The Orthodox Pages

email: pater@christopherklitou.com 

TALK ON THE PARABLE OF

THE PUBLICAN AND THE PHARISEE
10th Feb 2011

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This Sunday the Church enters the Period known as the Triodion. For those of you who have never heard of this word before it is basically the service Book used by the Church from this Sunday and throughout Great Lent until the last service on Holy and Great Saturday night just before the Resurrection service, which then begins a new period in the Church cycle known as the Pentecostarion. The name Triodion takes its name from the odes sung during Mattins on weekdays of this period. At all other times of the year a collection of short hymns called the canons are made up of eight odes or canticles. Now instead of eight there are only three odes - thus trio for three plus odes make up the word Triodion. It is the book of Lent, but it begins with four Sundays before the onset of Great lent with themes that will help us to prepare for that spiritual journey that will lead us to that feast of all feast, the Festival of Pascha. For each of the four Sundays before Lent, the liturgical themes are based on the Gospel readings of that Sunday. This Sunday, being the first begins with the Gospel reading of the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee which teaches us to beware of the Pharisee’s pride and self assurance, and rather that we should embrace the humility of the Publican. The Kontakion of the day, as also all the hymns, speak clearly of this: “Let us flee from the proud speaking of the Pharisee and learn the humility of the Publican, and with groaning let us cry unto the Saviour: Be merciful to us, for Thou alone art ready to forgive.”
The main message of the Parable is repentance and that is why it was chosen as the Gospel reading to open the new season of the Triodion. It is telling us that it is time to repent and change the way we live and the purpose of this change is to live the life of the Cross so that we may meet Christ.
For the Church the whole of a person’s life is a time of repentance, but because we are careless and lazy in spiritual matters and because we have to defeat and overcome the resistance of our rebellious flesh which doesn’t want to be subjected and bound to the spiritual life, the Church proclaims repentance and calls us to battle even just for this short period before Easter. Before repentance our bearings and affections relate to our fallen state, or us St. Paul say, to the “old man” or the man according to the flesh. Our whole life is wasted satisfying the desires and pursuits of our egocentric self. These bearings and affections lead man to eternal death because they distance him from God. The Church’s call for repentance means to destroy the old self which is governed by the passions and transform these bearings and affections into a living communion with God and man. This transformation does not mean our external behaviour, but an internal change, a radical transformation of our life and very existence.
The period of the Triodion, and especially the four preparatory Sundays, wants to make us aware of the true meaning of life. Our detachment from God is detachment from life, and only where God is can we find eternal life. Where God is absent there is death – first of the soul and then of the body. Thus if we want to live we must change our way of life, we must repent. To help us change we need help and this is where Lent comes in. Lent teaches us how to change and offers us the tools which will help us to do battle against the resistance generated by our carnal desires. These tools are fasting, prayer, charity and almsgiving, love for others expressed in practical form, by works of compassion and forgiveness and our participation in the Sacraments of the Church. By following this new way of living we partake of the Lord’s Passion. By putting to death the passions and our life according to the flesh, we partake of the Cross and are resurrected into a new life with God. By walking a new path in life we become new people and our prototype is none other than Christ who is our salvation.

