The Anti-Pharisaical Pharisees

Sermon on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee

Reader Timothy Zelinski
Feb. 12/25, 2024
Holy Trinity Monastery
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!

Dear broth­ers and sisters,

Today is the Sun­day of the Pub­li­can and the Phar­isee. Today begins the Lenten Tri­o­di­on. Already, on the hori­zon, we can see the light of the glo­ri­ous res­ur­rec­tion of Christ; the Great and Holy Pascha of the Lord. How­ev­er, before we can share in the joy of the feast of feasts we must, of course, go through the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of Great Lent. I am sure that I am not alone in feel­ing at least some­what morose think­ing of the strug­gles and depra­va­tions that face us in the com­ing weeks. Few can tru­ly and hon­est­ly say that they enter the Lenten strug­gle with per­fect joy, with­out the slight­est tinge of nos­tal­gia for the days of milk, meat, cheese. 

Still, every­one can agree that Lent brings us some of the great­est bless­ings we will ever expe­ri­ence in the course of our spir­i­tu­al lives — and in the build up to Clean week, many of us will final­ly find our­selves sigh­ing and say­ing, “Okay, now it’s time to tru­ly begin to strug­gle for God’s grace.” When peo­ple think of Great Lent, the first thing that usu­al­ly comes to mind is fast­ing. Indeed, in Russ­ian it’s lit­er­al­ly called the Great Fast — Великий Пост. How­ev­er, today’s Gospel read­ing is giv­en to remind us that Lent is not entire­ly about bod­i­ly exer­cis­es or feats of asceti­cism. In fact, such spir­i­tu­al efforts are com­plete­ly worth­less if they do not come with the most impor­tant ingre­di­ent — the virtue of humil­i­ty. This virtue, as we will see, is like the active ingre­di­ent in a med­i­cine, or per­haps the salt in a hearty soup, that acti­vates all the oth­er flavors.

Gus­tave Dore — The Phar­isee and the Pub­li­can, 1870.

We heard today the para­ble of the Pub­li­can and the Phar­isee, one of the most mem­o­rable say­ing of Jesus. Two men go to the Tem­ple to pray. One of them is a reli­gious pro­fes­sion­al, an expert, an aca­d­e­m­ic the­olo­gian. He boasts of his virtues and exalts him­self above oth­er men. If we look close­ly at the text, we see that “he prayed thus with him­self” (Lk. 18:11). In a sense, he almost prays to him­self, rather than to God. The oth­er man is a a trai­tor to the nation, an exploiter of the poor. In a word, a degen­er­ate. And yet, ashamed of him­self, he stands in the back of the church and low­ers his head, beg­ging for God’s mer­cy. It was his prayer that forms the basis of the short­est and most impor­tant tool we have in our spir­i­tu­al arse­nal — the Jesus prayer. As we heard from the ser­mon the oth­er week about the prayer of the Syro-Phoeni­cian woman, the Scrip­ture read­ings of the weeks lead­ing to Lent devel­op the Jesus prayer in sev­er­al steps, until final­ly, the Apos­tle Paul refers to it in its com­plet­ed form (though indi­rect­ly), in his epis­tle to the Corinthi­ans, “yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my under­stand­ing… than ten thou­sand words in a tongue” (1 Cor. 14:19). In Greek, the Jesus prayer reads “Κύριε Ιησού Χριστέ, ελέησόν με” — five words of under­stand­ing. From this prayer, we get the basis of the dis­po­si­tion with which we need to enter Great Lent.

This para­ble so beau­ti­ful­ly exalts the virtue of humil­i­ty by means of a role rever­sal between the reli­gious leader and sin­ner. But is this inver­sion absolute? Does it mean that it is good to be a pub­li­can in all respects, and like­wise, is it always bad to emu­late the Phar­isee? There are two kinds of inver­sions, one that the Lord Him­self uses in His para­bles, one that reveals the para­dox of the mys­tery of God , “παράδοξος” in Greek mean­ing not a con­tra­dic­tion, but a “glo­ry beyond the glo­ry”, a glo­ry that chal­lenges the lim­its our intellect. 

