25 Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee - February 17, 2008

II Timothy 3:10-15

Luke 18:10-14

Today the Church opens her Lenten Triodion and we begin our final preparations for Great Lent three Sundays from now. There is far more to this parable of the Publican and the Pharisee than meets the eye. It’s when we reflect on this parable in the setting of the Church that we begin to see more deeply into its spiritual depths.

In the Lenten Triodion, where we find the centuries-old reflection of the Church on this parable, we learn that what set all of the Pharisee’s virtue at naught is what the religious person in particular must be on guard against. As it says in the Lenten Triodion: “The crafty enemy lies in wait for the righteous and despoils them through vainglory.”[1] And so it happened to the Pharisee, as it happens to all of us as soon as we begin to pursue piety and find ourselves becoming even a little bit virtuous; we take pleasure in our own virtue; and so our righteousness, like the Pharisee’s, “proves all in vain and we are condemned, for our righteousness is yoked to pride.”[2]

Now, the publican was a tax-collector, an officer of the Roman government, like Zaccheus, about whom we read last Sunday. Tax collectors were in effect thieves, because they took money from people that didn’t belong to them. This is why Zaccheus was so rich, and why he intuitively knew that to make things right with the Savior he must restore all those whom he had defrauded four-fold. The sins of the publican were sins of avarice or greed; and the Church in her spiritual teaching tells us that greed is but the face of self-love or self-esteem or pride, the very sin of the virtuous Pharisee.

We learn from the Church that greed or the love of money is the root of all evil; which is to say that pride or self-love, self-esteem, is the root of all evil. St Maximus the Confessor goes so far as to say that where self-love is absent, there is absolutely no trace of evil. We suddenly see now that beneath the surface of their outward deeds and words, the Publican and the Pharisee both, in their heart of hearts, suffer from the same fundamental malady of pride. The only thing that really distinguishes them from one another is that pride in the Pharisee has taken the form of religious zeal; and in the Publican, it has taken the form of avarice, love of money. If God sees into the heart, then he doesn’t distinguish between the Pharisee’s outward virtue and the Publican’s unrighteousness because he sees the pride that is in the heart of both of them.

The Pharisee’s virtue got him nowhere before God because it was growing out of a rotten seed of self-esteem and vainglory, and so his righteousness was fundamentally rotten. His righteousness was as the Lord says elsewhere: like a white-washed tomb that is nice-looking on the outside but inside it’s filled with the rotting flesh of a corpse. You could say that the Pharisee’s righteousness sprouted from the seeds that fell into the soil of his heart from eating the fruit of self-love growing on the serpent’s tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was a self-serving righteousness, a self-righteousness at enmity with God.

This explains also why the unrighteous Publican was justified before God, even though he suffered from the same malady of self-esteem and vain-glory beneath his avarice and greed. It was because in laying aside any claim to righteousness, he was laying aside self-righteousness and the vainglory that produces it. And this is the marvel of God’s salvation. Laying aside pride and vainglory, we turn back to the dust from which we came; and when we turn back to the dust from which we came, we give ourselves into the hands of God – the very hands that fashioned us in his own image and likeness from the dust of the ground in the beginning. When humility is moistened by the tears of compunction, we become as soft clay that God can refashion and recreate in his image and likeness. It is at this point that the lesson of the Publican and the Pharisee opens onto the very depths of God himself.

We learn in Holy Scripture that God desires not the death of a sinner but that he turn from his wickedness and live; and that because he so loved the world, the Son of God, even though he exists in the form of God, nevertheless emptied himself and made himself of no reputation, and was found in the form of a man. He humbled himself and though he knew no sin, he became sin for us, and became obedient to the Father even to the point of death on the cross, that in him, we might become the righteousness of God, and partakers of the divine nature.[3]

You see in this biblical teaching how it is that in God himself, righteousness is marked by a humility that is the face of compassion, and a compassion that is the face of humility. What you see in the righteousness of God is a humility that burns so intensely with the spiritual fires of compassion that God in his humility, empties himself in order to identify with the sinner to the extent that he himself, though he knew no sin, becomes sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God, partakers of the divine nature – which means that we might become partakers of God’s own humility and compassion.

One therefore cannot unite oneself to Christ without uniting oneself to the whole human race and identifying with the sins of the human race in the compassion of Christ. If ever we could stand humbly before God like the publican, we should find ourselves standing before such an immeasurable depth of incomprehensible divine compassion that all question of who is and who is not a sinner or who has sinned more or who is more righteous than whom dissolve completely away, for standing before the measureless depths of God’s absolute humility and compassion, we should see that none of us is righteous, we all like sheep have gone astray; and we should find ourselves crying out spontaneously from the depths of our soul with the holy apostle, Paul, “Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.”

In the humility of Christ – gained as we divest ourselves of our pride, our self-love, our self-righteousness, and as we confess from our hearts the deadly disease of self-esteem and vainglory that afflicts us in our heart and puts us at enmity with God at the very core of our being – we attain to his compassion; and in his compassion we offer our gifts, as members of his body, the Church, “on behalf of all and for all,” identifying ourselves with all of mankind as the first of all sinners in the humility and compassion of Christ, in the compassionate hope that through our prayers and through our sufferings, which we accept as just punishment for our own sins but which we also suffer vicariously in Christ on behalf of all, that all will be saved in the love of God, who himself becomes one with us in our sinfulness, even though he knew no sin, that we might become one with his righteousness, even though we are sinners.

This insight that the humility of the publican opens onto compassion is given to us in the Lenten Triodion. The parable of the Publican and the Pharisee itself says nothing about compassion; it only mentions the humility of the publican. But the meditation of the Church sees that the publican’s humility meant he had found at the same time the Savior’s compassion, for it says that while the “Pharisee sought to drive swiftly in the chariot of the virtues; the Publican outran him on foot, for he had yoked humility with compassion.”[4]

If last Sunday’s Gospel story of Zaccheus is telling us that the goal of Great Lent is to climb the ladder of the virtues to get ready to receive the Bridegroom into the house of our heart when he comes on Pascha Midnight, this Sunday’s Gospel story of the Publican and Pharisee is telling us that the wood of the ladder of the virtues that we climb must be the wood of the Cross, the wood of divine humility that burns with the divine compassion of God’s Holy Spirit in which Christ God gave himself up for the life of the world. If our pious deeds of Great Lent are not rooted in the pursuit of humility and compassion, our Lenten effort, like the Pharisee’s, is in vain, for our virtue will still be rooted in the rotten seed of self-love and we will be no closer to God at the end than we were at the beginning, no matter how much we may have prayed and fasted.

Let us leave these reflections with the exhortation of the Church given to us in the Lenten Triodion: “Pondering in our minds the parable of the Publican, let us all emulate him with tears, offering to God a contrite spirit and seeking the remission of our sins. Let us wisely cast far from us the wicked arrogance and boasting of the Pharisee, that we may not be stripped of divine grace.”[5] Amen. 

[1] LT 107

[2] LT 105

[3] Eze 18:23; Eze 33:11; Jn 3:16; 2 Cor 5:21; Phil 2:5-11; 2 Pt 1:4

[4] LT 105

[5] LT 105