Sunday, February 17, 2008

Publican and Pharisee

The Sunday after the Sunday of Zacchaeus is devoted to the Publican and the Pharisee. At Vespers the night before, the TRIODION (the liturgical book used in the services of Great Lent) begins.

Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee who scrupulously observed the requirements of religion: he prayed, fasted, and contributed money to the Temple. These are very good things, and should be imitated by anyone who loves God. We who may not fulfill these requirements as well as the Pharisee did should not feel entitled to criticize him for being faithful. His sin was in looking down on the Publican and feeling justified because of his external religious observances.

The second man was a Publican, a tax-collector who was despised by the people. He, however, displayed humility, and this humility justified him before God (Luke 18:14).

The lesson to be learned is that we possess neither the Pharisee's religious piety, nor the Publican's repentance, through which we can be saved. We are called to see ourselves as we really are in the light of Christ's teaching, asking Him to be merciful to us, deliver us from sin, and to lead us on the path of salvation.


* * *

Our priest was sick this morning and so we had a reader's service at church today. Our Deacon led the service and shared a fine message with the parish. One comment he made regarding the Pharisee in the Gospel lesson particularly struck me (it's also noted above). He said that it's easy for us to condemn the Pharisee as a self-righteous figure whose thorough knowledge of and faithfulness to scripture and tradition do not lead to repentance and humility - and in this story, that's true enough. However, as we consider the Pharisee, it's also important to note that unless we have paid as much attention to the Scriptures and traditions of the Church, unless we know them at least as well as the Pharisee, we have no right to stand back and condemn him.

OK, I heard the sermon before I read this description of the day from the OCA website. But it's an important concept: "We who may not fulfill these requirements as well as the Pharisee did should not feel entitled to criticize him for being faithful."

In my own history of learning about Pharisees, they were always depicted as the bad guys. But our Deacon's words this morning and this brief reflection give me pause to think of the Pharisee in a new way. Sadly, the Pharisee, with his abundance of knowledge, misses the point. But this doesn't make him the bad guy, only the misguided guy. And if we would obtain the spirit of repentance and humility of the Publican, it means that we cannot condemn the Pharisee...or anyone else. True humility and repentance does not mean checking ourselves against the likes of others, comparing how we measure up, whether we are doing better or worse than our neighbors. Rather, it is "seeing ourselves as we really are in the light of Christ's teaching, asking Him to be merciful to us, deliver us from sin, and to lead us on the path of salvation."

I like these pre-Lenten weeks, and they are important as they help us "prepare to prepare" - giving us the tools necessary for a truly joyful fast and a fruitful Lent to come.

1 comment:

Mimi said...

I agree, each week unpacks a new "tool" for our Lenten toolbox. And, each Lent is a learning experience for all of us.