Two Paths of Spiritual Life

Homily on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, and the New Martyrs of Russia


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The holy apostle John the Theologian wrote to Christians of all ages:

This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all… If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (1 Jn. 1:5, 9-10).

In these holy words is contained the truth about God and the truth about man and his salvation, which is the striving for his Savior, his striving for the Light.

It so happens that this Sunday, the Church commemorates two events. This day is called the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, and with it begins our spiritual preparation for the repentant weeks of Great Lent, up to the celebration of the Bright Resurrection of Christ.

This day we also commemorate the new martyrs and confessors of the Russian Church. The holy New Martyrs and Confessors have entered the Heavenly Church through the sorrows and sufferings sent to our earthly fatherland, and have by their blood confirmed both their own faith and the earthly Church itself, which has today donned the Paschal, red-colored vestments for the day of their celebration.

The new saints are without number, and time has not yet revealed all their names. The names of some are hidden from us by their obscurity, while others are concealed by a sophisticated lie, by slander, and our mistaken, sinful idea of them. This lie, which was poured boundlessly over the width and breadth of our fatherland during the years of persecution against the Church and God’s people, strove to blacken the Light of Divine Truth itself, converting our former co-religionists and brothers into its servants. And the father and master of this lie was the devil. However, “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness.” And now in those places where martyrs suffered for the God’s truth and where their blood was spilled—here on Lubyanka Street,[1] in the Butovo firing range,[2] on the Solovki Islands,[3] in the place where the royal family died,[4] and in other places—is celebrated the podvig[5] of their moral triumph over the prince of this age—a moral triumph that renews the eternal youth of the earthly Church in a world of sin and apostasy from the cross of Christ.

Their podvigs were different, but their confession of the faith was the same. Here are some words from the epistle of the holy apostle and martyr Paul, which are read on his commemoration day:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?... Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:35, 38-9).

Where did the holy apostle and the holy martyrs find such boldness and brave witness to the Truth? From the personal experience of their lives and faith.

And they took the first step of life in the Church when they accepted with their whole hearts the truth that all people are in sin and under the power of sin, and thus the freedom from sin that makes man perfect, wondrous, pious, meek and a friend of God is brought to pass through the fulfillment of the words of the Holy Gospel.

Which words? The ones that the Lord Savior, the seer of and participant in our salvation, pronounced to His disciples not long before His suffering on the cross. Some of these words are written in the Gospel according to Luke about certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others (Lk. 18:9).

Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. That is how the Savior begins his homily to His disciples. Many people, in the days of our Savior’s earthly life and in our days as well, loved going to the temple, and now to church, but out of these multitudes the Savior defines two groups, examples of two different ways of spiritual life. One of them was righteous—the Pharisee.

Now, after twenty centuries, the very word, “Pharisee”, has inalienably, we could even say firmly, a negative connotation, and the word has become a synonym for insincerity, pretentiousness, and hypocrisy. But in those times the Pharisees were the only members of the God-chosen people who were close to the simple folk, for they themselves came from the people. They fulfilled the entire Law, even more than necessary, and confessed, “the law for the people, and not the people for the law.”

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess (Lk. 18:11-12).

After doing everything in life as he should and even beginning his prayer as he should: “God, I thank Thee,” the Pharisee then immediately moves on to judging his neighbors and exalting himself, as if it were not God Who gave him the strength to do good works but he himself who accomplished everything in life—a self-man man. Thus did the wretch in one moment of imagining himself as the light and source of righteousness destroy all his good works.

And then there is the publican. His sins are not a mere metaphor—we recall the Lord’s definition of the stubborn and prideful, if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican (Mt. 18:17). This was a despised, disdained man who has brought great woe to many people. The curse of so many ruined families lay on his head!

But what of this? He also wants to go to church but he comes not in order to show off his righteousness, not to compare himself with others, and not to justify himself. Recognizing the shamefulness of his life before the infinite greatness of sanctity and righteousness of God, he does not dare even to raise his eyes to the heavens, but beats his breast and says, God be merciful to me, a sinner! (Lk. 18:13).

And what happens? What is the outcome of the Savior’s teaching to us? Everything is turned upside down. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted (Lk. 18:14).

These are the two paths of life—the path of self-aggrandizement and the path of humility. The Jerusalem Temple has long been destroyed, the Pharisees and publicans are no more, but the words of this parable live forever, because they are directed at us, the living temples—human souls.

Thoughts both good and evil enter a living soul today. It is up to us to determine which of them will reign in our hearts. And may the prayer of the lips, that symbol of the threshold to the temple of the human soul, be the prayer of the humble publican. Let us not judge our neighbors, let us not exalt ourselves, be prideful, envious, irritable, or look for our own righteousness. But let us beg, “God! Be merciful to me, a sinner!” After a prayer like this the publican returned home justified, says the Savior Himself; that is, having learned the lesson of the righteousness of God’s commandments.

Thus, all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified (Rom. 8:28-30). And the first step to this glorification, the first step to fulfilling the commandments is the humility of the publican. And the ultimate step is the great podvig of steadfastness and courage in the faith: holy martyrdom.

For us there is only one path—that of recognizing that we have not yet acquired the publican’s humility and repentance. If we admit that we are pharisees we will not be sinning against the truth. If we admit that we are pharisees, this admission and confession will also draw to us the love for mankind and truth of the Lord, Who hastens to save us from sin.

Standing and repenting before the holy doors of The temple, O Lord, we believe that Thou wilt not abandon us, as Thou didst not reject the repentance of the thief who then came to know Thy Kingdom; as Thou didst not reject the harlot who came to Thee in tears; and as Thou didst not reject the repentance of the publican, but wilt receive us as Thy friends who pray to Thee: “God, be merciful to us sinners!”


Hieromonk Nikon (Parimanchuk)
Translation by Nun Cornelia (Rees)


[1] Sretensky Stavropegal Monastery, where this sermon was given, is located on the infamous Lybyanka, where the secret services that carried out tortures and executions during the communist period were headquartered.

[2] A field just south of Moscow where countless victims of the Red terror were executed. This included a huge number of clergy and laity who were murdered for their faith.

[3] The first gulag was established on the Solovki Islands, where the holy Monastery of the Transfiguration was located. Many bishops, priests, and pious laypeople suffered there for their faith; and in fact the monastery itself, which was turned into a gruesome prison camp, was a martyr of sorts.

[4] The Church on the Blood, built on the spot of the demolished Ipatiev house in Ekaterinburg, where the Royal Martyrs Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, and their children were shot to death by the Bolsheviks.

[5] The Russian term meaning labors, efforts forward, great feats. In the Church context it implies self-denying acts and labors for the sake of God.

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