The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee is the first Sunday of a three-week period prior to the commencement of Great Lent. It marks the beginning of a time of preparation for the spiritual journey of Lent, a time for Christians to draw closer to God through worship, prayer, fasting, and acts of charity.
The day is named after one of Jesus’ Parables as told in the Gospel of Luke. The icon is a pictorial version of the parable, which is presented below:
[Jesus] spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:
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 [or Publican]. 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.
(From: Luke 18:9-14)
O Lord, You condemned the Pharisee who justified himself by boasting of his works, and You justified the Publican who humbled himself and with cries of sorrow begged for mercy. For You reject proud-minded thoughts, O Lord, but do not despise a contrite heart. Therefore in abasement we fall down before You Who have suffered for our sake: Grant us forgiveness and great mercy.
Let us flee the proud speaking of the Pharisee and learn the humility of the Publican, and with groaning let us cry to the Saviour: Be merciful to us, for You alone are ready to forgive.
A note on Didactic Icons
The above icon of the Publican and the Pharisee is what is called a didactic, or “teaching”, icon. The main difference between these icons and other Holy Icons is that didactic icons do not show actual people, but generic “types”. We can learn from the consequences of the Pharisee’s prayer and the Tax Collector’s prayer, both of which are shown in the icon. The Tax Collector is shown with a “halo” on the right, but this is not to show him as a canonized Saint who can be prayed to, but merely to show that he returned “to his house justified”. As the icon does not show actual people, it is not venerated as an icon depicting Christ or the Saints would be.