Understanding the Pharisee & the Publican

One Sunday morning, two men came to our parish church to pray and attend liturgy.

One was a pious and learned Byzantine Catholic gentleman. He had studied and knew our faith well. He rigorously observed the traditional fasts as described in the Typikon — even fasting twice a week on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year.  He always knew the tone of the week and often made well-informed comments on Facebook. He prayed the Divine Praises daily with his family. And, more than this, he really was an upright man. That is, he did not drink too much nor did he eat too much. He did not look at pornography, or look at others lustfully. He gave a full 10% of his income to the parish before taxes. He was honest with his employer and faithful to his wife.

The other man was a drug dealer.

What if Jesus’s parable of the publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14) began this way? I retell it this way to help us hear what Jesus is really saying.

In this day and age, when we hear the word “Pharisee,” we think immediately of hypocrisy. Its second definition in the dictionary is, “a self-righteous person; a hypocrite.” When we hear the word “Pharisee,” the admonition of Jesus – “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” – is always ringing in our ears. To call someone a Pharisee is to insult them.

But this is not how those listening to Jesus would have heard that word. By “Pharisee,” was meant someone who belonged to a group of Jews who rigorously observed the law, the Torah, and the tradition, who revered the scripture, and believed the prophets, who believed in the resurrection of the dead, and that the greatest law was to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves. In short, they were pious and upright men, rather like the pious and upright Byzantine Catholic I’ve just described. And seemingly rather like Jesus himself.

I once attended a talk by a local rabbi in Pittsburgh and a man asked him during the Q&A section at the end what he thought of Jesus. And he said that Jesus was a Pharisee. This is shocking to our Christian ears, but that is very much how the original audience of this parable might have understood things.

When we hear that a publican and a Pharisee go up to the temple to pray, we already know who the bad guy is — the Pharisee! Jesus’ hearers, on the other hand, would have been shocked by the notion that the publican would be justified and that the Pharisee would not — that the Lord would receive the repentance of the tax collector, but shun the self-glorification of the pious and observant man.

But maybe if we hear that a drug dealer and a pious and learned Byzantine Catholic attend church together, we’ll tend to suspect the drug dealer of being the bad guy. But if that drug dealer comes here to pray with a repentant heart, he will be justified. And if that pious Byzantine Catholic comes here pridefully and exalts himself rather than God, he will not be justified. And that’s what this parable is supposed to do. It’s to turn our assumptions on their head — especially our assumptions about ourselves.

Jesus isn’t saying that it’s all alright to defraud people of their income, or that it’s alright to sell illegal drugs or any other sin. “Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (Rom 6:15).

The Pharisee was not an extortioner. He was not unjust. He was not an adulterer. He fasted twice a week and paid his full tithe to the temple. Jesus elsewhere praises these things by his words and his actions.

Just last week, when the tax collector Zacchaeus repents before Jesus of defrauding people of their income, Jesus responds, saying “Today salvation has come to this house.” Jesus is no friend of extortion or fraud. It is repentance from these things that brings salvation. And to repent means to turn away from evil – not just to say we’re sorry, but to go and sin no more.

Regarding adultery, Jesus teaches us that “who looks at a woman with lust — or covetousness — has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28). He condemns this adultery, even as he does not condemn the adulterous woman.

Jesus himself fasts and prays.

So no, Jesus is not telling us that it’s all right to sin, nor is he telling us not to tithe and fast and pray. Far from it.

The Pharisee’s avoidance of certain sins and his prayer and fasting and tithing are good things. We should imitate the Pharisee in these things, but never in his self-exaltation. Jesus teaches us elsewhere that “the scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice…. They do all their deeds to be seen by men…. [Remember,] whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt 23:2-12). This is an important warning for us as we prepare to enter the Great Fast. Do not make a show of your fasting.

With this parable, Jesus is teaching us, as St. John Chrysostom would later put it, that “Even if we have thousands of acts of great virtue to our credit, our confidence in being heard must be based on God’s mercy and love for men. Even if we stand at the very summit of virtue, it is by mercy that we shall he saved.”

We pray repeatedly in our liturgies that we may spend the rest of our lives in peace and repentance. Repentance is a way of life, not just a moment, and we must embrace it if we are to go away from the temple justified.

Today, we begin the Triodion. We begin preparing for the great fast. And this first week of preparation, we are forbidden to fast. Some say that this is so we will not be able to boast of our weekly fasting like the Pharisee. We must pray, but we must not pray like the Pharisee, pridefully comparing ourselves to others. Soon, we will often pray the prayer of St. Ephrem: “O Lord and King, let me see my own sins and not judge my brothers and sisters.” Like the publican, let us see and confess our own sins and not the sins of our neighbors, our families and friends, or our enemies.

“Oh faithful, let us not pray as the Pharisee, for those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Let us humble ourselves before God with the publican and let us say: Lord have mercy on me a sinner.”

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Fr. John R.P. Russell is a husband, a father of four, and a priest for the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Eparchy of Parma. He is the administrator of St. Stephen Byzantine Catholic Church in Allen Park, Michigan. He is also a lifelong painter, particularly influenced by abstract expressionism and iconography. He has an M.Div. from the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Ss. Cyril and Methodius and a B.A. in art with a minor in religion from Wabash College. He has been blogging since 2007: Blog of the Dormition

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