This u-turn of both the body and soul, in search of God’s grace for help so that we may follow in Christ’s footsteps by becoming dead and resurrected, is the purpose of the Triodion and especially of Great Lent. Over the next three Sundays we will hear three Parables that will teach us the frame of mind we must have to reap the spiritual benefits of Great Lent: they are - The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Last Judgement.
What is a Parable? A parable is a story told in a familiar and simple way with a moral lesson as a means to teach us that we need to change our current way of life. It is used as an analogy [comparison] so that one can understand a deeper meaning having a religious and spiritual significance. Jesus probably used parables to explain His teachings because there was less chance of people being offended than if he came straight out and told them the truth about their spiritual condition. Every parable requires that we change our behaviour, our thoughts, our beliefs, in fact our complete way of life if we want to be saved and live eternally with God.
Jesus’ parables teach a series of moral concepts using the culture of the times, but they are just as relevant for us today as they were then. To understand all parables we must first identify ourselves with the characters, because one of them is me. Jesus is talking directly to me and he wants me to understand how distant my life is from God. Thus, in the first of these Parables which we will hear this Sunday we are asked to search our heart and to identify ourselves with either the Publican or the Pharisee. This does not mean that the identification needs to be exactly the same: in the story there are elements that refer to fallen human nature and as we are all part of this fallen nature then naturally there are some common elements that we can all identify with.
In the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee Christ gives us to understand what is and what is not repentance. Repentance is the first step on the road to salvation. It means to acknowledge that our life on earth is a temporary abode: a life in exile from the Paradise of Bliss which we lost when Adam fell from grace. Christ, through his Death and Resurrection, re-opened the gates of paradise for man and our time on earth is given to us to strive to re-enter this paradise by living not according to the lustful desires of the flesh, but according to the spirit. St. Paul says “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace”.
The Greek word for repentance is metanoia and means to have a change of mind, but it means more than just a short term feeling of remorse: it entails a complete change in lifestyle to a way of life according to the will of God. This message of repentance, of a change in lifestyle is echoed throughout the Old Testament. A great example is the story of the Ninevites who believed Jonah and repented of their evil ways. The outcome of their repentance was that they were spared from certain death. At the dawning of a new era, John the Baptist, preparing the people for the coming of the Messiah, preached “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand”. When Christ came he preached the same message and through his teaching he continually pounded the message of repentance showing us how necessary it is for our salvation. This message of repentance has never stopped; it was taken up by the Apostles and the Church, through the liturgical hymns and sermons and other means at her disposal, continually reminds us that we must repent of our sinful ways if we want to live eternally with Christ.
Before we analyse the Gospel reading we need to know what and who were Publicans and Pharisees and what would be their equivalent today: the Publican for example, was not the owner of a pub.
Publicans were tax collectors, but a lot worse than Inland Revenue. They bought from the Romans, the rights to collect the taxes from the people, but instead of collecting the proper taxes that the Romans asked for, they burdened the people with double or triple amounts and were therefore very much hated and held in contempt as being the lowest of all men.
Who were the Pharisees? During the time of Christ there were various religious and political groups. The two main religious groups were the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were actually more political than religious. They comprised the aristocratic political party and were supported by the leading priestly families. Of the Old Testament they only accepted the Pentateuch – the five books of Moses also known as the Law and denied the traditional beliefs of the resurrection of the body and immortality. They also denied the existence of angels and demons. On this account they were unpopular with the people who stood firm to the Law as interpreted by the traditions.

