In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Regarding today's Gospel, there are many misunderstandings.
Firstly, let us be clear as to whom this Gospel concerns. The word “publican” does not have the modern meaning of someone who keeps a pub: in older English it simply means a tax collector. As we recall from last Sunday's Gospel concerning another tax collector, Zacchaeus, tax-collectors among the Jews were the lowest of the low, thieves, corrupt to the core.
Secondly, at the time of Christ, the word “pharisee” did not at all have today's meaning of smug bigot and hypocritical prig. Among the Jews, the Pharisees were the most devout, upstanding, law-abiding and respected, middle-class citizens, models of righteousness.
And yet in today's Gospel, Christ justifies the thief, but the middle-class citizen is condemned. Why?
Simply because of their attitudes: the publican has the right attitude, that of asking God for mercy in repentance for his sins of which he is conscious. On the other hand, the pharisee has the wrong attitude, that of not asking for mercy, that of self-justification, for he has no consciousness at all of his sinfulness, because he is under the illusion of being righteous. He has this illusion merely because he fulfills all the outward observances of the Jewish Law. His piety is all for show, it is all outward and does not come from the heart. The pharisee does the right things, but he does them for all the wrong reasons, and thus they lose all their force.
The error of the pharisee is to confuse the means with the ends. Let us be clear. Our end, or goal, is to find salvation. This means to prepare ourselves to be with God, for the inevitable destiny of every soul is to be with God in eternity, to be in the presence of Love. Those who are prepared for this will see God, will experience Divine Love, those who are not prepared for this will not see Love, but will be burnt by it. To be prepared is to be pure in heart. As it is written: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. Those who are not pure in heart will not see God, but will experience His presence with painful regret, not with joy.
There are many means to salvation, to preparing our souls to be with God. However, we should not think that the means to salvation automatically bring salvation, merely because they are outwardly observed. In order to understand this, we first need to know what the means to salvation are.
Firstly, there is the worship of God and prayer to Him. True, we can worship and pray to God everywhere, but there is one place where we can be particularly close to Him, and where it is easier to speak to Him in prayer, and that is at church. Only at church are services held in His honor and we can thank Him, worship Him and pray to Him more easily during those services and only at church can we partake of the sacraments.
Secondly, we can deepen our worship of God through reading and obeying His word, through fasting and through almsgiving.
Just as worship, prayer, reading of the Word of God and almsgiving are only means to salvation, and not salvation itself, so fasting too is only a means to drawing closer to God. And yet, as one philosopher put it many years ago: “We are what we eat.” Often those who eat a great deal of meat, sometimes even more than once a day, are fleshly, carnally-minded people, with little spiritual understanding. Of course this does not mean that we are to be vegetarians and never eat meat. Again, if I may generalize, it sometimes happens that people who eat little or no meat, or constantly diet for fashion's sake, can be faddish or eccentric, and also have little spiritual understanding. The Church therefore does not ask us to fast twelve months of the year. It asks us through Great Lent, the three other Fasts, and Wednesdays and Fridays, to fast for six months of the year. The Church's approach is balanced. That is why this coming week, there is no fast - to remind us that although salvation is not in fasting, on the other hand, it is also true that fasting for Christ's sake will help us draw closer to salvation.
“We are what we eat,” said the philosopher. We can see this especially clearly in Holy Communion. If we come to communion regularly, we are with Christ and He is with us. But if on the other hand, we never come to communion, then we shall never be with Christ and He will never be with us: “We are what we eat.”
If we sincerely, from our hearts, worship and pray to God, read His words, fast and give alms, then we are not behaving as the pharisee, but as the publican, we are asking for mercy, and thus we find justification. Not justification because of our outward actions, but justification through the Mercy of God, which alone makes our salvation possible. In doing all these things, we are actually saying the Prayer of the Publican, which is at the root of the Jesus Prayer: “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” For it is only the Mercy of God, given as a gift to us for our sincerity, which brings us into His presence, bringing us salvation, for our God is merciful and He loves mankind.
God be merciful to us sinners!