The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (2019)

Jesus also told 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 18:9-14)

A little quiz.  Where are the two places where God says He lives?

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.    (Isaiah 57:15)

1] God claims to dwell in heaven, in eternity, the high and holy place [which some might also say is the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple].

2]  God dwells with those who are humble and contrite.  So that means God also dwells with sinners, because sinners can be seriously contrite over things they have done.

In this verse (Is. 57:15) we also understand why it is that the Publican went away being declared righteous by Christ rather than the Pharisee who strove to keep God’s law and wanted to be righteous but was extremely proud and judgmental.  For the Publican, that great sinner showed himself both contrite and humble.  So, God dwelt with him which makes him righteous even though he is a sinner!  That is part of the good news for all of us.  If we show ourselves contrite and humble ourselves before God, God will come to dwell with us.  God does not despise us because we are sinners, which is what we pray at the Divine Liturgy right before we sing the Trisagion Hymn (Holy God, Holy Mighty…) when the priest says:

“You do not despise the sinner, but instead have appointed repentance unto salvation. . . Forgive us every transgression, both voluntary and involuntary. Sanctify our souls and bodies, and enable us to serve You in holiness all the days of our life… “

The Sacrament of Confession is exactly given to us as an opportunity to humble ourselves before God and show heartfelt contrition for our sins.

It is worth noting that St John Chrysostom said it wasn’t that the Publican called himself a sinner which was virtuous.  For as Chrysostom says, there is no particular virtue in his calling himself a sinner when in fact he is one!  In admitting to being a sinner the Publican was simply being honest, truthful.  It was his entire disposition which showed his humility and contrition which resulted in God declaring him righteous.  It is when we recognize that our sins are a disappointment to God and realize our sins truly sadden God that we come to our own contrition of heart (see for example Genesis 6:6).  The Pharisee who kept every jot and tittle of the law and who strove to be righteous by meticulously keeping the law, had a heart which was far from what God wanted.  For God wants our heart to be filled with and motivated by love, not by a rigid fanaticism for legal detail.  Humility and contrition are heart conditions and in this case it is good for us to have these heart conditions.  And both in terms of our physical heart and our spiritual heart, fasting is good for the heart.

This humility is taught throughout the New Testament.  The Apostle Peter says:

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you.   (1 Peter 5:5-6)

St Paul the Apostle writes:

Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.   (Philippians 2:3-4)

There is a long prayer known as the Litany of Humility.  It teaches us how humility is so counterintuitive.   In Part this prayer reads:

That others may be loved more than I

O Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I

O Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may increase and I may decrease

O Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be chosen and I set aside

O Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be praised and I unnoticed

O Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be preferred to me in everything

O Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may become holier than I

O Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

In this prayer we learn what leads to humility – the desire that others be more praised than I am, more esteemed than I am, more loved than I am.  I learn humility when others are chosen ahead of me and when I hope and wish that others become more holy than I am.  We learn humility when we hope that God will notice the good in others before God pays attention to any goodness in me.

This prayer hopes for true humility and yet we might cringe when we pray for these things because in our hearts, we want God to notice us first and notice our goodness before anyone else’s.  And we are always tempted to show we are better than others and to notice and even point out and judge every little fault and failure of others.  Instead we would be wise to remember the words of St. James:

For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment.  (James 2:13)

The parable of the Publican and the Pharisee tells us there is a right way to pray and a wrong way to pray.  That should make us stop and think.  Maybe we believe  all prayer or any prayer is better than no prayer at all.  Not so, says Christ.  He says there is a wrong way to approach God in prayer – and he tells the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee to show us this.  We should each pay attention to the Gospel lesson.  Not all prayer is accepted by God.  Think about the story of Abel Cain’s sacrifice from Genesis 4:3-7 –

In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.

The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Cain and the Pharisee both show us there is a wrong way to approach God in prayer.  Nothing good comes of this.

There is however a right way to pray and to approach God in prayer.  That way includes humility and contrition for one’s sins.  It is the way which makes our prayer acceptable to God so that God declares us to be righteous even if we are sinners.

The sinful Publican shows us that even a sinner can be declared righteous by God.  And God even dwells in the heart of the sinner if the sinner is humble, confessing his or her own sins.  As we prepare ourselves for Great Lent, we are being asked today to think about our prayer life and how the spiritual condition of our heart shapes our prayers.  The spiritual condition of our heart determines whether God declares us righteous or not.