Gospel parables, an Orthodox commentary

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The publican and the pharisee


Continuing to discredit the pharisaic religion, Christ tells another parable, the publican and the Pharisee, in chapter 18 of the Gospel according the Luke 18:10.

"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."

The phrases "Two men went up into the temple to pray" begin the Lord's parable. Lord Jesus describes both men in the prayer, inasmuch as "Prayer is a mirror of one's spiritual disposition," according to the holy Fathers of the Church. "Look into this mirror, look at how thou prayest, and thou wilt be able to say unerringly what thy spiritual disposition is." Our prayers show our good and dark sides, our spiritual abasement and spiritual resistence. It is not by chance that The Lenten Triodion service book opens with the sticheron: "Brethren, let us not pray as the Pharisee."

The parable presents the Pharisee as total self-satisfaction. The Pharisee fulfills the law and comes and prays in thanksgiving: "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 here I am coming and thanking Thee."

In fact, the Pharisee have some genuine grounds for satisfaction as an member of the intellectual elite, in his own way religious, educated, and well-read. He preserves the beliefs and traditions, fulfills the religious prescriptions, and gives one-tenth of his wealth to Jewish projects. Evidently he is not a bad man, but is regarded with great respect. But his self-satisfaction so dominates his mind that cannot look into his heart, which has forgotten all values that matter at the time of God's Last Judgment.

The other man, the publican, is a tax collector, a profession held in contempt at that time. The publican appears to fulfill no part of the law at all. Sensing his worthlessness, he beats his breast and prays: "God be merciful to me a sinner!" The publican concentrates his prayer on his sinfulness before God. He understands all the futility of justification by outward works. So the men of self-satisfaction and repentance are truly opposites.

On one hand, we see the egoist: "God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are." According to Venerable John Climacus, this "shameless parade of our labors" is redundant, because the Lord knows the heart of the Pharisee already. But the Pharisee goes on: "I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, and degrading his neighbor as well - I am not . . . as this publican." Although the Pharisee believes in the Lord and loves Him, and seeks His help, when he degrades his neighbor and exalts himself, he thereby rejects God.

The Pharisee does not even need God. John Climacus writes that the passion of pride "finds food in gratitude." For now, the Pharisee is praying, but in a little he will stop praying, because prayer is striving toward God to receive His help. "I have seen people," says Venerable John Climacus, "who thank God with their mouth, but mentally magnify themselves. And this is confirmed by that Pharisee who said ironically: "O God, I thank Thee."

The self-satisfied Pharisee's worst error is to condemn others. Love has dried up in him, and condemnation of others and contempt for them has taken love's place. And so the Pharisee forgets what the measurelessness of mercy and calculates his virtuous quantity: "I fast twice in the week, I give tithes."

God does not need calculations. He wants men's hearts. To quantify good works can lead only to formalistic Pharisaism. The Lord says, "That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20). Note the Savior's words "except your righteousness shall exceed." With these words, the Lord evaluates the Pharisees' spiritual life.

Repentance differs utterly from satisfaction. Abba Antony once said to Abba Poemen: "A man's work consists of laying his sins on his own head before God." Therefore, the publican also prays: "God, be merciful to me a sinner." He needs God and he begs, understanding that he is nothing, that all he can do is to lay "his sins on his own head before God."

"Pride is the annihilation of virtue," says John Climacus. Ancient books and old popular prints show the Pharisee and the publican. The Pharisee races along in a chariot while the publican walks on foot, both striving toward the Kingdom of Heaven. At the last moment the Pharisee's chariot breaks down, so that the publican on foot can overtake him. In the struggle of real life, one must learn to balance inward and outward religiosity. One must keep God's commandments and Church regulations. But doing so is no more, according to Climacus, than thinking to swim out of the deep using one hand. One must share the humility of the publican too. The publican, however, went out from the temple better justified before God than before, but he is not-as a tax farmer - yet in the Kingdom of Heaven. In the prayer of Ephraim the Syrian, the teacher of repentance, the prayer "O Lord and Master of my life," we ask to see our own sins and not to judge our brother.

Prayer and good works are vain if done not for God but for vainglory. According to all Fathers, vainglory is "trust in one's own efforts," "a rejection of God," "a driving away of His help." Doing something for show is not to render to God what is due, not to return the talent of gold to Him multiplied-"This is Thine." The devil met a certain Holy Father and said to him: "I am like thee in all things, except one: thou dost not sleep, and I keep vigil; thou fastest, and I eat nothing; but thou vanquishest me with humility." The faithful followers of Christ are known, not by works, but by humility. I can feed someone in God's name, not ascribing anything to myself - and in this instance I shall have done a truly Christian work. However, if I should do the same thing, but for any other reason, for any other aim - whatever it might be - this work will not be Christ's."

The parable of the publican and the Pharisee is Christ's call to uproot the Pharisaism in each of us. The Church hastens to our aid on the first Sunday before Great Lent, when Her Divine services reads: "Come, learn from both the Pharisee and from the publican. From the one learn his works, but by no means his pride; for the work by itself means nothing and does not save. But remember that the publican also is not yet saved, but is only more justified before God than the Pharisee, who was adorned with virtues."

Let us remember Christ's words: "Every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted" (Luke 18:14).

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