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PUBLICAN AND PHARISEE
fr_basil
THE PUBLICAN AND THE PHARISEE
Luke 18: 10-14
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
If we want to understand the meaning of today’s parable, we needn’t look any further than the Lord’s words from the verse that came just before:

"And He (i.e, the Lord) spoke also this parable unto certain men who trust in themselves that they are righteous, and despise others (Luke 18:9.)"

Luke tells us that this parable is specifically aimed at a particular group of people, “certain men” it says, who believe that they are righteous and godly, yet they judge and condemn others. These are the Pharisees, of course, but we can all learn a lesson from them, can’t we? That’s why the account is preserved for us in the Bible! The Pharisees are confident that they are good and that they follow the commandments God perfectly. They are mistaken, though, if they despise others. That’s why the Lord, in another place, says to the Pharisees: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice!’” (Matthew 9: 13). Sacrifice, the Greek word θυσίαν, means religious offerings. So the Lord is saying: “I desire to see mercy coming from you rather than all of your religious offerings!” In another place, God chastises His stiff-necked and backsliding people by saying to them: “Do not offer your vain sacrifices to Me anymore: your incense is an abomination to Me. Your new moons, and your sabbaths, and your great feasts I will not abide, your assemblies are wicked...your fasting, and your Sabbath rest from work, your new moons also, and your festivals my soul hates: ye have become loathsome to me; I will no more pardon your sins. When ye stretch forth your hands, I will turn away mine eyes from you: and though ye make many supplications, I will not hearken to you;” (Isaiah 1:13, 15 LXX). Why did He say this to them? Because “they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel does not know me, and the people have not regarded me. Ah, sinful nation, a people full of sins, an evil seed, lawless children: ye have forsaken the Lord, and provoked the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 1:2-4). In other words, God’s people had turned away from Him. Oh, sure, they were still doing “religion,” but they forgot about their relationship with God. They forgot that if they were truly close to God, then they would naturally become more like Him, reflecting not only the image of God, but also the “likeness” of God. And what is God like? Psalm 102/103 tells us: He forgives all of our transgressions, He heals all our diseases; He crowns us with mercy and compassion; He satisfies our yearnings with good things. The Lord executes mercy and judgment for all that are oppressed. The Lord is compassionate and kind, patient, and full of mercy.
Does that sound like the Pharisee in today’s Gospel? Did he have thoughts of compassion and mercy, and forgiveness toward the tax-collector? No, quite the opposite. This Pharisee didn’t come to the temple to pray out of piety. No, he came to the temple in order to be seen there! This Pharisee didn’t come to the temple to make his tithes and offerings to God. No, he came to brag about his tithes, and show off about his fasting, etc. He came to put himself on display like a preening peacock! He offered nothing but vainglory. What does the Lord Jesus say about such people?
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe of mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Luke 11:42).
“You neglect justice and the love of God.” In other words, “You don’t love God and you don’t judge or treat others fairly. You don’t see people like God sees people. You have to make others look small in order to foster the illusion that you are somehow bigger and better.”
St Cyril of Alexandria says: “Our virtue...must not be contaminated with sin, but must be focused and blameless, and free from anything that can bring blame upon us. For what profit is there in fasting twice a week, if your doing so only serves as a pretext for ignorance and vanity, and makes you condescending, haughty, and selfish? You tithe from your possessions, and boast about it; that’s bad enough, but then you, in another way, provoke God's anger by accusing and condemning others because of it. You are puffed up. You have crowned yourself with a crown of righteousness that God has not given to you, but rather, you heap praises upon yourself. ‘For I am not,’ he says, ‘like other people.’ Moderate yourself, O Pharisee: put a guard on your mouth and a strong door over your lips (see Psalm 140 LXX). Reduce your pride: for arrogance is both accursed and hated by God. Although you fast, if you do it with a puffed up mind, and it will avail you nothing. Your labour will be unrewarded; for you have mingled dung with your perfume.”
So, now, what about the publican, i.e. the tax collector? What do we learn from him? Well, tax collectors were universally despised in 1st century Palestine. Why? Was it because they were the agents of the hated occupying Roman Empire? Yes, but that wasn’t the worst bit. The tax-collectors also padded their own personal income by misrepresenting how much each person owed. They were thieves. They were corrupt. That being said, why does the tax-collector leave the temple forgiven? Why was it that only his prayer was heard? He leaves forgiven because he was humble. Humility is the opposite of pride. Humility is the antidote to pride. When the tax-collector came to the temple he was already weeping over his sins. Psalm 50/51 says that God will not despise “a broken and contrite heart.” The tax-collector was already broken by the grace of the Holy Spirit. “God be merciful to me, a sinner” was his only prayer. His heart, his soul, and the words of his mouth were all connected to God. There was no phony religiosity in the tax-collector at all, only sincere, raw, repentance.
So today the Church asks us to meditate on and incorporate these lessons into our own hearts and minds. The words of the Triodion tell us how:
Let us cast foolish pride from our souls, learning to think with truth and humility; let us not try to justify ourselves, but to hate pride’s delusion, and so with the Publican, obtain God’s mercy. // Let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee and learn humility from the Publican’s tears! Let us cry out to our Saviour: Have mercy on us, O only merciful One! Amen.