Two men went up to the temple to pray…
The Publican and the Pharisee
You are driving to church one bright Sunday morning. You pass long lines outside a donut shop, folks lining up at the golf tees, people shopping and strolling. The thought briefly crosses your mind ‘Why aren’t these people going to church, like I am?’ Welcome to the world of the Pharisee.
Pharisee means ‘separated one.’ Pharisees formed a movement devoted to ritual purity and strict obedience to the law of Moses. So far, so good and commendable. Indeed, in today’s parable, we hear of a pharisee who, while praying in the temple, points out his fasts and tithes. Yet if we examine his prayer more closely, we discover the kind of proud self-righteousness and contempt for others rather than the humility and repentance that should come in face of the Holy One of Israel.
Depending on the translation, we read that the Pharisee prayed by himself, with himself, or concerning himself. In any case, it seems it was about himself, with a strong note of self-satisfaction. Still worse, this complacency comes by holding himself above other sinners, rather than examining himself in the light of the living God, as St. Paul urges us to do
For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:22-23)
His peripheral vision is 20/20; he sees his neighbor’s faults and even reminds God of them. But he is short-sighted about himself. He is thankful he is not covetous, but Jesus points out that the Pharisees were filled with ‘greed and and self-indulgence’ (Matthew 23:25). While he claims to be thankful, but by listing his accomplishments, he is merely being boastful.
The contrary to all this, however, are not those who absent themselves from worship, but those who attend with a proper heart and mind. In this regard, Jesus points to the publican, or tax collector. He does not try to rationalize his life-style, but seeks atonement for it. Consider his body language: standing far off, eyes downcast, and beating his breast. He prays the words that have since marked the Jesus prayer, the hallmark of the Orthodox faithful
God, be merciful to me, a sinner! (Luke 18:13)
This not a parable about contrasting life-styles. If so, the Pharisee would win hands-down. It is about the great reversal that takes place when we try to justify ourselves before God, rather than submit in repentance to his justifying power. This is why at the conclusion of this parable, Jesus proclaims
All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 18:14).