In opposition to the Sadducees were the Pharisees which means “the Separated” who were the puritans of the faith and strived to keep themselves pure from any spiritual, moral or bodily contamination. They were strict adherents to the written Law and accepted texts outside of the Pentateuch and were considered the most expert and accurate interpreters of the Jewish Law. They believed in a doctrine of angels and fallen spirits and held to the beliefs of a resurrection and immortality and that after death there would be a judgement of rewards and punishment. They also held, like the majority of the people, to the Messianic hope. On the whole, the Pharisees and their beliefs won the admiration of the people, in spite of the fact that their attitude towards the masses was contemptuous. They considered themselves above all other men because they considered that their knowledge of the Law and their external religious observances placed them above the common person and prided themselves in self righteousness. For this they received Jesus’ admonition who warned the people against following their hypocritical actions. Because of this the term Pharisee has become a descriptive word to describe a self-righteous hypocrite.
Let’s now hear the Gospel reading.
“The Lord said this parable: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. 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. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon 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 every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)
The parable we have just heard is about two completely different men from completely different backgrounds who went up to the temple to pray with completely different attitudes. Let’s look first at the Pharisee and then move on to the Publican.
The Pharisee was a member of a religious group who, as puritans of the Jewish faith, zealously kept the letter of the Law. He believes that he is an exemplary example to others of what a good Jew must be and because he was such a perfect Jew who had never made a mistake he never felt the need for repentance. He goes to the temple to pray, but his prayer is not a thanksgiving but a proclamation of his righteousness. He is so self-assured and proud of himself that he is perfect that he justifies himself before God that he is righteous, and not like other men who are extortioners, unjust and adulterers and seeing the Publican who was standing at a distance, he adds “and especially not like that Publican” whom he considered as the worst kind of person – the scum of the earth.
The Pharisee cannot see his own wretched condition; he cannot see his own sins, but only the sins of other men. He is an egocentric man, arrogant, self-asserted, cruel and inhumane especially with sinners like the Publican whom he would certainly have nothing to do with lest he became contaminated. He is proud and boastful that he had knowledge of the Law yet he disregarded the Giver of the Law. Except for his self-love he didn’t know the meaning of love. He disregarded the fact that love is the fulfillment of the Law of which he considered he was a teacher and interpreter; and this was all due to the fact that he didn’t have even a vague relationship with God who is love.
He keeps to the letter of the law by fasting twice a week and contributes to the temple according to what the law tells him to contribute. Thus because he externally fulfills what the Law required of him, he believes that this is all that God requires of him. According to how he understands the Law, he is righteous so why would he need to change, why even would he need to ask for God’s mercy, only sinners ask for God to be merciful, but he is not a sinner so in effect he doesn’t even need God. The only reason he went up to the temple to pray was to be seen by other men. The whole purpose of the Pharisee’s life is to be recognized by others as good, great, wise and a teacher of virtue. Whatever good he does he does it to be seem by other people and attract their praise and glory. He suffers from egocentricity and self-satisfaction. He never presents himself as he actually is so that he doesn’t diminish his reputation, image and authority among the people. His vainglory has no limits. He pretends to be pious and creates a false image for himself and others. How can such a man repent when repentance presupposes an act of self denial? How can he crucify his ego and place it below everyone else when he strives to always be above everyone else? He will never taste the heights to which humility can take him. He goes up to the temple with the Publican to pray and to meet God, but he can’t imagine that God can only be found on the road of humility.
In the parable Christ says: “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself”. The fathers say that the “Pharisee stood” is interpreted as meaning his high and mighty arrogance, his high-mindedness and his unrepentant attitude. He certainly doesn’t pray to God for as Christ said: he prayed to himself. He thanks God not for his beneficence, but because he is different from everyone else. All other people are extortioners, unjust and adulterers. He judges, insults and humiliates everyone except himself.
In contrast to the Pharisee, the Publican, who recognized that he was a sinner and felt his unworthiness before God, stood afar off and couldn’t even lift his eyes up to heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. The Publican is an example of true repentance and the first sign from which repentance begins is for the person to feel his inadequacy and weakness without God. From all the money that he extorted with the heavy taxes that he imposed on people the Publican is wealthy, yet his wealth does not make him feel self-sufficient. His wealth is not in a position to take the place of God’s grace and gift of love. That is why he decides to repent, to put to death the self-ruling egocentric life without God and to make for himself a new life with God. The death of his old life will be very costly, not in terms of his worldly wealth, but internally. He will have to put to death the will of the flesh, but the Publican is willing to give blood to gain the Spirit. It is a death that will bring life and happiness, because it puts to death the self-love and sinful desires. All his efforts, the desires and strength of his soul and body to acquire the vast fortune he gained now have to be put to death or rather transformed into a struggle to acquire the spiritual and heavenly gains.
He goes up to the temple with the Pharisee to pray. Unlike the Pharisee, the going up does not necessarily mean that the temple was situated in a high place. It refers to the inner rising of his soul. He goes up and rises to the divine life, because he decided to put to death his old life. He rises because his soul has advanced in virtue and in this case the virtue of humility. With humility his old life according to the flesh, which thirsted for wealth and the praises of men, is now vanished and he rises to a life according to God – a life of love and communion with God and his neighbour. Humility is the beginning, the middle and the end of repentance. It is the garment with which Christ clothed himself when he became man and now clothed with the same garment of humility the Publican begins his relationship with Christ. The fathers say that whoever clothes himself with the garment of humility clothes himself with Christ.
The Publican does not act or pretend to be good so that he can gain the respect and admiration of the people. To act and pretend is false whereas the Publican is a truthful person, as truthful as the saints who believed and spoke of their wretchedness and this is what the Publican believed. He presents himself as unjust, a money shark who extorts the people of their living, someone with an unclean and polluted soul. He doesn’t pretend to be pious, because he isn’t. He says the truth no matter how bitter that truth is. With such feelings not only does he humble himself, but breaks down before God and with total remorse for his sinful life, he yearns for Christ’s forgiveness and for a new beginning and inner relationship with him.
Entering the temple, he stands afar off, in other words he avoids every prominent position unlike the Pharisee who probably stood in the centre to be seen be all. The Publican doesn’t want to place himself in the public eye; he has no desire for public recognition: he stood afar off because he felt unclean and unworthy of entering further into the temple. He prays with a contrite heart, with tears and groanings, he beats his breast and asks for the greatest of all things, for God’s mercy. His continual prayer is “God be merciful to me a sinner.” His passion for wealth has been transformed into passion for God’s mercy and this is repentance.
Is it possible for God who loves mankind to refuse his mercy with such a prayer that comes forth from a broken and contrite heart? Does not the psalm say “a broken and a contrite heart, O God thou wilt not despise”?
The Pharisee judges him in public, he humiliates him and ridicules him and the Publican accepts this and isn’t enraged to recompense insult with insult, because he believes that he is a lot worse that what he has been accused. He accepts the humiliation and the dishonour, because with these God will justify him and raise and exalt him. He has no more any desire for worldly praise and admiration, he has erased himself from the world and has become as St. Paul says a “fool for Christ”.
With the loss of a person’s ego and by nailing the reproach and pains of the sinful man upon the Cross, he joins himself to Christ and becomes a follower and partaker of Christ’s own reproach and mockery that he suffered at Golgotha. He becomes a new person according to the example of Christ. This new life is what Christ is referring to when he said that the Publican went down to his house justified, because he that humbles himself will be exalted. The Publican’s repentance is revealed as a resurrection from the dead. He has changed and returned to the true life, his first love for wealth and human glory has been transformed into love for God and his kingdom. What the Publican felt in his heart and soul – the joy of being resurrected from the reproaches of men, the sweetness that came after the bitterness of the insults and humiliation, the peace after the suffering – these cannot be put into words or truly understood by us who have never had the experience of true repentance.
The central message of the Parable is repentance, but it is interwoven which warnings to beware of the sin of pride. Like I said earlier we need to identify with the characters of the Parable, but when we read it can we truly say that we can identify ourselves with the Publican; do we have his humility and tears? For most of us the answer is no so the only other character in the story is the hypocritical and cruel Pharisee. We may not like him and certainly we can’t imagine ourselves resembling him even the slightest, but if we look deep and truly examine ourselves there are elements of him in all of us. Where I hear you say? Pride is a devious sin and has a way of concealing itself in righteousness. Good is not always good. We judge what is good by our fallen human nature, yet this good might be completely different to what the Gospel teaches and if it is different then it is not really good, but evil dressed up as good. This can sound confusing and even a paradox, but that is because we don’t properly understand how our fallen human nature is mixed with evil.

