2 Timothy 3:10-15; Luke 18:10-14
Today we begin the Lenten Triodion, the three-week period of preparation for Great Lent. As we get ready to embark upon the year’s most intense season of prayer, fasting, and repentance, the Church reminds us today to be on guard against the subtle temptations that people who conscientiously embrace religious disciplines typically face. This warning is extremely important because spiritual pride threatens to destroy the virtue of even the best practices. Doing them with a proud, judgmental attitude will serve only to blind us spiritually to the true state of our souls. Far from being tools for healing, they will bring only harm.
Today’s gospel passage concludes with the Savior saying, “He who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” We must let these words sink into our hearts and minds as we prepare for Lent, for we all find it terribly appealing to corrupt even the best things of this life according to our disordered, self-centered desires. Concerning religion, that often means a strong inclination to raise ourselves up in our own minds above other people and even to assume that we deserve a reward from God for our piety. Such perverse spirituality is diametrically opposed to worshiping the Lord Who died and rose up for our salvation. He embodies true humility in ways that transcend our rational comprehension. We must become like Him if we are to make good use of the coming season to journey to His Cross and empty tomb.
The Pharisee was right to fast, tithe, pray, and live a morally upright life. The problem is that he did them in ways that made him even more enslaved to his passions. Instead of gaining the spiritual clarity to see the truth about where he stood before God, this man magnified himself as he looked down on the apparent failings of someone else. If we are not careful, we can easily fall into the same trap during Lent. When we embrace such proud delusions, it becomes impossible for us to follow our Lord to His Passion in a true spiritual sense. Even as we think we are being holy, we are actually worshiping ourselves and committing idolatry. Like the Pharisee, we will use the word “God,” but in reality we will pray only to ourselves.
The more we seek to devote ourselves to prayer, the greater the temptation will be to distract ourselves from the struggle to become fully present to God. To do so is very hard for us, whether during services or in our private prayers. Profound humility is required to open our hearts to the One Who is infinitely “Holy, Holy, Holy” as we “lay aside all earthly cares” to focus on the one thing needful. When even a glimmer of the brilliant light of the Divine Glory begins to shine through the eyes of our souls, the darkness within us becomes brutally obvious. The temptation is strong to shift our attention to whatever we think will hide us from that kind of spiritual nakedness, even if only in our own minds. To focus on how good we think we are, especially in comparison with other people, is simply a way of changing the subject as we turn away from God and toward ourselves.
The Publican was certainly an easy target of criticism for the Pharisee. Tax collectors were Jews who collected money from their own people to fund the Roman army of occupation. They collected more than was required and lived off the difference. No doubt, the Pharisee believed that he was justified in looking down on someone who was both a traitor and a thief. Ironically, this tax collector would not have argued with him about that. He knew he was a wretched sinner, and his only apparent virtue was his humble acknowledgement of his true spiritual state. Standing off by himself in the temple, this fellow would “not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.’”
Despite his miserable way of life, the tax collector somehow mustered the spiritual strength to expose his soul to the blinding light of God in prayer from the depths of his heart. He did not make excuses or change the subject, but confronted the uncomfortable truth about himself. Christ said that the Publican, not the Pharisee, went home justified that day. That was not because he had done more good deeds or obeyed more laws, but because he had the humility to encounter God honestly as the sinner that he was. No matter how committed we are to spiritual disciplines, such humility is absolutely essential for opening our souls to the healing mercy of Christ. Without it, pride will destroy the virtue of everything that we do and plunge us into spiritual darkness and delusion. But with it, there is hope for us all, no matter how far short we fall of fulfilling any religious practice.
In just a few weeks, we will begin the spiritual journey of Great Lent, the most intense period of repentance in the life of the Church as we prepare to follow our Lord to His Cross and empty tomb. There is no greater sign of the folly of exalting ourselves and condemning others in the name of religion than the Passion of Christ. He brings salvation to the world in a way completely contrary to prideful self-congratulation that hides from the truth. There is no greater humility than that of the eternal Son of God emptying Himself, taking on the form of a servant, and becoming obedient to the point of death for our salvation. (Phil. 2:7-8) St. Paul wrote, “Therefore God also has highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-11)
We must devote ourselves to prayer, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, and other forms of repentance in the weeks ahead if we are to open the depths of our brokenness to the healing of our Lord’s humble, suffering love. That is the only way to become like the tax collector in spiritual clarity, for he was aware only of his sin and need for God’s mercy. We must know the true state of our corruption and weakness as he did, if we are to enter into the joy of the Lord’s resurrection.
The Church calls us to pray with particular intensity during Lent. When we struggle to do so and our minds wander, we should pray the Jesus Prayer or otherwise simply turn our attention back to the Lord with a sense of our need for His mercy. The very worst thing we could do in prayer would be to become like the Pharisee who reminded God of his good deeds and condemned the tax collector. It would be better not to pray at all than to do so in such an idolatrous way.
Our struggle to pray provides great opportunities for growth in humility, as do our difficulties in fasting, forgiving, showing generosity, and otherwise reorienting our lives to God. We must use our failings as reminders to stay on guard against the temptation to exalt ourselves in any way. For if anything we do could earn God’s favor and make us so much better than others that we would be justified in condemning them, there would be no Lent because there would have been no need for our Lord to conquer death through His resurrection. Were the way of the Pharisee sufficient for the healing of our souls, there would have been no need for the God-Man to be lifted up upon the Cross.
The weeks of preparation for Holy Week and Pascha are necessary because we cannot save ourselves by religious or moral practices. Our only hope is to participate in Christ’s exaltation by uniting ourselves to Him in humble faith. The coming season will provide us with many opportunities to do precisely that. If, by Holy Week, we see ourselves as clearly before God as did the tax collector and ask only for mercy from the depths of our souls, we will be well prepared to follow our Lord to Jerusalem, where He showed, once and for all, the infinite power of His humble love. As the Savior said, “He who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”