This week in the Holy Orthodox Church, we commemorate the parable of our Lord concerning the publican and the pharisee (Luke 18:10-4). This week is the first week of the pre-lenten period. Pre-lent is designed to prepare us to enter Great Lent with a proper attitude so that we can get the most out of the season of abstinence and thus be able to see the Paschal Light.
In preparing for Pascha, humility is the most important thing. In fact, some of our fathers, St. Silouan comes immediately to mind, posit that humility is salvation. Pride is hell, the image of the one who exalted himself against even the Most Hight. Humility is heaven, the image of the One who did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but rather took on the form of a servant. Heaven/Hell. Humility/Pride. The Publican/The Pharisee.
Because in his pride the pharisee recites a litany of his good works, one might get the mistaken impression that fasting, alms-giving and moral restraint are irrelevant in the matter of obtaining humility, that perhaps they hinder the pursuit of humility. However, this is not what the hymns of the Church teach us concerning this parable. They teach us that what justifies the publican is his humility: his realization of his unworthiness and his beseeching mercy. And what condemns the pharisee is his boasting: his comparing himself with others and his rehearsal to himself (for the parables says, “he prayed in himself thus”) of his righteous deeds. Humility saves. Pride condemns.
The hymns of the Church go further. They exhort the faithful both to copy the virtues and to avoid the vices of both the publican and the pharisee. We are called to do all the righteous acts of the pharisee while emulating the humility of the publican.
Done properly, good works produce humility because they destroy self will. Of course good works can be and often are done improperly. That is, they are done as an expression of self will. It is possible to “conquer” lent by the strength of your own will, and thus come to Pascha not in the Light of the Resurrection, but in the light of your own righteousness. It is possible to give alms and blow trumpets--if not in the streets, then in your own heart. It is possible to avoid immorality because of disdain for weakness, thus exalting yourself in a virginity that is merely biological. It is possible to be the pharisee.
In my teen years, when I first was attracted to Christ, I imagined that I could live my whole life in Christ in the words, “neither do I condemn you.” However, the words, “go and sin no more” rang in my ears. How do I sin no more? Or at least, how do I sin less?
The Church teaches us that we avoid sin and grow in the image of Christ by subduing our will through self control (fasting), and considering the needs of others to be more important than our own (alms giving), and prayer. However, in order for these three to subdue our will, they must be practiced in obedience, not according to our will. And this is the reason why Lent is structured the way it is in the Orthodox Church.
In the Church, one does not choose how one fasts or prays or gives. The Church tells you how and when and what and where. You do not make up your own asceticism--that destroys the whole purpose. Certainly, people can submit to the fast to the best of their ability, or not. But you do not make up your own fast. In order for fasting, alms giving and prayer to be effective, to bear the fruit of humility, they must be submitted to, they must be obeyed.
And so this is the meditation for the third week before Great Lent. In this week the Church grants a dispensation from all fasting--as a matter of obedience, one may not fast this week. This week we consider the pride of the pharisee and the humility of the publican, and we prepare ourselves to obey. Fleeing pride and cultivating humility through obedience in fasting, alms giving and prayer, we look forward to the Light of Pascha.