The Publican and Pharisee as Spiritual Athletes


The canon from the Lenten Triodion for Matins for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee uses athletic imagery to contrast the two men in prayer and to help explain Christ’s parable.


The righteousness of the Pharisee proved to be vanity, and was condemned, for it was yoked to pride;  but the Publican gained humility, which goes with the virtue exalting men on high. 


The Pharisee thought to drive swiftly in the chariot of the virtues; but the Publican on foot outran him, for he yoked humility with compassion.  Pondering with our minds the parable of the Publican,  let us all emulate him with tears, offering God a contrite spirit and seeking the remission of our sins.


The Publican and Pharisee both ran in the race of life,  but the one was overcome by foolish pride:  He was brought to a shameful shipwreck,  while the other was saved by humility.   


 Changing to a righteous course of life,  let us emulate the wisdom of the Publican:  Let us run from the hateful conceit of the Pharisee, so letting ourselves attain to life.  


St. John Chrysostom offers a comment on the parable of the Publican and Pharisee which brings to the forefront of spiritual thinking what is really important in our struggle to follow Christ:

To learn how good it is not to imagine that you are something great picture to yourself two chariots.      For one, yoke together a team consisting of justice and arrogance; for the other, a team of sin and humility. You will see that the chariot pulled by the team which includes sin outstrips the team which includes justice. Sin does not win the race because of its own power, but because of the strength of its yokemate, humility.


The losing team is not beaten because justice is weak, but because of the weight and mass of arrogance.  So, humility, by its surpassing loftiness, overcomes the heaviness of sin and is the first to rise up to God. In the same manner, because of its great weight and mass, pride can overcome the lightness of justice and easily drag it down to earth.    (Homily V, The Fathers of the Churchp. 158-160)

It is not being a sinner or our sins which will prevent us from attaining the Kingdom of God.  Rather, it is our pride and arrogance, judgmentalism, which will prevent us from being with Christ.  It is not God’s justice which will deny our entry into heaven, but our lack of mercy, humility and love.

See also my post: A Chariot Race: The Publican vs The Pharisee

Repenting of a Serious Sin

A brother asked Abba Poemen: “I have committed a serious sin and I want to repent for three years.” The elder said to him: “It is a long time.” “For a year, then?” said the brother to him, and again the elder said to him: “It is a long time.” They who were present began saying: “How about forty days?” and again he said: “It is a long time,” but he said: “I am telling you that if a person repent with his whole heart and does not go on to commit the sin again, even in three days God will receive him.”

(Abba Poemen, Give Me a Word, p. 229)

What is Sin?

The essence of sin consists not in the infringement of ethical standards but in a falling away from the eternal Divine life for which man was created and to which, by his very nature, he is called.

Sin is committed first of all in the secret depths of the human spirit but its consequences involve the individual as a whole. A sin will reflect on a man’s psychological and physical condition, on his outward appearance, on his personal destiny. Sin will, inevitably, pass beyond the boundaries of the sinner’s individual life, to burden all humanity and thus affect the fate of the whole world. The sin of our forefather Adam was not the only sin of cosmic significance. Every sin, manifest or secret, committed by each one of us affects the rest of the universe.”

(St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 31)

The Spirituality of the Body

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.   (Luke 24:36-43)

in the The Lenten Triodion  we read:

But in rendering the body spiritual, we do not thereby dematerialize it, depriving it of its character as a physical entity. The ‘spiritual’ is not to be equated with the non-material, neither is the ‘fleshly’ or carnal to be equated with the non-material, neither is the ‘fleshly’ or carnal to be equated with the bodily. In St. Paul’s usage, ‘flesh’ denotes the totality of man, soul and body together, in so far as he is fallen and separated from God; and in the same way, ‘spirit’ denotes the totality of man, soul and body together, in so far as he is redeemed and divinized by grace.

Thus the soul as well as the body can become carnal and fleshly, and the body as well as the soul can become spiritual. When St. Paul enumerates the ‘works of the flesh’ (Gal. 5:19-21), he includes such things as sedition, heresy and envy, which involve the soul much more than the body. In making our body spiritual, then, the Lenten fast does not suppress the physical aspect of our human nature, but makes our materiality once more as God intended to be. (p. 24)

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.

