Sunday Sermon: The Publican and the Pharisee

Luke 18:10 – 14
2 Timothy 3:10 – 15

The preparation period for the Great Lent has started, and in today’s readings we hear the familiar words: “Two men went up to the temple to pray”. Many of us are at Church today, but the Lord sees only two. And so it will be in the coming weeks: two sons of the same father, two men standing on the right and left side of the Judge’s throne, one destined for eternal life, and the other for eternal torment.

For now, they are just two people who came to the temple: one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. In the end, the ruthless and self-serving tax collector went home more justified before God than the Pharisee who conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, to quote Apostle Paul.

But is it the only thing that should surprise us? Is not it surprising, for example, that, as Apostle Paul taught, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. In God’s world and church life, surprises and mysteries are abundant. As we say in our prayer “Let your will be done”, we ought to have already become accustomed to the feeling of surprise and astonishment and then to the tears of joy and gratitude at the unexpected outcome reflective of His ultimate wisdom.

But let us go back to the Pharisee and the tax collector and consider the mystery of each. The Lord opens up to us the content of the Pharisee’s silent prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” As we hear this prayer, we feel as if the Pharisee is hiding behind the wall of other people’s sins. This wall seemed nice and comfortable, as it made him feel good – how gratifying! Yet behind this wall, there is no way to see God!

As for the tax collector… He also has a wall before him, but it is of his sins. They are his own. He has no-one to turn away from or move away from in disdain. At the temple, he is always mindful who he is and before Whom he is standing. He would not even look up to heaven, but beats his breast and says time and again, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

Jesus told this parable “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” (Luke 18:9). He showed us that just as it is impossible to look ahead and behind at the same time, one cannot see simultaneously one’s own sins and the sins of others. By keeping ourselves busy weighing others’ sins, we close our eyes to ours and our repentance before God. Yet seeing one’s sins for what they are, one will forget about all else, and will, like the tax collector, beat one’s breast and say, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

The tax collector sensed himself poor in the spirit; he needed God to cover himself, to hide his ‘shameful nakedness’ (Revelation .3:18). The Tax collector is open to God and ready to partake of His boundless mercy, and by doing so, he gets the promise of his future richness in the Lord. The Pharisee left with nothing, for he was convinced that he had it all, and he needed no God. So the Lord, like in the song of the Most Holy Virgin, “filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”

It would not have been so bad if the Pharisee had at least thanked God for His help in the struggle with his sins. Yet it is obvious that the Pharisee had not struggled, he had not worked hard or shed a drop of his sweat or blood. He had it from his birth, for free. Like the lazy servant, who received from the Lord one bag of gold and gained nothing, he declares boldly: “See, here is what belongs to you!” (Matthew.25:25). The Pharisee prides himself on not having the sins like “other people”. But what virtues does he have? Only that he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all he gets!

The Holy Church instructs us not to observe a fast the Wednesday and Friday of this week. This should remind us that fasting on Wednesday and Fridays – and even giving away a tenth of our earnings – will be meaningless if we have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23). The three things that matter most are justice for oneself, mercy for the sinners and faithfulness to God to Whom all are of value. They are to be done first, without neglecting the rest.

Yet some are still fasting this week, against the Church’s instructions. Why? It could be that they, like the Pharisee from the Parable have nothing to their name. All they have is a pretence, a form and an outward impression to make and take pride in. Take them away, and they will be left naked and worthless, but not before God, but rather before all these other people over whom they had exalted themselves and with whom they had preferred to have nothing in common.

Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds

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