three odes. There is also a liturgical book called Triodion which is used in the Orthodox Church from the vespers on Saturday the day before Triodion begins until Holy Saturday.
So the period of Triodion which ushers in Great Lent begins with the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee. At the time of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry, roughly 30-33 AD, a publican was a Jewish tax collector who collaborated with the Romans who were Gentiles (pagans). They would collect tax from the Jews and were known to be dishonest. They were very much despised among the Jewish people. In today’s society the closest example of a publican is an IRS worker or city marshal who levies personal property and assets.
A pharisee on the other hand was a Jewish priest who was known for their strict observance of the Torah (Jewish Law). They fasted strictly twice a week and gave tithes (10% of their earnings) to charity. Today, an equivalent of a Pharisee would be a monk or a priest. The Pharisees were certainly regarded in a much more positive and respected manner in society than the publicans.
So both these men went up to the temple to pray, however, with different perspectives. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like the other men- extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.’ (Lk 18: 11) He went to the temple not to pray to God but rather to brag to God how great he was. He was judging others, even the publican that was in his presence. He was thanking God that he was not like other sinners, specifically the publican. The publican on the other hand, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ (Lk 18:13). The publican was only focused on his own sins and very much beseeching God for His mercy.
It is a not a coincidence that this is the assigned Gospel reading for the 1st Sunday of Triodion. As mentioned earlier, Triodion is a pre-lenten preparation phase for Great Lent. What better way to prepare for Great Lent than to be mindful of the greatest sin of all, pride. Lucifer, i.e. Satan was an angel of God, however, he fell because he committed one great sin. He wanted to be equal to God, thus he was prideful which is why he fell and became a fallen angel. Although the publican was a somewhat devious individual and not a pious Jew, he exhibited a great virtue, humility. His prayer was very similar to the Jesus prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. There is an old saying in regards to saints and sinners. A saint knows he is a sinner and a sinner thinks he is a saint. Although the Pharisee was considered a pious and well-read individual, he lacked humility and was judgmental of others. It is very much a temptation for all of us to castigate others in order to make ourselves look better. However, we never know what is in the hearts of others and how God will judge them. There is only one Judge, Jesus Christ.
In fact, the most popular prayer we say in our personal prayers and hear in the services throughout Great Lent is the Prayer of St Ephraim: O Lord and Master of my life, do not permit the spirit of laziness and meddling, the lust for power and idle talk to come into me. Instead, grant me, your servant, the spirit of prudence, humility, patience and love. Yes, Lord and King, give me the power to see my own faults and not to judge my brother. For you are blessed unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Also, in one of the prayers we read before receiving Holy Communion, we say: O Lord, who loves mankind, as You did receive the sinful woman, the thief, the publican and the prodigal son. Although the publican mentioned is not an historic person but part of a parable, we are still reminded to be like the publican in our humility and to pray to God for His mercy. Two Sundays prior was Zacchaeus Sunday. Zacchaeus was an historic tax collector or publican who climbed up a sycamore tree to see Jesus in a crowd. His effort was noticed by Jesus who told him to come down and that He would be his guest at his house. Zacchaeus confessed his sins to Jesus and vowed to give half his possessions to the poor and whatever he may have cheated others, he would restore fourfold. Such is another example of a publican who was humble and repentful.
The first hymn that we hear chanted at Saturday night vespers from the book of the Triodion is: Brethren, let us not offer prayer as did the Pharisee, for he who exalts himself will be brought to humility. Let us humble ourselves in the presence of God, as did the Publican, and through fasting cry to Him, ‘God, be merciful to us sinners.’
Let our hearts be uplifted by this great hymn as we begin this period of Triodion in prayer and repentance.