The Sinner and Humility

“Today we heard the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Lk. 18.10-14). It speaks of humility. I won’t repeat the story to you now, because you all know it perfectly well. But within the larger meaning of the parable, there’s something I’d like you to take careful note of. The Pharisee thought he knew God. He believed that he and God were friends. He was, however, mistaken in this belief, and it was rather the other man, the Publican, who was God’s friend.

The Pharisee thought he knew God, but he didn’t. It’s not that easy to know God. But because he faithfully observed the outward rules of religion, he was under the false impression that God was somehow in his debt, that God owed him something. God for him was a kind of accountant, keeping a set of books showing what people owed him and what He owed them. But it’s not like that.

The moment the Pharisee said, I’m not like those other people (cf. Lk. 18.11), he cut himself off from God. Why? Because God is humble, and since the Pharisee felt no need for humility, it follows that he felt no need for God. He knew the law, and the traditions of his faith, but he did not know God.

The Publican, on the other hand, had no illusions about himself. He was sunk up to his neck in the swamp of his sins. And yet, even though he was awash in the slime of his transgressions, what did he say to God? Be merciful to me a sinner (Lk. 18.13). And at the moment, in his sinful, suffering, disconsolate heart, he felt certain that he was justified (Lk. 18.14), which means that God recognized and received him. As a sinner he had been living in darkness, but his humility brought him into the light of paradise and granted him communion with God.”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos, The Way of the Spirit, pp. 296-297)

Renouncing the Passions

The patristic tradition, as well as contemporary psychology, has identified the restraints to perfect love. From an Orthodox perspective, if love is union with God, and the pursuit of love is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit then those things that separate us from God – sin, the passions, death, and the devil all represent restraints to perfect love.

Our own self centered, egocentric orientation, our fallen nature represent the biggest restraints to love. “When we speak of all the passions together, we call them ‘the world.’ So when Christians speak of renouncing the world, they mean renouncing the passions.”

(Philip Mamalakis, “The Spiritual Life and How to be Married in it,” Raising Lazarus, p. 223)

Sinners Called by Christ

“You are, of course, quite right: there is no room for doubt! The Lord does indeed long to gather all into His arms. All – but particularly the worst sinners.

This truth must, however, be rightly interpreted, rightly understood: the Lord calls to Him all sinners; He opens His arms wide, even to the worst among them. Gladly he takes them in His arms, if only they will come. But they have got to make the effort of coming. They must seek Him, go to Him. In other words, they must repent. It is not that He rejects those who do not repent. He still longs for them, and calls them. But they refuse to hear His call. They choose to wander away, in some other direction.”

(Macarius, starets of Optino, Russian Letters of Spiritual Direction, p. 58)

Christ-like Mercy

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”   (Matthew 5:7)

“He is merciful who shows compassion to his neighbor not only with gifts, but also when he hears or sees anything that causes suffering to someone, he does not prevent his heart from burning. And even if he is struck a blow by his brother, he does not presume to retaliate against him with so much as a word and cause him mental suffering.”

(St. Isaac of Nineveh, On Ascetical Life, p. 66)

Empathy for the Sinner

If, during service, your brother does anything irregularly, or somewhat negligently, do not become irritated, either inwardly or outwardly with him, but be generously indulgent to his fault, remembering that during your life you yourself commit many, many faults, that you yourself are a man with all infirmities, that God is longsuffering and most merciful, and that he forgives you and all of us our iniquities an innumerable multitude of times. Remember the words of the Lord’s prayer: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us..”

These words should always remind us that we ourselves at all times are great trespassers, great sinners before God, and that, remembering this, we should be humble in the depths of our hearts, and not be very severe to the faults of our brethren, weak like ourselves; that as we do not judge ourselves severely, we must not judge others severely, for our brethren are – our members just like ourselves. Irritability of temper proceeds from want of self-knowledge, from pride, and also from fact that we do not consider the great corruption of our nature, and know but little the meek and humble Jesus.

(St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, p. 118)