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TALK ON THE PARABLES

PARABLES OF THE PUBLICAN AND PHARISEE,

THE FRIEND IN NEED AND THE PERSISTENT WIDOW  

9th FEBRUARY 2012

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On the Sunday that just passed the Church entered 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 the fourth Sunday before the onset of Great Lent and throughout Great Lent until the last service on Holy and Great Saturday night just before the Resurrection service. The Triodion is therefore the Book of Great Lent but begins with a preparation period with themes to help us prepare ourselves for that spiritual journey that will lead us to Pascha. For each of the four Sundays before Lent, the liturgical themes are based on the Gospel readings of that Sunday. Last Sunday, being the first Sunday, began 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 Parable is part of the middle group of Parables known as the behaviour parables of which we have recently been looking at.
We have seen the interpretation of this Parable many times before and most of you should by now know what it teaches. Nevertheless, it would not be right to give it a miss this year just because we have heard it all before. Certainly we know the Gospel stories, but do we implement them into our lives? Most of us are spiritually weak and often get caught up in our worldly affairs. We need constant reminders to help us get back on the spiritual trail. We need help to replenish our spiritual strength which has weakened and impoverished due to a relaxation in our spiritual efforts. The Church understands our human weakness and our need to slowly prepare for the great effort Great Lent will demand of us. The preparation period is therefore designed to help remind us that the long and difficult journey to Pascha and our salvation cannot be reached unless we first attain the four basic spiritual elements of humility, repentance, love and forgiveness. These are the themes for the four Sundays before Lent. The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee begins this preparation by teaching us two of these elements: Repentance which is the first step on the road to salvation and humility in prayer which we must have if we want God to respond to our prayers.
When we speak of repentance we do not mean a temporary regret for having done something for which we feel guilt. It means a complete change in our way of life, a new beginning living a way of life according to the Gospels and the will of God. It is the message John the Baptist preached in preparing the people for the coming of the Messiah: “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 and now as we prepare to meet the Resurrected Christ the Church reminds us again of the importance of repentance.
Along with the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee, today we will look as two more parables from the same group that teach us how to pray. So let's then hear the first Parable of the Publican and Pharisee.
“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 is about two completely different men from completely different backgrounds who went up to the temple to pray with completely different attitudes.
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. In general most upright and law-abiding citizens despised Publicans because they were tax collectors who 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 extorted from the people double or triple the amount.
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 fulfilment 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 fulfils what the Law requires 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 seen 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, his 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 by 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. The parables are not just stories involving characters unrelated to us. In the majority of them Christ is telling us to look carefully at these characters and try to identify ourselves in them. In the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee we see a character who is hypocritical and cruel and another who was cruel, but repented of his old self and decided to change and follow a path near to God. Which then of the two do we identify ourselves with? Most of us would prefer to identify ourselves with the Publican but have we repented to the same level with signs of his humility and tears? For most of us the answer is no: that is the desired state which we must reach with the help Great Lent will offer us. The only other character in the story is the cruel and hypocritical Pharisee so we must ask ourselves "do we bear him a resemblance?" 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 his pride in all of us. 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. 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.”
The next two Parables we will hear is again on prayer and more especially on our persistence in Prayer. Let's hear the first of these – The Parable of the Friend in need.
"And he said unto them, Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say unto him, Friend, lend me three loaves; For a friend of mine in his journey is come to me, and I have nothing to set before him? And he from within shall answer and say, Trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee. I say unto you, Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needeth. And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?" (St Luke 11:5-13)
The friend is to be compared with God. We would not go knocking at a friend's door at midnight to ask him to lend us three loaves or anything else. Midnight is an inappropriate time to go seeking help from friend's and neighbours, but with God no time is inappropriate for him to hear our requests and give us what we ask for. It is impossible for us to disturb him through our impertinent and untimely and persistent calling on him to hear our petitions. A human friend would indeed be disturbed if we went knocking at his door in the middle of the night when all the household was asleep. More so the friend in the parable who probably had a one room house as most people had in Palestine at that time. The room was the living room, the kitchen, the dining room and the bedroom. At night the area would be cleared and mattresses would be laid down covering most of the flooring. The children slept in the same room as the parents and sometimes grandparents and other relatives. It was therefore almost impossible for the man of the house to get up during the middle of the night to open the door without causing a disturbance to the rest of the household. The friend in the parable says "I cannot rise and give thee" not as a refusal, but to stress the special difficulty that his neighbour has put him in. In fact he does get up and gives him what he needs not because he is a friend and neighbour, but because of the man's boldness and persistence.
The Parable therefore is telling us that if a friend will get up in the middle of the night to fulfil another man's petition and put an end to his persistent harassment, will not God, who never sleeps and cannot be disturbed or harassed by our constant and persistent petitions at whatever time of day or night, also grant us our requests. The Parable also teaches us that we must pray to God with courage and boldness and trust, that we must approach God as we would a neighbour and friend who knows us and loves us and is ready at any time to help us. We must pray to God for everything we have need of and we must pray not only for ourselves but also for others. The man in the parable asked for bread not for himself but for his friend.
Christ continues: "And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you."