The oth­er kind of inver­sion is that which is worked by the evil one. In our times, the dev­il is work­ing work­ing hard to invert all of the virtues. He is doing this, pri­mar­i­ly, through war­fare against lan­guage, shift­ing the def­i­n­i­tion of the words to mean some­thing com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent from what it actu­al­ly does. One only need to look at how the word “Love” is used is com­mon par­lance. Love, the great­est of all virtues; the virtue praised more high­ly than any oth­er in the Scrip­tures. St. John the The­olo­gian alone men­tions “love” over one hun­dred times in the New Tes­ta­ment. And yet now, the world has catch­phras­es like, “Love is love”, refer­ring not to the high­est of all virtues, but to the most depraved acts known to man. This is referred to as the “evac­u­a­tion of mean­ing”, where a word is com­plete­ly robbed of its actu­al def­i­n­i­tion and is left either des­o­late, with only sec­ondary or ter­tiary mean­ings, or in this case, with its com­plete oppo­site. As the Isa­iah prophet­i­cal­ly says, “Woe unto them that call evil good, And good evil.”

There is anoth­er way of mis­in­ter­pret­ing this para­ble through the lens of the myth of end­less “class war­fare”. Almost invol­un­tar­i­ly, many would see an “under­dog” in the pub­li­can, imag­in­ing some oppres­sion of the reli­gious élite against the down­trod­den, not real­iz­ing the pub­li­cans were also an élite and priv­i­leged class, who cheat­ed the peo­ple of Israel just as much as the mon­ey charg­ers in the Tem­ple. These days, its not uncom­mon to see world­ly peo­ple engaged in “deep” con­ver­sa­tion even­tu­al­ly drift­ing towards reli­gion, (because all “deep con­ver­sa­tions” even­tu­al­ly must lead to reli­gion). Inevitably, some­one will be unable to resist mak­ing the remark with a smirk on their face, “Look at all these hyp­o­crit­i­cal Chris­tians. Don’t they know that Jesus hung out with har­lots and tax cheats?” Well, that’s true. He did met them as har­lots and tax cheats, but He left them as myrrh-bear­ers and bish­ops. Does this mean that we ought to emu­late pub­li­cans in their sins? They would have us use this para­ble as an excuse to not fol­low any of the rules and guide­lines pro­scribed by the Church. 

Peo­ple today have become phar­i­saical about how un-phar­i­saical they are! Per­haps the mod­ern Pharisee’s prayer to him­self could go like this, “O God, I thank Thee that I am not as these oth­er men are, judg­men­tal, mean, fol­low­ers of rules, pros­e­ly­tiz­ing their Ortho­doxy, or even as this zealot. I don’t push my reli­gion on oth­ers, or let my Chris­tian­i­ty offend the athe­ists around me.” It seems that they believe that the Church’s many “rules” were meant to shack­le us and sti­fle the soul, not real­iz­ing that all of these “rules” are noth­ing like the Law of Moses, meant to bind sin­ners, but rather like med­i­cines, pro­scribed to heal our ail­ing souls. They would have us think that it the sin of the Phar­isee is not his pride, but his piety! How com­pli­cat­ed spir­i­tu­al mat­ters have become in our time! Worse still, we may feel a cer­tain self-right­eous­ness in con­demn­ing the Phar­isee, judg­ing him for his judge­men­tal-ness! It always feels good to take some­one bet­ter than you down a notch.

Are we as “reli­gious pro­fes­sion­als” like the Phar­isee, vic­tims of a kind of reverse pre­des­ti­na­tion? Are we some­how worse off for doing more than what was required, of the monas­tics among us, tak­ing vows of pover­ty, celiba­cy and sta­bil­i­ty, of the cler­gy, serv­ing God in His Church, of the sem­i­nar­i­ans for striv­ing to do the same, of our pious laypeo­ple, choos­ing a very dif­fer­ent mode of life by choos­ing to live in this seclud­ed com­mu­ni­ty? The answer, I think, lies in a verse from the canon we heard at Matins last night,

Let us make haste to fol­low the Phar­isee in his virtues and to emu­late the Pub­li­can in his humil­i­ty, and let us hate what is wrong in each of them: fool­ish pride, and the defile­ment of transgressions.

