Anyone who has ever attended an Orthodox service knows that repentance is a big deal to us. All one has to do is try to count the number of times that we say “Lord, have mercy” in the services. While this is true in every season, the time of Lent surpasses them all. It is the season of repentance. To help us prepare, the Sundays prior to Lent emphasize the nature and importance of repentance. Last week, we heard the story of Zacchaeus. We were taught that repentance is more than feeling sorry for what we have done. We receive Christ and there is a restoration, not only in ourselves, but in the wrongs we have done to others. When Zacchaeus promises this restoration, Jesus says that now he is a true son of Israel.
Today, in the Gospel reading, we hear again about the Publican and the Pharisee. What can we learn here?
Here is the basic truth of this story. The reason why our repentance is shallow and doesn’t change us is because of our attitude. I can sum that attitude in this simple phrase: I’m Ok and you are not OK.
The Pharisee had a feeling that he was Ok with God. He had his list: I fast, I attend the temple, I tithe, I am a righteous Pharisee, and so on. Based on his list, he believed that he was OK. Jesus didn’t say that his list was untrue. Not all Pharisees were bad hypocrites. Jesus often met and ate with them.
Whatever his status, I shouldn’t think too hard about him. After all, I have my own list. I’ve been married for 43 years and love my wife. I’ve loved my children. I’ve been a priest for almost 25 years, and a protestant minister for 20 years. I’ve made sacrifices-financial, emotional and spiritual. I spent a lot of time helping others. I lead mission trips and taught Bible studies, etc., and etc. My list is true, and I know I have some passions that I should get rid of, but really they are small compared to others on the list. What more could God want of me. I am basically an OK guy. Right?
Maybe you have your own list of what makes you feel like a good man or woman. Maybe, I’ll get you to write a list for homework. But wait, Father. I know I’m not that good. You know too, Father, because I come to confession every week. I don’t think I’m so good. In fact, I think I’m a pretty bad sinner. Surely this sermon isn’t for me! Well, if I had real sorrow for my sinfulness, maybe then I would truly repent and like Zacchaeus, I would change myself. My spiritual Father would always ask me if I felt sorrow for my sins. Yes, I did, but not enough sorrow to actually change myself. The sorrow never comes because after all, I’m really just an OK kind of guy. Right?
There is another way to measure how shallow our repentance truly is, and it has to do with our attitude and judgment.
You’re not OK!
The proof comes when I make a judgment: You’re not OK. When I compare myself to you by how you look, or how you dress, or by how you think, or by how you behave in Church, or by any other “standard”, I prove that I think much of myself because I think so little of you. I am chanting with the Pharisee: I thank God that I am not like you. I’m OK and you are not OK.
With this attitude, my words of repentance are false and shallow, no matter how many times I say “Lord, have mercy.” I will never know the real power of repentance to change my life.
The publican had no time for such judgment. He could have said, “Lord, I thank you that I’m not a hypocrite Pharisee over there.” No, he was too busy looking at himself and measuring the condition of his own soul. The result: Jesus said that he left the Temple justified and Pharisee did not.
It’s simple: judge not, lest ye be judged; or, don’t measure how OK you are by how not OK someone else might be.
Lent will teach us how important repentance is to salvation: Repent, for the Kingdom is at hand. Let’s open our ears and hearts to the season of Lent.