Ask seek and knock. Here we have three verbs having a similar meaning obviously taken from the parable. If you want something ask for it, if you want the answer to something seek it, if you want the door to open you must knock. In other words persistence and boldness in prayer will get results.
"For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened." God knows what we need, but that doesn't mean that we should wait around hoping he will give it to us. We must ask for the things that are beneficial for our spiritual welfare. To not ask, to not seek and to not knock are signs of slothfulness and indifference.
Christ then tells us that we should trust God to give us what we ask for by comparing our relationship as parents to our children. If our son were to ask a stranger for something there is no guaranteed that he would receive exactly what he asked for, but if a child of ours was to ask us for bread would we instead give him a stone? If he asks for a fish would we give him a serpent and if he were to ask for an egg would we give him a scorpion?
The example of food is used because nourishment is what our children need from us and our petitions to God should be similar: they should be petitions beneficial for our spiritual nourishment. The three types of food are not coincidental. Bread, boiled eggs and dried preserved fish were the supplies a traveller would take with him on long journeys. The stone, serpent and scorpion do not necessarily mean that they resemble the bread, fish and egg and could therefore easily be mistaken by a child. A stone I suppose can look like the flat breads used in the east and there are sea serpents that look like fish and I have read that a scorpion at rest and all curled up has a remarkable resemblance to an egg, but I think what Christ is simply saying is that we would not give our children things that are pointless and harmful for them. If then we who are evil, meaning not perfect, know how to give good things to our children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him? When we have the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we need nothing more to be content and happy: Because the Holy Spirit is he who works in us the spiritual life and is the means for our future and eternal life. The gift of the Holy Spirit is what each of us should desire and with persistence ask to be given.
The next Parable of the Persistent Widow is again about persistence in prayer.
"And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:1-8)
With this parable the Lord teaches us to be steadfast and persistent in our prayers when we ask for his mercy either for ourselves or for his church. To be persistent in prayer when we ask for strength to overcome our spiritual enemies and the desires and passions of the flesh. The main point of the parable is to teach us to pray with fervency, frequency, steadfastness, boldness, and persistency. Christians must neither waver in prayer nor become despondent, for the Lord defends those faithful to Him. The expression, "though he bear long with them who cry unto Him day and night," that is, who intensely and insistently pray to Him, confirms that God fulfils prayers in accordance with His plans and purposes, at the time He sets. But he does hear all sincere prayer.
The parable begins with a judge who has no fear of God or man. Most people will either fear one or the other. If they are Godless they would still fear the power of their enemies or regard what people think about them, but this judge has neither fear of eternal judgement nor considers the opinions of others about him. The other character of the parable is a widow because widows were easy targets exposed to many who would do them injustice. They were alone with no way of defending themselves. This widow would regularly go to the judge pleading with him to help her and protect her from someone who probably took her land or other property by force. She is not asking for revenge and punishment, but only that he offers her protection against him. Every time her case came up before him he would cast it out but through her persistence he finally gave in and decided to help her. By her constant coming and going and pleading the judge was so irritated with her presence that he decided to heed her request just so that he wouldn't have to listen to her any more. Sounds like most husbands.
So the Lord said that if the unjust judge would avenge a widow who troubled him constantly and heeded her request to get rid of her, will not God also avenge his elect which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? Who are God's elect? Those who God loves and who love him in return. His elect face many dangers and obstacles in this life and many spiritual enemies. Thus his elect have need of his protection to ward off the attacks of these enemies. But the elect must not waver in their prayers, they must cry from the depths of their hearts with fervency, untiring and persistently like the widow and trust and believe that God hears their cries unto him and will one day fulfil their petitions. If the widow was heard by the unjust judge much more will God avenge his elect.
The widow was a stranger to the judge, but the people praying to God are his elect who God knows and loves. The widow was one but his elect are many and when all our voices are joined in prayer the sound is thunderous and cannot be ignored. The widow had no lawyer to help her with her case, but we have as our advocate before God the Father his Son who gave his life on the Cross to help us. The widow didn't have a promise from the judge that one day he would hear her case but we have been promised that if we ask, we shall be given it; if we seek, we shall find; if we knock, the kingdom of heaven will be opened to us. The widow could only approach the judge at a certain time of the day, but we can call upon the Lord at whatever time of the day or night. The judge was annoyed and irritated by the widow's persistence, but God is well pleased with the persistent prayers of his children.
Sometimes God does not fulfil our prayer swiftly, and we begin to lose faith. If the widow had given up after being turned away a few times, she would never have enjoyed the judge's protection, but her persistence brought about a result. Thus Christ is telling us to never give up hope. Never cease to ask until you receive even though a month will pass, a year or three years or a greater number of years; do not give up, but ask with faith, constantly and persistently. God will eventually answer our prayers, but sometimes our faith needs to be tested. God will answer not according to the time we want and expect, but according to the time his divine wisdom knows will be most beneficial for us. Boldness and persistence in prayer is a sign of faith. Christ therefore asks: when he comes again will he find faith on earth? Elsewhere he tells us of the last times that there will be wars, nation shall rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, great earthquakes, famines, pestilences, fearful sights and great signs from heaven. Christians will be persecuted and delivered into prisons, they will be betrayed both by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolks, and friends; and some will be put to death. They will be hated of all men for his name's sake. And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; Men's hearts failing them for fear. (Luke 21: 9-26)
When these times come will Christians remain steadfast in their faith or will they waver and lose hope believing that God has abandoned them? Will we join our voices with the unbelievers saying where is God with all his promises of salvation? What Christ is saying therefore is not that he will not find faith when he comes, but that many difficult times will come, but we should not lose hope or become despondent. Continue with boldness of faith because He will come as promised at the appointed time and put all things right. Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man. (Luke 21:36)