The Publican and the Pharisee

It would not be an exaggeration to say that most of us are familiar with this Gospel reading. We can identify it as one of the readings leading us into Great Lent. The reading itself offers us an important key to understanding its meaning: the Lord says at the end of the parable that “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” There is another key, which is given to us in the verse that immediately precedes the reading for this morning: the Lord addresses this parable to some “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” To utilize these keys, to take advantage of these “book ends” that offer us insight into this parable, we need to think very carefully, very clearly, about the attitude of these two men.  


The first question we need to ask is, what is the flaw, or more specifically what is the sin, of the Pharisee? Of course the easy answer is “pride.”  But do not answer “pride”.  Our hymnody repeatedly draws our attention to this sin. Yet the parable compels us to delve deeper in order to understand what it is precisely that makes one prideful. What is it that deceives one into thinking that he is above others? As you are thinking about this question, I want to offer you some more food for thought that comes from St. Maximus the Confessor. As usual what he has to say is very dense and requires as much concentration and attention as does Holy Scripture.  Listen to what he says: “Virtue exists for the sake of truth, but truth does not exist for the sake of virtue. Thus he who practices virtue for the sake of truth is not wounded by the arrows of self-esteem. But he who pursues truth for the sake of virtue does harbor the conceit which self-esteem generates.” St. Maximus is offering us another key to this parable that is read year after year and which is as familiar to us as our telephone number. And yet, because of that familiarity, it can easily slip through our hands like a bar of soap, or like sand going through our fingers. Virtue exists for the sake of truth, but truth does not exist for the sake of virtue. 


Let’s now go back to the sin of the Pharisee. What is it? The Pharisee enjoys congratulating himself.  Consequently he lacks inner vision.  He is unable to see himself as he actually is.  Vision plays a very important role in this parable. But impaired vision is not the only defect of the Pharisee. As he recites his prayer, he is using words that he in fact cannot hear.  For if he was able to hear he would have discovered what nonsense was being uttered.  I use this term “nonsense” based on what we will be hearing in a few weeks from the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete.  In the Wednesday section of his Canon, St. Andrew refers to this man as “congratulating himself”, and then points out he utters “other foolish things”. He cannot see and therefore he cannot see himself; he cannot see God, and he certainly cannot see the Publican who is standing behind him. He cannot hear because he is unable to be attuned to the One who seeks to speak to him, that is, God Himself. The Pharisee’s inability to see and hear prevent him from entering that living, vital, saving dialogue with God.  He is a man cut off from himself; he is a man who, having raised himself above others, sees his behavior as the measure of his worth. He sees his behavior, and we can draw in here again this word “virtue” as that which sets him above the others. 


Now this raises a very serious issue for us as we are gathered here celebrating this Eucharist because for us (here we have to use St. Maximus again) truth does not exist for virtue, virtue exists for truth. The whole approach to behavior in our Church is not related to virtue. How we behave and therefore how we understand ethics and relate to one another and the entire creation is not driven by virtue but by truth.  Why?  Because truth for us is not a concept, it is not a philosophy, it is not an ideology, and it is not a system. Truth is the very person of God. Virtue exists for truth either as a way to being open to the living Word of God Who desires to be heard, Who desires to be seen, and Who desires to be embraced. Or truth itself is reflected in our behavior. Thus we behave the way we do based on our relationship with God Who is The Truth.


So as we approach the time of Great Lent, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that it is the time when Christians strive to be better. If this is our approach, we are missing the gift that the Church is always offering us not just during Lent but all the time. The Church is offering us the Triune and Tri-personal God; the Church is offering us the One Who is Life, Light and Truth. He is the one who calls us to draw near.  Think of what we heard this morning in the autobiographical notes St. Paul shares with Timothy. Paul’s struggles, his sacrifices, his steadfastness, his vigilance, all stem from his desire to be in communion with The Truth. All that he is stems from his relationship with the One Who is Truth. So let’s be very clear here. Virtue is important, but it must stand in its proper place.  It must never usurp The Truth.  It must never become a substitute for The Truth. Virtue discloses the depth of our contact and unity with The Truth. Should virtue supercede The Truth we fall into that hell of blindness, deafness, and hard heartedness. With the displacement of Truth by virtue our behavior becomes the false standard and goal of life.  St. Maximus reminds us that when truth exists for virtue the relationship with God ceases to be a concern. Christ is reduced to a name with little if any significance to our lives while our virtuous accomplishments are forged into the idol of “truth.” This morning’s Gospel is calling us to see that faith in Christ offers us salvation, while works do not.  And St. Paul in his letters to the Romans and to the Galatians is echoing this parable of the Lord. Faith in the Lord, faith in the One Who is Truth gives us life.  From this life flow the virtues and at the same time all the virtues become drawn to this life.


Now what about the attitude, the posture of this man in the temple? He is erect, he is one who is because of his virtues satisfied with himself. He is in the temple of the Lord, and yet he cannot enter into the reality of the temple. Here I want to share with you part of a conversation I had some years ago with Metropolitan George Khodr, one of the most esteemed bishops of the Patriarchate of Antioch. We were taking a walk around Beacon Hill. We were talking about many things - politics, literature, the pastoring of homosexuals, life in Lebanon during the civil war, and Christianity without Christ. He had just finished an article precisely with that title - “Christianity without Christ.” To illustrate this type of Christianity he spoke about a priest of his archdiocese. This priest was brilliant. He knew theology better than most.  He knew how to use his beautiful voice to enhance the beauty of the divine services. He was an aesthete and so he appreciated what is beautiful and harmonious. This priest knew the Typicon from beginning to end, and yet woven into his life was a tragic strand that bound him to hell.  His many accomplishments and talents were ends in themselves that prevented him from entering the divine reality that was opened to him day after day. This is the tragedy of the Pharisee.  He is in the temple of the Lord, he is in the presence of the Lord, but he cannot enter that reality, he cannot see it, he cannot hear it, he cannot feel it, he cannot be part of it, because he has closed himself off through his “virtue” and through his pride.


The Publican has the posture of one bent over. He cries out “Have mercy!”  He is not the measure, he is not the rule, of behavior.  The Publican knows himself, and because he knows himself he is aware of God’s presence.  Standing before The Divine he yearns to see, to hear, and to embrace the Living God.  Seeking The One who is The Truth, he confesses, “Have mercy on me!”  Because the Publican seeks after truth, he is able to repent, he is able to confess, and he is able to return to his home as one who is justified in the eyes of God. 


So as we prepare to enter into this period of Lent, we have to begin to clarify our vision, to unclog our ears, to soften our hearts. There must be no heart of stone among us who celebrate the Lord’s Eucharist. We must be open to the One Who is Truth, because He is the One Who gives us life, He is the One Who offers us His death and Resurrection, He is the One Who is in our midst now, Who has endowed us with His Kingdom which is to come.





Copyright © 2003 by Father Robert M. Arida