The Publican and Pharisee as Spiritual Athletes

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.   

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 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.  

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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.

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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)

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)

The Good Will Factor

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.   (Matthew 7:12)

“There is nothing we can offer to God more precious than good will. But what good is will? To have good will is to experience concern for someone else’s adversities as if they were our own; to give thanks for our neighbor’s prosperity as for our own; to believe that another person’s loss is our own, and also that another’s gain is ours;

to love a friend in God, and bear with an enemy out of love; to do to no one what we do not want to suffer ourselves, and to refuse to no one what we rightly want for ourselves; to choose to help a neighbor who is in need not only to the whole extent of our ability, but even beyond our means. What offering is richer, what offering is more substantial than this one? What we are offering to God on the altar of our hearts is the sacrifice of ourselves!”

(St Gregory the Great, Be Friends of God, p. 65)

Zacchaeus (2019)

Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way.

And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.” Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”   (Luke 19:1-10)

The Gospel lesson of the tax collector Zacchaeus, at least in the Slavic Orthodox tradition, is always the last Sunday Gospel lesson of the Lucan Gospel cycle of readings (basically autumn into winter).  As such, in the Slavic Orthodox tradition it also foretells the coming of Great Lent for with this Gospel we bring the old year to a close and will now move into the Pre-Lenten Sunday Gospel cycles – known in Orthodoxy as the beginning of the Triodion.   [Non-Slavic Orthodox tradition proclaims the Gospel of the Canaanite woman before the Lenten Triodion begins.  In Orthodoxy variation in practice is quite normal on so many levels.  Orthodoxy is not a monolith with all Orthodox always doing all the same things.  This has for many centuries been the accepted practice and received Tradition of the Church.  What is being done in one Orthodox parish or tradition differs from what is being done in another parish or tradition.    This is not seen as dividing the Church or breaking the unity of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”]

In past years in my sermons I often joined the chorus of those who trampled on Zacchaeus as a sinner who has a miraculous conversion in his encounter with Christ.  It is how the story is often interpreted and because in Slavic Orthodox tradition it is the precursor to Great Lent, a theme of a sinner who repents is often read into the story.  But there is another possible interpretation of this Gospel lesson.  If one pays close attention to the text, one sees that the Jewish crowd certainly reacts to Zacchaeus as if he is a terrible sinner.  They smell the stench of sin on him and are repulsed by the fact that Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house.   But note what Zacchaeus says to Jesus when Jesus is in his home:

Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.”

Usually this is interpreted that Zacchaeus has a change of heart, a conversion, and the text is saying “from this moment I wlll give and I will restore.”

But in the Greek text Zacchaeus speaks in the present tense – not I will begin doing this, but he states what he is doing.  Zacchaeus says he gives half his income to the poor.  The crowd has wrongfully presumes Zacchaeus is filthy rich, greedy and dishonest because he is a tax collector.  They have judged him harshly without knowing the facts.  The crowd is guilty of judgmentalism and presumption.  Christ shows the crowd, “you are guilty of misjudging this man.”  You are guilty of sin, not him.

The Gospel lesson is thus not so much about repentance but about reconciliation. Zacchaeus was doing the right thing all along, but in secret.   The people misjudged him because they saw him as rich and a tax collector, so presumed he was dishonest.  But what Christ shows the people is that Zacchaeus is a good man, a true son of Abraham.  Christ offers reconciliation between Zacchaeus and the Jewish crowd.    Zacchaeus was lost because the people had wrongly rejected him, not because he was a sinner.  Christ is thus not converting him from sinner to saint, but revealing the diamond that was hidden beneath the dirt the people had dumped on him.  Christ shows the people, he really is more righteous than you who judge and reject him.

It reminds me of a story I read long ago about a hardworking blacksmith in a town whom the people loved because he was known to be so generous in giving charity despite just being a working class person.  There also was a rich man who lived on a well-manicured property on a hill above the blacksmith’s shop.  This rich man was hated by the townspeople because they thought him miserly – he didn’t associate with people and was not known to ever give in charity.  The rich man died and no one attended the funeral just to spite him.  The blacksmith simultaneously stopped giving generously in charity.  People confronted him about why his behavior changed.   He replied, “Did you really think for all these years that I was giving my money in charity?  I’m not rich, I never had that kind of money to give.  The rich man gave me the money and asked me to distribute it but to never tell anyone its source.  I did as he asked for all these years.  When he died I no longer had any money to give, for I’m poor like you.”  Everyone in the town was amazed by this revelation and shamed by how they had treated the rich man as they realized how badly they had misjudged their benefactor.

