Homily 247 – Publican and Pharisee
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
February 5, 2017

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

What can I say about the publican and the Pharisee that hasn’t already been said? Likely, nothing.

And still the Church gives us this lesson each year – year after year – in preparation for Great Lent. Which is in turn the preparation for Pascha.

What does it mean to “prepare” for something?

If we prepare for an examination, we go over the material again. If you are like me, you then go over it a second time, and a third time.

If we prepare for a trip, we might ensure we’ve packed our luggage appropriately. Clothes, toiletries, documents. We ensure the method of transportation is secured – whether that be purchasing tickets or ensuring the car is maintained and has enough fuel for the journey.

Perhaps we call people we know in the place where we visit to let them know we are coming.

We might prepare for a meal by checking to see if we have all the ingredients, in the proper quantity, and that we have the right tools.

So how do we prepare for Pascha? How do we prepare for Great Lent? What does that look like?

To start, all we have to do is pay attention. The three weeks before Great Lent, and continuing throughout lent, tell us a story. All we have to do is pay attention.

This week, we hear of the Publican and the Pharisee. We learn about several things – each of us probably learns something unique to ourselves and our life.

In general, we learn that favor with God is not found in obedience. It is found in humility.

Favor is found not in taking the Law, the commandments, the history – and walking away from God to pursue it on our own.

That’s what the Pharisee did – they took the commandments of God, and went off to a corner, and did these things, and then wanted God to pat them on the head, put a gold robe on them, and tell them how good they were.

After all, they deserved it. God owed it to them.

In the ninth morning prayer, in many prayer books, one of the prayers says, “Again, O Savior, I pray, save me by Your grace! For if You save me for my deeds, it would not be a gift, but merely a duty.”

Not a gift, but merely a duty.

If we give someone $500, and the following Christmas we receive a box with a $500 check in it from our borrower, is that a gift?

Hardly! It is a duty – a responsibility. Zacchaeus last week showed us the distinction. The money restored to those he defrauded – restored fourfold – that was a duty. He was obligated to repay that, and obligated to pay damages on top of that.

But the half of his goods he gave to the poor – that was a gift.

In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans he reminds us that the wages of sin is death – that is, what is owed to us is separation from life. But the gift of God – gift – is eternal life.

When someone pays us back, we might thank them. That is the Pharisee’s prayer. Thank you God for giving me what you owe me. And, frankly, that is a frightening thing to say to God.

But the Publican – who was a sinner – gushed in humble appreciation for the gift he had been given.

Or perhaps better – begged for the mercy he didn’t deserve, and was given the gift of salvation. The gift of restoration. The gift of connection to the source of Life.

Preparing for Great Lent is demanding. Preparing for great lent means we cast away our preconceived notions, our vision for the future, and quietly, prayerfully, contemplate the truth of what the Gospel proclaims.

We can’t go into lent thinking its just about fasting so we can appreciate feasting. Great Lent is about recognizing our limitations. Recognizing our faults. Recognizing our failures.

Preparing for Great Lent means seeing what great things – what great mercies – God has given us.

Contemplating – accepting – that God created us, and that our selfishness separated us from Him. That only in and through His great mercy do we even exist here.

That what we deserve is not the praise of God that the Pharisee expected.

What we deserve is death. That is what sin – imperfection – deserves.

And the fact that we aren’t dead should engender within us joy. Amazement. Wonder. Humility. Love.

And that because Christ came, and united Himself with humanity, and showed us what it means to be completely unselfish – obedient, even unto death – we can follow Him and have unity with God, and unity with the Source of Life, for all eternity.

So this week, we prepare for the Great Fast by not fasting. And recalling, as we partake of that which is forbidden, that this is not a dispensation. This is a reminder.

A reminder of our imperfection. A reminder of our fallen-ness.

But a reminder that even in the midst of our sin, even in the midst of our fallen-ness –

God loves us. And God has mercy on us.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Glory to Jesus Christ!