The pre-Lenten season, which we call the Triodion, has begun! (So exciting!) This time of preparation always begins on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. This parable (Luke 18:10-14) underlines the first theme of the Triodion: humility. This is the first virtue we learn about because, as the Church Fathers point out to us, without humility we can acquire no other virtue! Without humility, we cannot love, forgive, repent, or even pray.
Fr. Thomas Hopko, of blessed memory, tells us in his podcast on Ancient Faith Radio that this parable is not about being “good” or “bad.”
Many think that the Pharisee was good because he followed all the rules, but really he was bad, but he didn’t know it. While the Publican thought he was bad because he was a thief, but since he was humble, God accepted him because he really was the good guy. This is not the parable!
The parable is symbolizing that the Pharisee had done all the external rules of uprightness according to the Law properly: he fasted twice a week, he gave tithes of what he possessed, and kept all the rules. The tax collector, on the other hand, had broken all the rules. In fact, the tax collectors were kind of the example of sinners at the time of Jesus; they were Jews who betrayed their own people by working for the Romans. They extorted people by collecting more money in taxes than they needed to. They gave the money they owed to the Roman occupiers and kept the rest for themselves. Basically they were thieves and were considered to be very sinful people.
So this tax collector was a real sinner. Nevertheless when he came into the temple, he didn’t dare stand up in front, like the Pharisee did. The Gospel tell us, he “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven,” he didn’t dare thank God that he was not like other people. At that moment he knew who he was and what he was because he had a real encounter with God. It is only when we have a true encounter with God that we can see that we are sinners. So this tax collector came to that realization and cried out, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
This was a real sincere prayer, unlike the prideful words uttered by the Pharisee. In Greek, it actually says “THE sinner” not “a sinner.” The Publican truly believed that he was the chief sinner. This is true humility. If he is the first among sinners he cannot look down on anyone, he can only look to himself and his own sins.
Now Jesus says that when both these men left the temple, it was the Publican who was justified; it was the Publican who was heard and not the Pharisee. It’s really sad when we think that the Pharisee, with all his external actions, never had an encounter with God. How many times have we passed through Great Lent without encountering God? We forget that fasting, praying and almsgiving is not the goal, they are means to our goal. For these reasons, the Church “cancels” the Wednesday and Friday fast during the week of the Publican and the Pharisee to remind us of that exact point, and to keep us from pharisaical self-complacency. So yes, let’s keep the rules of the Church but let’s remember who we are and what we are, and let’s try to reach our goal of encountering God.