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 elite against the downtrodden, not realizing the publicans were also an elite 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.