These three people the Church offers us as an instructive example, my dear friends. The Pharisee is all of us who come to church. We, too, have apparent virtues: we make an effort every Sunday to get up early, leave our earthly concerns and come to church; we fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, and during the four lents; we give money to the church and alms to the poor. But it turns out that that is not enough for true spiritual life, that that is only the smallest of beginnings, only the lowest step, because those are only external actions, external manifestations. It turns out that one’s inner disposition, the inner state of one’s soul is much more important than external merit.
The publican was a sinner, and we all are sinners, despite our coming to church, keeping the fasts and being charitable. But the publican did something which justified him, elevated him, attracted God’s grace to him - the publican repented, the publican recognized his sins, recognized the destructiveness of these sins, the publican asked God for forgiveness. And all of this the publican was able to achieve through humility, through deep and complete humility. The feeling of humility enlightened his soul, gave him the opportunity to see himself in a true light, and showed him the right course of action. Humility led to repentance, and repentance led to forgiveness and purification. The example of the publican and the Pharisee demonstrates to us the actuality of God’s words that the Lord opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.
And in his amazing humility the publican received the same joy that was granted to the righteous Simeon: he saw the Lord and was given absolution. Led by the Holy Spirit, Simeon came to the temple and with his physical eyes saw the Infant Christ, saw the salvation of the world, and was released from the burden of his long life on earth. The publican, led by his conscience, which is the voice of God within us, also came to the temple, and through humility and repentance was transformed by the grace of God, saw God with the eyes of his soul, saw his own salvation, and was released from the burden of his many sins.
And the righteous Simeon, who was promised that he would see with his own eyes the Lord, our Saviour, saw Him nowhere else but in the temple. It was to the temple that the Holy Spirit led him to meet the Messiah. Thus we, too, my dear friends, can meet the Lord only in the temple, in the church. In church we not only see Him in His icons, we not only hear Him in the reading of the Holy Gospel, but we have something far greater than had the publican, far greater than had the righteous Simeon: in church we are united with the Lord Himself through the sacrament of communion. And we can attain this supreme joy only by coming to church, only by placing our soul into a state of complete humility, only by sincerely repenting our sins and being absolved of them in the sacrament of confession.
“Let us flee the haughty utterances of the Pharisee, and let us learn the sublimity of the publican’s humble words” - urges us the Church in the kontakion for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. Beginning on that day the preparatory period for the Great Lent, my dear friends, let us heed the voice of the Church, which admonishes us to avoid the Pharisee’s complacency and boasting, and instead to ascend the height of spiritual life which is contained in the words of the publican: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Then we, too, when we reach the end of our earthly life, will be peacefully released by the Lord God into life eternal. Amen.
Father Rostislav Sheniloff.