That was surely the case with the Pharisee in today’s gospel reading. No doubt, he honestly believed that he was so holy and righteous that it was a good idea for him to thank God that he was so much better than others. He probably was not lying about his fasting and tithing. He really did believe that he was superior to people who committed crimes, so he reminded the Lord of that. Of course, that kind of honesty did the man no good at all; instead, he simply strengthened his addiction to a fantasy about himself and then went back to his home unjustified. In truth, he did not actually pray to God at all, he simply patted himself on the back.
We see a different kind of honesty, however, in the publican or tax collector. He knew that he was a dishonest traitor who took advantage of his own people to become rich working for the Roman occupiers. He knew that he had nothing of which to be proud before God or anyone else. He knew that he did not have the spiritual eyes to gaze into heaven, so he bowed his head, beat his breast in sorrow for all he had done, and asked God to be merciful to him as a sinner. Not only did this man say what he believed to be true, he said what was actually true. God heard his prayer and he went home justified that day.
If you are like me, you have too much in common with the Pharisee and not enough in common with the publican. The truth is that we all have a long way to go in developing that kind of honesty before God that we see in him. We find it so easy to accept the lies, half-truths, and excuses that we tell ourselves in order to avoid the reality about where we stand before the Lord and in relation to others. That is one of the reasons why the Jesus Prayer is at the heart of our spiritual life, for we need to let the truth sink in that we are sinners in need of Christ’s mercy and help. No, that is not a sign of obsessive guilt, but simply of honesty.
Today is the first Sunday of the Lenten Triodion, the three weeks leading up to Great Lent, which is a time when we embrace spiritual disciplines in order to grow in the spiritual clarity necessary for honesty before God and loving relationships with others. In other words, prayer, fasting, generosity to the needy, repentance, and all the other penitential practices are there for our healing, for opening our lives to the merciful therapy for sinners that Jesus Christ has brought to the world.
As we prepare to begin this journey, which in turn prepares us to follow the Lord to His Cross and glorious resurrection, we must keep squarely in mind that true honesty requires humility. We have to have a realistic assessment of who we are. Ever since Adam and Eve chose their will over God’s, we have found it an especially difficult struggle to accept the truth about what it means to be a human being. God made us in His image male and female with the calling to become ever more like Him, to grow in the divine likeness, and to become partakers of the divine nature. The problem is that we have all followed Adam and Eve in turning away from that high calling and trying to replace it by serving ourselves. We would rather make an imaginary god in our image as did the Pharisee, which is simply a form of idolatry. No matter whether we worship our money, our career, our relationships, our hobbies, our nation, ethnic group, or any other created thing, we are really worshiping ourselves because we have decided to put something else before God.
That is a recipe for despair, of course, because nothing in creation can bear the weight of worship. We may think that it would be nice to have other people praise us as gods, but they will not have to get to know us very well in order to see that we will never measure up to their expectations. When they are disappointed, they will find someone else to love or follow. And as we all know, some people gain all the power and wealth in the world, but end up miserable and in despair. The truth is that we are not made to find fulfillment in anyone or thing other than God. We have to be honest about that in order to sort out our priorities in life and to avoid falling into forms of idolatry that lead only to insanity and to the grave.
Today’s parable also presents a strong warning against dishonest efforts to put God first in our lives because it shows that religious people can fool themselves into thinking that they are doing the right thing when they are actually doing the opposite. Temptation is so subtle and it is possible to corrupt even the best practices, such as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, into offerings to ourselves that strengthen the passion of pride, as happened with the Pharisee in his self-righteous judgment of others. It would be better not to do those things than it would be to do them in such a corrupt way.
As we begin prepare for this Great Lent, we all need to cultivate as much as possible the humble, honest attitude of the tax collector who cried from the depths of his heart for God’s mercy. We do not know the details, but somehow his spiritual vision had been clarified to the point that he knew rightly where he stood before the Lord. Each of us may use the spiritual practices of Lent to gain a similar clarity and to grow in honest humility in relation to God and our neighbors.
For example, we can pray to God and not ourselves by focusing our attention as much as possible on the words of prayers from an Orthodox prayer book or the Psalms as we open our hearts to Christ. Then we will be in a better state to voice our personal petitions in our own words. Part of the danger of praying only with our own words is that it is too easy to pray to ourselves or at least to pray only according to our own desires at the moment. This is another reason to pray with the Church as much as possible in vespers, orthros, liturgy, and the extra services of Lent. Most of us, for example, could come to vespers or orthros at least once a month without any real difficulty. If that seems like a challenge, remember that the more we enter into the prayer of the Church, the better strength and focus our own personal prayers will have.
When we pray, fast, and give to the poor, we must resist the temptation ever to compare ourselves with anyone else. When such thoughts enter our minds, as they likely will, we must be vigilant in turning our attention to the true humility of a repentant sinner standing before the Lord. That means saying the Jesus Prayer or otherwise doing what it takes to turn our attention away from pride and toward an honest acknowledgement that we are weak, broken, imperfect people in need of healing beyond our own strength. When our minds wander in prayer, when we overeat, when we are not generous, when we judge and condemn others, and when we are overcome by any temptation, we should use our failings as teachers of humility to put us in the place of that blessed publican who found the very mercy for which he prayed. The same will be true of us, if we use Great Lent this year to grow in honesty before God and in humble love in relation to our brothers and sisters. That is what each of us should do, for there is no other path that will prepare us to behold the terror of the Cross and the unspeakable joy of the empty Tomb.