St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, a Russian saint who died in 1867 wrote in his book “The Arena” “Has some good thought come to you? Stop? Whatever you do, do not rush to implement it or carry it out over-hastily, without thinking. Have you felt some good impulse or inclination in your heart? Stop? Do not dare to be drawn by it. Check it with the Gospel. See whether your good thought and your heart’s good impulse tally with the Lord’s holy teaching. You will soon see that there is no agreement whatever between the good of the Gospel and the good of fallen human nature. The good of our fallen nature is mixed with evil, and therefore this good has become evil, just as delicious and wholesome food becomes poison when it is mixed with poison. Guard yourself from doing the good of fallen nature”
What St. Ignatius is saying is that the good taught by Christ always involves humility and if our good thoughts and actions are not the result of humility then they are not really good because somewhere in all the good that we do we will also find pride and a feeling of self-satisfaction that we have done good.
When we do something good do we not want recognition for what we have done, if we help someone do we not want at least a thank you, when we fast do we not let others know that we are doing our duty as good Christians? Let’s us not forget that the Pharisee was a good Jew; he observed all the requirements of the Law. For us also, if we fulfil the requirements of the Church will we not also consider ourselves as good Christians? When we talk with others who have no idea about religious matters do we not take pride that we have a certain amount of knowledge and can enlighten them. Somewhere in all that we do pride is always lurking and hiding and ready to pop up its ugly head. If we assume that we are spiritually strong enough to overcome pride then this is also a form of pride. No matter how virtuous we have become, if there is still a little pride in the background then our virtues have no value. Pride is the hardest vice to overcome. It is the mother of all vices and the original sin. It was pride that brought down Lucifer and his angelic order. It was pride that brought about Adam’s exile from Paradise. That was why Christ clothed himself with humility to reopen the gates of Paradise.
Humility is the only thing that can overcome pride. That is why the Parable gives us the two extremes – the Pharisee’s pride and the Publican’s humility. By placing this Parable as the beginning of the Triodion the Church wants to teach us that the first step on our journey to meet Christ is to learn humility. This is easier said than done. Humility is the most difficult of all virtues because in society the general understanding is that humility is a sign of weakness. Could we honestly say that if someone was to insult us in public as did the Pharisee to the Publican, that we would not be offended, that we would not be angered, that we would not verbally retaliate and give as good as we got? Would we have feelings of sincere love for that person, would we pray for that person and would we say in our hearts: “God forgive him for he knows not what he does?”
Humility is a martyrdom, it is the way of the Cross and as followers of Christ we are asked to follow in his footsteps as Christ said ‘Learn from me for I am meek and humble in heart’. Humility means to become like Christ and to accept as Christ did before his life-saving sacrifice on the Cross the spittings, the scourging, the buffetings, the curses, the mocking, the crucifixion and death.
As true followers of Christ we must always be ready to suffer ridicule and humiliation. Christ said that “The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you;” but he also said: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven.”