For his part, Zacchaeus climbs the tree to see Jesus because he wants to see a rabbi who is teaching what he (Zacchaues) is doing all along.  Zacchaeus understands Jesus’ message is different from what is often being taught by other rabbis.  Zacchaeus wants to get a glimpse of someone who teaches the way of humility.  Zacchaeus is practicing what Jesus teaches:

Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  (Matthew 6:1-4 – this is the Gospel we will read on Meatfare Saturday, right before Great Lent begins)

Zacchaeus is living the life that Jesus taught, and Jesus reveals this to the crowd.  He reveals to the crowd how their sinful presumptuousness has caused them to misjudge Zacchaeus.  It is the crowd which has caused Zacchaeus to become separated from the people of God and to become lost, not Zacchaeus’ own behavior.  Jesus offers reconciliation to all if they will have it, if they will lay aside their presumptions.  (As we say in Psalm 19:13: “Above all, free your servant from presumption; do not let it sway me!  Then shall I be blameless free of grave sin.”)

Please note also in the prayer from the blessing of a home, we mention Zacchaeus:

O God our Savior, the True Light Who was baptized in the Jordan by the Prophet John, and Who was willing to enter the house of Zacchaeus, bringing salvation to him and his household, do You, the same Lord, keep safe from harm those of us who dwell herein; grant us Your blessing, purification and bodily health, and all of our petitions which are for salvation and life everlasting; for You are blessed, together with Your Father, Who is from everlasting, and Your All-holy and Good, and Life-creating Spirit. Amen.

In blessing the home, we bring Christ who is our Salvation into our homes, just like Christ came into the home of Zacchaeus and reconciled him and his family to the people of God.  The prayer for the blessing of a home does not mention people repenting as a result of the house blessing, but rather acknowledges the blessing of having Christ present in the home.  The prayer assumes that the people in the home being blessed want Christ to be there, just as Zacchaeus wanted Christ to come into his home.  And hopefully for the same reason – because those in the home are already practicing righteousness just like Zacchaeus!

Two final thoughts about Zacchaeus who is recognized as a saint in the Orthodox Church:

First, Zacchaeus had a strong desire to see Christ, and though he had a very public position, he was willing to risk embarrassment and humiliation just to see Christ (he had no knowledge that Christ would speak to him or want to come to his house).  We who are Christ’s own disciples and family are on the other hand sometimes embarrassed to tell others we are Christian, or even to make the sign of the cross or say a prayer before a meal.  We are embarrassed to speak against abortion or racism or against pornography or dirty jokes.  We can learn St Zacchaeus’ boldness and courage to live for godly values and to stand against evil in the world.  We can pray, fast and given in charity in secret as Jesus taught.  But we can also quietly without making a show or trying to draw attention to ourselves, do the good and right things even with our friends watching us.

Second, Zacchaeus publicly admitted he was a sinner.  When Christ was in his house, he didn’t proclaim himself as sinless and perfect, rather he acknowledged that if he defrauded anyone, he then tried to make it right to them.  He publicly repented of his sins – not mistakes but the wrong things he chose to do.  Just think about our public officials today when – even when proof is offered of their misdeeds, they tend to deny, obfuscate, cover up, go on the attack.   They lack honesty, integrity, humility and courage – all traits which Zacchaeus demonstrated.  We should think about Zacchaeus as we prepare for our own confessions.  When we stand in the presence of Christ we can admit to our sins.  Christ wants to be in our presence, in our homes, in our lives and Christ does not stay away from us because He knows we are sinners.  Rather, as He himself said, He came to seek and save the sinner.  He came to seek and save all of those who have become separated from the people of God.   In confession, we invite Christ to come under the roof of our heart and to live with us.

Zacchaeus: A Sinner Transformed

The Lord had said to the Pharisees, “But rather give alms of such things as ye have; and behold, all things are clean unto you” (Luke 11:41). So now, showing His approval of such actions and finding in them a defense against those who murmured against Him, He says, “This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as Zacchaeus also is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9), as he has now become faithful, righteous, hospitable and a lover of the poor. “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).

He was actually saying to the fault-finders, “I went in to be the guest of a sinner, but in order to transform and save him, showing him to be a lover of God instead of a lover of money, just instead of unjust, welcoming instead of inhospitable, and merciful instead of unsympathetic, such as you can see him becoming even now.” Do you see how Zacchaeus loved and sought, and was loved, summoned and made Christ’s own?

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 58).