It is true that the Phar­isees were the chief ene­mies of Christ. They con­spired to cru­ci­fy Him. And yet, it was also Phar­isees who asked for the body of Jesus. They anoint­ed Him with spices and wrapped Him in fine linen, lay­ing Him in a cost­ly tomb which one of them had prob­a­bly intend­ed for him­self. These two Phar­isees, Joseph and Nicode­mus, gained a bold­ness to con­fess Christ while the His own clos­est dis­ci­ples hid them­selves in fear of the wrath of the San­hedrin. Before, they had only met with the Lord secret­ly, but in the dark­est hour, they con­fessed Him bold­ly, hon­or­ing Him with a roy­al bur­ial, while He lib­er­at­ed the cap­tives of hades. And it is also true that many Pub­li­cans fol­lowed Christ, one of them, St Matthew, became an Apos­tle and wrote the first the Gospel, and anoth­er, com­mem­o­rat­ed last Sun­day, Zac­cheaus, became one of the 70 apos­tles and was ordained by St. Peter as the bish­op of Cae­sarea Pales­tine. But still, it was also pub­li­cans, who, along­side the Phar­isees and the rest of the nation of the Jews, who yelled out “Cru­ci­fy Him, Cru­ci­fy Him” before Pon­tius Pilate. 

Per­haps the mod­ern Pharisee’s prayer to him­self could go like this, ‘O God, I thank Thee that I am not as these oth­er men are, judg­men­tal, mean, fol­low­ers of rules, pros­e­ly­tiz­ing their Ortho­doxy, or even as this zealot. I don’t push my reli­gion on oth­ers, or let my Chris­tian­i­ty offend the athe­ists around me.’

Nei­ther of these exam­ples by them­selves gives us the per­fect for­mu­la to fol­low. One is clear­ly bet­ter, but nei­ther, as the say­ing goes, is as good as hav­ing your cake and eat­ing it too. It is not one’s sta­tion in life that deter­mines their abil­i­ty to be saved. It is nei­ther good enough to fol­low all of the rules of piety and for­get own low­li­ness and depen­dance, nor is it good enough to grow com­pla­cent and con­tin­ue wal­low­ing in our sins, doing the same things over and over and mere­ly mak­ing a show of hit­ting our breasts and cry­ing out, “God have mer­cy on me a sin­ner”. As we will hear in two weeks, on the Sun­day of the Last Judge­ment, even­tu­al­ly there will be no more time for repen­tance. We will die. We will stand naked before God, with only our guardian angels to advo­cate for us, what­ev­er virtues we have to defend us at the dread Judge­ment seat.

With all this in mind, the Church, in her wis­dom, replaces the car­ni­val and mar­di gras of west­ern chris­tian­i­ty and gives us a sim­ple and mod­est fast free week, both eas­ing us into the com­ing strug­gle and pre­vent­ing us from being able to boast like the Phar­isee who fast­ed twice in the week. We need not wor­ry too much about the strug­gles to come — we have the next three weeks to pre­pare our­selves to live with­out the plea­sures and crea­ture com­forts that have grown, per­haps, a bit too dear to us. Broth­ers and sis­ters, the para­ble of the Pub­li­can and Phar­isee is giv­en at the very start of Lent to show us one sim­ple thing; that humil­i­ty is the crown jew­el of all Chris­t­ian virtues. It is for humil­i­ty that all of our spir­i­tu­al efforts through­out the Great Fast are direct­ed. If you could trade every­thing you had for humil­i­ty, you should do it. Again, as the canon at Matins last night so beau­ti­ful­ly says, 

The Phar­isee thought to dri­ve swift­ly in the char­i­ot of the virtues; but the Pub­li­can out­ran him on foot, for he had yoked humil­i­ty with compassion. 

Indeed, humil­i­ty alone is enough to take one to heav­en. And even bet­ter than that, is adding humil­i­ty with virtue — to con­tin­ue spir­i­tu­al­ly ris­ing towards the final goal, that is, per­fec­tion and deifi­ca­tion in the Res­ur­rec­tion of Christ.