PROPER OF THE SEASON
SUNDAY OF THE PUBLICAN AND THE PHARISEE
L E T us flee the vaunting of the pharisee and learn the humility of the publican, whilst crying out unto the Saviour with groanings: Be gracious unto us, O Thou Who alone dost readily forgive
Gospel of Luke 18:9-14, & Epistle 2 Tim 3:10-15
Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther
Today’s epistle comes from a private letter to a student, Timothy, whose father was a Greek and whose mother was a Jewish Christian. Paul is probably writing from prison in the year A.D. 65, and he says in ch 4, 11, that ‘only Luke is with me.’ This appears to be Luke the writer of the gospel. Paul urges Timothy to visit him to gain further advice on what he must do in the days ahead, when Paul will no longer be beside him. Paul’s urgency is coloured by his feeling that he may be executed, and he has to make every word count. So he is not showing off, but speaking straight to the point. ‘You know … what I have taught, how I have lived, what I have aimed at: you know my faith, my patience and my love; my constancy and the hardships that came to me… all the persecutions I have endured; and the lord has rescued me from every one of them.’ The first point: life in Christ is a long job; it is not something without effort. ‘You are well aware… that anybody who tries to live in devotion to Christ is certain to be attacked; while these wicked impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and deceived themselves.’ The second point: Paul had many times to remind the new Christians that orthodox belief was a matter of getting everything right; not exaggerating some parts and losing sight of others. ‘You must keep to what you have been taught and know to be true; remember who your teachers were, and how, ever since you were a child, you have known the holy scriptures – from these you can learn the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.’
The third point: Orthodox Christians must go back to the Bible. That is what the first Fathers did: Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen and the rest. They related the Greek philosophy of their world to the Jewish wisdom in the Gospel and which, Paul always insisted, was transformed completely by a believer’s discovery of Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. We must, as Orthodox Christians, read our Bibles and learn what they mean; and that is why sermons are so important. They are the teaching which the Church must develop, so that we may be always up to date in our knowledge of Jesus and our knowledge of ourselves.
Today’s gospel reading (18:9-14) takes this advice further. Jesus teaches us not to be satisfied with our own good conduct. Luke says that Jesus told this parable ‘to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else. ‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector.’ The Pharisees – from a Hebrew word perushim, separated – were a progressive Jewish religious movement which inspired the creation of the synagogues and which developed the oral interpretation of the scriptures. They were progressive; the Saducees were conservative; and the Pharisees believed in the general resurrection. But this Pharisee is criticized for being self-centred. He says: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here.’ In other words, the Pharisee is showing off and forgetting that he has sins to confess, failures, offences. ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.’ He boasts to God that he fasts – but fasting is an act of humility, not of pride – and he emphasizes how generous he is; but we should give our money quietly and without pride.
Now the tax collector was a despised creature, and an unclean man, because he carried out the duties of collecting taxes for the Roman Empire, which occupied the Holy Land. He began with a huge disadvantage. He was almost a sub-human in the eyes of the good Jews, whether Pharisees or Saducees. He had nothing in his favour. But this tax collector knew all that; and he struggled to be good. Luke goes on: ‘ The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, “God be merciful to me, a sinner”.
Luke shows us a man who is the kind of Christian we should be: one who has the faith, patience, love and constancy which Paul had insisted to Timothy were the gifts needed to be orthodox – to keep going in a straight line. For the tax collector, the hardships of being hated and being compromised – having to do a shameful job and yet to be persecuted just for doing it – those hardships were his everyday life. It is not easy to live with the sense of being rejected, hated or misunderstood, just because you are in an ambiguous position. It is very hard indeed.
But his prayer was real: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ That was everything necessary – the declaration of faith that God was merciful, that God would forgive, that he a polluted sinner could be saved by faith in God. Luke continues: ‘This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not.’ But why? The Pharisee had everything apparently in his favour: all the regular fasting, payment of tithes, giving of alms, good reputation as a believing orthodox man. Why did he not go home at rights with God? Because he was self-centred, absorbed by his pride in his successful keeping of his tradition. ‘For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.’
This prayer in the Temple, this sorrowful, self-knowing statement of the rejected tax collector is the basis of Orthodox Christian prayer. ‘O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ Repeated endlessly, at any hour of day or night, this prayer has been the consolation of millions, their strength in hardship, their defence in isolation and degradation; and a statement of who God is. And it is our warning. We approach Great Lent with the hope that we will see the Light of Pascha, bright, permanent, joyful. But we do not approach this light properly unless we begin where we are: as sinners, failures. Yes, we are redeemed; yes, we have the prize of the true faith; yes, we have the resources of the Church. But we gain their meaning only by being with Paul, with Luke, with the tax collector fully aware that they are Jesus Christ’s gift to us whatever we have done and whatever we may be, because he is love, and peace, and life: because only he, and not we, can save us from ourselves.
‘O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’
© Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther.
February 16 2003, Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee.
Contents & Index