Sermon Notes: PUBLICAN AND PHARISEE February 20, 1994
Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men; extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. ‘I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ “And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat 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 everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-15)
For those of us Orthodox who have travelled many years on the road to God’s Kingdom, the Parable of the Publican & Pharisee is as familiar as the most common street sign. This is one reading we hear every year as we prepare ourselves to enter in to the Great Fast. We know the message of the Parable – God does accept those who repent and those who are humble. And in turn God turns a deaf ear to those pride filled persons who give themselves high marks for every deed and who harshly judge their neighbors. We are asked to remember this message, not just so we can be better people, but because we believe the goal of all behavior is salvation itself.
The Parables of Jesus give us a glimpse into the very mind of God, a God of judgement and mercy, of righteousness and forgiveness, of perfection and love. This is the God who says, (Isaiah 55:8) “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD.
As shocking as anything in the parable is the presence of the Tax collector in the temple – the people of Jesus’ day would assume him to be an unclean sinner, not a temple goer. Not only would they assume that he did not go to the temple, but they would assume it quite proper for him to stay out of the temple. He is after all a sinner, and God is a God of rigtheousness. And the temple is the place of the Holy – the Holy God and God’s holy people. Surely a sinful tax gatherer has not place in the holy temple. Those listening to the Lord would indeed be surprised that such a sinner would dare come into the temple.
But this is part of the spiritual problem that God’s people are often tempted with. Apparently, God’s people at the time of Christ, expected the Messiah to come in order to usher in a new age of righteousness, where God would condemn sinners and judge the ungodly, and destroy all that is not in agreement with their commonly held views of what is good. They looked to God and the Messiah to be the executioners of pure justice on the world. And they saw themselves as being spared this justice and judgement as if any faults they had were merely the results of themselves being victims of the evils of the world.
But the view of many of these people was mistaken. For in their rejection of the world around them, in their hatred for all that was wrong with the world, in their righteous anger against sin and sinners, they forgot that God is love.
There is a truth about the God of love which is paradoxical.
The justice of God is based upon love and mercy. The justice of God can accept the unjust and the ungodly and can judge the virtuous.
Justice is not the highest good. Love is the highest good. Love is God’s greatest strength. In love He is willing to set aside justice in order to forgive, to show mercy, to be patient, to be kind, and even to suffer for us.
The Righteous Man in the Parable is the Pharisee. He rightfully can boast about not sinning, of praying, fasting and tithing. All the people who heard Jesus would have known this. But his righteousness is born out of a harsh judgementalism of himself and his neighbor. Because He believes in the God of justice and judgment, He harshly condemns himself for his own faults. And so feels he can also properly condemn everyone else who does not live up to his standard of piety. He comes to believe He speaks with the authority of God Himself in judging his neighbor.
The unholy and ugly man of the Parable is the Publican, that tax collector who does not even apologize for his sins or offer to make reparations for the wrongs he has done as Zacchaeus did. He stands afar off and calls himself a sinner and begs God’s mercy. And rightfully so, because he doesn’t stand a chance in you know what of laying any claim to heaven. He is a rotten sinner, a theiving, cheating, tax collector, who has gotten rich at the expense and suffering of others. And as St. John Chrysostom says, there is no particular virtue in his calling himself a sinner when in fact he is one!
So if he is such a sinner, which he himself admits, and if he is overly bold to dare to show up in the temple, kind of like Howard Stern showing up at Liturgy one day, how come the Lord says this man is the one whom God accepts?
I believe Archbishop Anthony Bloom got it quite right in his book, BEGINNING TO PRAY, when he said that unlike the harsh Pharisee, the Publican understood mercy. As a man who continually took money from others, and no doubt saw many beg him for mercy, as a man who thrived in a world of competition, cruelty, and heartlessness, he also knew what it was to unexplanably pardon a debtor, to show compassion to a desparate person, to unexpectedly and completely illogically extend a kindness to some poor, hopeless wretch. He the tax gather knew what it is to collect debts, he understood what it was to be in the power of someone else and to have nothing left to do but beg mercy. It is that man, that tax collecting sinner, who could believe in and hope for a God who is merciful, kind, and forgiving. A God who for no deserved reason, pardons all debts, purely because He is love. It is the man who understands mercy because he has granted it to some undeserving wretch, who is able to believe in the God of the Bible. Such a man can understand the great power wielded by one who is able to forgive a debt. Such a person is able to pray to God, and to go forth and show love and mercy to others because he knows God loves and forgives him for no deserving reason.
My friends, let us flee the pride of the Pharisee and let us embrace the tears and humility of the Publican. Let us truly love one another. Remember, Prayer is not an optional exercise in piety. Prayer is your relationship with God. How you pray and what you pray for reveals that relationship. If prayer is merely self assertion before God, then one is not in need of God’s mercy, grace, salvation. If one does not need anything from God, there is nothing to be received.
There are others who need your love and forgiveness even though they don’t deserve it. You need to give your love and forgiveness to them in order to open yourselves to God. As we move toward the celebration of Pascha and the complete forgiveness of our sins, the cancelling of all of our debts, the removal of all punishment for wrong doing, let us understand the great mercy and love of God, and so let us go forth and love and forgive each other, and show mercy to every person we meet. Amen.