HUMILITY: The Sunday of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee
Brethren, let us not pray like the Pharisee, for those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Let us be humbled before God through fasting like the tax collector, as we cry aloud, “God forgive us sinners.” (First troparion of Vespers, Sunday of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee)
IT IS NO COINCIDENCE that the season of the Lenten Triodion begins on the Sunday of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee. Not only the hymns of the Triodion, but also the appointed Gospel and epistle readings for the season, play an important part in preparing Orthodox Christians for Lent. The lessons of the entire liturgical life of the Church from this point warn Christians to avoid hypocritical fasting, to fast spiritually as well as physically, and to abstain from wrongdoing, from pride, from judging one another.
The first lesson is the Gospel reading for the Sunday that begins the season of the Triodion:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess: And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’ (Luke 18:9-14)
The main hymn for the day echoes the Gospel lesson:
Let us flee the proud speech of the Pharisee; and let us learn the humility of the tax collector, as with groans we cry to the Savior: Be merciful to us, for You alone are ready to forgive. (Kontakion for the Sunday of the Tax collector and the Pharisee)
The warning to flee pride is given to us not only in words, but also in practical terms. On most Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year, Orthodox Christians fast—that is, they abstain from meat and dairy, and usually fish also—but during the week following the Sunday of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, these fast days are abolished.
Many Orthodox Christians make the mistake of thinking we are absolved from fasting during that week in order to gorge on meat and dairy before Lent begins, but this is not the reason at all. Indeed, if this were the reason, the Church would have appointed the following week—the week before Cheesefare week, when limited fasting begins—to suspend these fast days.
The reason the Church suspends fasting for this week is to warn us not to imitate the Pharisee, who boasts before God, “I fast twice a week:’ Thus the Church reminds us—not only through the lessons of the Gospel and of the Triodion, but also through its injunction not to fast during that week—that it is better not to fast and to be humble than it is to fast and be proud.
Thus the Sunday of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee gives us the first lesson of Lent: Physical fasting is a means to an end, not the end in itself. If our fasting makes us prideful, we are better off not fasting at all.
Lent is thus announced as a quest for humility, which is the beginning of true repentance and the root and strength of the Lenten effort.
~Vassilios Papavassiliou, Meditations for Great Lent: Reflections on the Triodion