Last Sunday began the three week-long Pre-Lenten period, where Christians consider the issue of repentance before beginning the rigourous fasting season of Great Lent. Last Sunday was designated as the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican, referring to one of Christ’s better-known Parables on the importance of knowing oneself, humility and repentance. This week is designated as the Week of the Pharisee and the Publican, and next week follows the Week of the Prodigal Son (another parable concerning repentance and forgiveness).
Luke 18:10-14 provides the parable, where two men, one from the Pharisee sect (known for their strict adherence to the Law) and the other a Publican (a Jew in the service of the Roman Empire as a tax collector, widely despised by Jewish society as collaborators and thugs, and considered ritually unclean) enter the Temple. The Pharisee, while praying, proudly tells God he is so happy that he is virtuous, and does not conduct himself like adulterers, extortionists or tax collectors, and that he engages in many good works. The Publican, in grief over his wicked past, begs God to forgive him and acknowledges himself as a sinner. Christ concludes that it was the Publican who returned home justified and forgiven, not the Pharisee, and He states, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 14).
A Greek word “metanoia” is frequently used when discussing repentance in this context. It means “change of mind” and conveys a deeper meaning of repentance than just self-pity, dissatisfaction or regret over past actions. It is an active process rather than a passive mood, involving transformation of one’s viewpoint and a re-appraisal of how we interact with God and with others. The Pharisee in this parable is self-satisfied, complacent and believes that his adherence to the Law and his good works are enough to maintain a solid relationship with God. The Publican truly seeks a “change of mind”, not only regretting his misdeeds but humbling himself before God and resolving to improve his conduct; through God’s mercy rather than only his own works he will be forgiven and hence saved.
In our own church, we may meet people who resemble the Pharisee, who are unjustifiably proud of their piety and look down on overt sinners, are unkind to people of other religions or harsh to people of other races. It has ever been so, such is the nature of human frailty. We may also encounter people like the Publican, who have made serious errors in their lives, are frequently held in contempt for it, and humbly seek to transform their lives through Christ. Recapitulation of this parable before our eyes on a weekly basis should not make us cynical about the devout, but remind us that Christ’s parables are timeless and the struggle with pride goes on relentlessly in every human heart, even in people who are basically decent.
The icon for this feast is full of significance, and an explanation of the didactic (teaching) icon above is well covered here.
The ever-eloquent Saint John Chrysostom discusses this feast in great detail;
“When lately we made mention of the Pharisee and the Publican, and hypothetically yoked two chariots out of virtue and vice; we pointed out each truth, how great is the gain of humbleness of mind, and how great the damage of pride. For this, even when conjoined with righteousness and fastings and tithes, fell behind; while that, even when yoked with sin, out-stripped the Pharisee’s pair, even although the charioteer it had was a poor one. For what was worse than the publican? But all the same since he made his soul contrite, and called himself a sinner; which indeed he was; he surpassed the Pharisee, who had both fastings to tell of and tithes; and was removed from any vice. On account of what, and through what? Because even if he was removed from greed of gain and robbery, he had rooted over his soul the mother of all evils— vain-glory and pride. On this account Paul also exhorts and says “Let each one prove his own work”; and then he will have his ground of boasting for himself, and not for the other. He publicly came forward as an accuser of the whole world; and said that he himself was better than all living men. And yet even if he had set himself before ten only, or if five, or if two, or if one, not even was this endurable; but as it was, he not only set himself before the whole world, but also accused all men. On this account he fell behind in the running. And just as a ship, after having run through innumerable surges, and having escaped many storms, then in the very mouth of the harbour having been dashed against some rock, loses the whole treasure which is stowed away in her— so truly did this Pharisee, after having undergone the labours of the fasting, and of all the rest of his virtue, since he did not master his tongue, in the very harbour underwent shipwreck of his cargo. For the going home from prayer, whence he ought to have derived gain, having rather been so greatly damaged, is nothing else than undergoing shipwreck in harbour.
Knowing therefore these things, beloved even if we should have mounted to the very pinnacle of virtue, let us consider ourselves last of all; having learned that pride is able to cast down even from the heavens themselves him who takes not heed, and humbleness of mind to bear up on high from the very abyss of sins him who knows how to be sober. For this it was that placed the publican before the Pharisee; whereas that, pride I mean and an overweening spirit, surpassed even an incorporeal power, that of the devil; while humbleness of mind and the acknowledgment of his own sins committed brought the robber into Paradise before the Apostles. Now if the confidence which they who confess their own sins effect for themselves is so great, they who are conscious to themselves of many good qualities, yet humble their own souls, how great crowns will they not win. For when sinfulness be put together with humbleness of mind it runs with such ease as to pass and out-strip righteousness combined with pride. If therefore thou have put it to with righteousness, whither will it not reach? Through how many heavens will it not pass? By the throne of God itself surely it will stay its course; in the midst of the angels, with much confidence. On the other hand if pride, having been yoked with righteousness, by the excess and weight of its own wickedness had strength enough to drag down its confidence; if it be put together with sinfulness, into how deep a hell will it not be able to precipitate him who has it? These things I say, not in order that we should be careless of righteousness, but that we should avoid pride; not that we should sin, but that we should be sober-minded. For humbleness of mind is the foundation of the love of wisdom which pertains to us. Even if you should have built a superstructure of things innumerable; even if almsgiving, even if prayers, even if fastings, even if all virtue; unless this have first been laid as a foundation, all will be built upon it to no purpose and in vain; and it will fall down easily, like that building which had been placed on the sand. For there is no one, no one of our good deeds, which does not need this; there is no one which separate from this will be able to stand. But even if you should mention temperance, even if virginity, even if despising of money, even if anything whatever, all are unclean and accursed and loathsome, humbleness of mind being absent. Everywhere therefore let us take her with us, in words, in deeds, in thoughts, and with this let us build these (graces).”