Humility and prayer (Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee)

6 February 2023

The contrast in the image of the parable is stark. ‘Two men went up to the sanctuary to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a publican’. In the first scene of the parable, the attitude of the Pharisee at prayer is described, as well as the content of his prayer.

In his prayer, the Pharisee enters into an astonishing comparison between himself and other people. He thanks God that he’s not like the rest, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like the tax collector. In other words, he draws a line of distinction between himself, whom he believes is justifiably in the Temple, whereas the others are outside, because they’re sinners.

The image of the Publican and his prayer create another climate and provoke different feelings. He stood far off, with his eyes cast down, beat his breast and asked for God’s mercy. His prayer was a prayer of repentance. The publican had no works of virtue to show in order to seek justification, but reveals, deposes and confesses his sinfulness before God, asking for mercy. He doesn’t protest at his rejection by other people. He’s interested in God’s righteous judgement. Saint Neilos advises us not to ask for purification from the passions in our prayer, as well as release from ignorance and forgetfulness, and relief from every passion and from God’s abandonment. We should ask only for justice and the Kingdom, that is, virtue and spiritual knowledge; all the rest will be added for us.

The dilemma

Those hearing the parable are faced with a serious dilemma. The Pharisee is the ideal religious model, who observes the provisions of the Law and the traditions. The tax collector’s a sinner and asks for God’s mercy, in repentance. Will God accept both of them or only one; and if one, which? Christ’s words are clear: ‘I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other’. Here, Christ overturns people’s perception of justification and reveals that God accepts those who repent and humbly seek his mercy. The total awareness of our poverty is the basis of spiritual progress. Ontological recognition of our sinfulness is a source of energy for prayer and a firm foundation for our spirituality.

Ways of repenting

What we have to understand is that our salvation and justification are gifts from God, not the fruits of our works. No just reward can gain us the kingdom of God; only his love and kindness can.

Saint John Chrysostom delves deep into the type of prayer of the tax collector and tells us there are five ways of repenting.

The first is awareness of our sins and confession of them. The second is mourning over them. The third is humility. The fourth is alms-giving, the queen of the virtues.

Finally, the fifth way of repenting is prayer.

But prayer must express all the above ways- awareness and confession of our sins,  mourning over them, humility and alms-giving, because only then is it effective and of the essence.

Let us not pray like the Pharisee’

Now that the Triodio’s opening, the Church urges us not to pray like the Pharisee, i.e. with pride in our deeds, but to seek the grace of salvation from God, recognizing and confessing our unworthiness. Evagrios advises us to pray with fear, with pain, carefully, reflectively, vigilantly and with joy. The root of all evils is pride. Therein lies death and darkness.

‘In an inexplicable manner, holy humility elevates us about all created things and preserves the grace of God in our life. Let’s bear in mind, then, a wise warning that says: ‘the devil doesn’t eat or drink, so in theory he’s the greatest ascetic, but that doesn’t make him any the less evil… Humility’s the only weapon that defeats the devil, it’s the necessary requirement for salvation, the mystic divine force which enfolds all within itself. Wherever humility blossoms, there flows the glory of God, there the eye of the plant of the soul blooms into an unfading flower’ (Saint Isaac the Syrian).

May God bless us so that we guard our every thought with humility and thus come to knowledge of the eternal truth.

Source: Bishop Agathangelos of Fanari, Η ζύμη του Ευαγγελίου, pp. 69- 72.