To Obey like the Pharisee, to Repent like the Publican

By Father Andrew Lemeshonok

We have already begun our preparation for the Great Lent. We are on the verge of the period of our life when we should follow Christ, step by step, on His way to Golgotha, to become the witnesses of victory over death. These weeks should form a special attitude towards the spiritual life inside us . We can say that the Great Lent, as well as our life in general, is our preparation for Pascha.

The aim is to defeat our old self, to defeat this world, to defeat sin, which made humanity like the “walking dead”. This is why everything we can hear in church and what we feed on spiritually, is aimed at making us live in an other way – not by the laws of this world, where people disturb one another, abuse, torture and even kill one another. Could such life be created by God? Of course, it could not have been. Because this is madness. This is the beginning of hell, where a person does not see anything except from his own “self”.

What are the criteria, by which we judge even in the Church? If a person dressed in rich clothes and comes in, I will think: “Well, this man could donate something to the church”. I will smile to him and make nice with him. But if a dirty homeless man comes, who smells bad, I will say: “I cannot get anything from him. He came to beg for money. They all are just beggars!” This is what Pharisaism is, this is what untruth is! This is the very false note to which we get used to so easily.

We have to struggle with ourselves, with our “old self”, with our mercenariness, and with our primitive and limited views on what is happening to us and around us. And the Holy Church teaches us how we should live. The Gospel tells about the two people who entered the temple. One of them was a zealous adherent of the law, who did everything right. But what did that led to? To his arrogance and self-admiration: “I am better than this sinner, who came there without no reason. This place is not for him. It is a place for such good, spiritual and respectable people like me”. At the same time, the publican felt his guilt over God and pronounced the words, which humanity has been repeating for thousands of years: God be merciful to me a sinner (Luke, 18:13). Of course, he left the temple justified by God, because those words embodied his whole life.

A person, who came from the secular world, can see his own sins. In our Rehabilitation center there are people who have spent decades in prison. Their life was abnormal. How could we all begin to live so that we obey the law like the Pharisee and repent like the publican? This would be so beautiful…

How can we learn to live like this, but not to arrogate this to ourselves? This is art – the art of spiritual life. Today we do not what the Pharisee has done at that time, but we are as arrogant as ten such Pharisees. We all judge and estimate, we know and understand everything. Should you try to teach us or correct us, and we will resent. So we have a difficult task – to prepare for the new life in several months. To move from the life according to the law to the life according to the spirit.

I think that the joy, which we feel when we come to church on the Paschal night, is impossible in this world. No one can provide us with it, because it is not here. Despite the fact we observe vanity, senselessness and ugliness of this life, we should learn to find God and rejoice without restraining from what we have to do. We should be alive. There is a thing which bothers me (perhaps, it bothers you too): we partake of the Holy Communion – and this is life, but then we go out of the church – and this life ends. And the useless talks and thoughts appear again. Does it mean we need to lock ourselves in the church and stay there forever? No, we need to move the church to our homes and our hearts. “Your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you”, says Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians, 6:19). We need to live according to Orthodoxy, to see God in any person, to thank God for everything. This is the beginning of the new life we have to start during the forthcoming Lent.

During the lent one can practice an “Orthodox yoga”. One expands like a bubble and says, “I am ascetic. I am not like this glutton, this fornicator or this airhead…” – but he is empty inside. The Pharisee said the same. And the worst part is that he knew his worth. And the publican? Just an extortioner, a bribetaker…
We must not judge. We understand that these are the weak people of their time. However, the sinful publican managed to find the way to the temple and, perhaps, not by accident. His souls’ condition was so bad that he could not even look up. He was ashamed and afraid, his conscience woke up. He understood his imperfection because he was in the temple. He touched the sacred building and felt he was guilty: how many people he has abused!.. He lived and the sufferings of his victims meant nothing. He collected money for himself and lived for himself, just as all people of his class did. Suddenly he understood that he had not lived, but tortured other people and himself. His soul suffered because he could not get enough of the wealth kept in the chests. What can one buy for money? Is it possible to buy love, friendship and loyalty? All those things he changed for useless trinkets of this world. This man pronounced the prayer: God be merciful to me a sinner. He beat his chest and asked God for forgiveness. It was the repentance of the sinful man, and God accepted it. The prayer was quite short. It was a scream of his aching soul. That man did not read akathists, or canons, or Psalter. He understood in which condition his soul was and that he could not live like that anymore. In the temple he had a chance to begin a different life. Probably, his life changed after he left the temple justified. While the man, who did everything right, did not understand that his prayer was not accepted. We all cannot deserve the God’s love. This is why the law is the same for all: the more often we see the God’s love in our life, the more we understand our unworthiness.

If a soul gains glory, it begins to hurt so much that life becomes unbearable - the soul dies because of the sin living in it. Who wants such love? Who wants Golgotha? Who wants to be crucified tomorrow to make his old self die? No one! We just need someone to love and understand us. This is our current condition… The tragedy is that God has told us everything already, but we keep pretending that we do not understand. What cheek?! If someone beats you, then beat him harder! If someone abuses you, then avenge him! In other words, we cannot attain what God has explained to us with simple words: we need to live in peace, to love even our enemies, to feel that you are the worst person but not to lose your hope in God at the same time. This is our spiritual arithmetic. However, it is very hard to add “me”, “God” and “neighbor” together. 

St. Elisabeth Convent,
January 5, 2017

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