The Lord told this parable: ”Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed
about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men - robbers, evildoers, adulterers - or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”(Luke 18, 10-14)
Before the soldier goes to battle, he undergoes a long period of military training to prepare himself physically and psychologically for combat and to enable him to bear the burdens and inconveniences of military life.
In like manner, holy Church, our good Mother, prepares us, her children, spiritually for the struggles we must undergo before she imposes upon us the strict Great Fast. This is precisely the aim of the four pre-Lenten Sundays which begin with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee and end with Cheesefare Sunday.
In our Church services of those Sundays, holy Church places before our eyes several biblical scenes: the proud Pharisee and the humble Publican, the conversion of the Prodigal Son, the scene of the Last Judgment, and the expulsion of our First Parents from Paradise. These dramatic scenes have the power to move us to the depths; they reveal God’s mercy and justice, and convince us of the need for conversion and penance for our salvation. Meditation on these events should evoke in us a serious attitude toward fasting, convincing us of its necessity and benefit as it gradually prepares us for the Fast itself.
The above pre-Lenten Sundays were incorporated into our church Calendar in the later centuries; it was not until then that the Great Fast assumed its present day form. First to be added before the Great Fast were the Sundays of Meatfare and Cheesefare; only later, sometime in the eighth or ninth centuries, the Sundays of the Publican and the Pharisee and the Sunday of the Prodigal Son were added.The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee received its name from the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, recorded in the gospel of St. Luke (18, 10-.14). In this parable, Jesus Christ gives us two contrasts: the proud Pharisee and the humble Publican. Using these two types of people. He points out the ugliness of pride and the significance of humility.
The parable portrays a typical Pharisee. Although he came to the temple to pray, he praised, not God but himself. He does not ask God to pardon his sins. On the contrary, being sure of his righteousness, he even thanks God that he is not a sinner. He brags about his fasting and the tithes he gives to the temple of God, while at the same time, he looks down upon the Publican as upon a great sinner.
The Publican, conscious of his own sinfulness, does not even dare raise his eyes to heaven, but prays humbly and strikes his breast, saying: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner. (Luke 18:13). His short prayer, full of sorrow and humility, remains to this day, a most beautiful and sincere act of sorrow for our sins.
Jesus Christ ends this parable with the words: “I tell you, this man went back to his home justified rather than the other, for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.” (Luke 18).
This parable teaches us clearly that God does not look at the person or his position in life, but at the person’s heart and soul. This enables us to understand the truth of the words of Holy Scripture: “God resists the proud, and gives grace to the humble.” (I Peter 5,5). It is understandable then why God rejected the prayer of the vaunting and arrogant Pharisee but heard the prayer of the humble Publican.
Since pride is one of the capital sins, it is the greatest obstacle to conversion and penance, while humility is the beginning of true conversion and the foundation of sincere penance and fasting.
For this reason, holy Church desires that we also, as we approach the Great Fast, prepare ourselves for it with great humility, mindful of our sinfulness, for only then will we experience compunction of heart and possess the courage and goodwill to Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee undertake fasting and penance. Without humility, there is no conversion, no sorrow for sin, and no return to God.
from A Byzantine Rite Liturgical Year..