2012, February 5 – The Publican and Pharisee

Fr. Robert Miclean
Holy Archangels Orthodox Church
Sunday, February 5, 2012
Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee

Epistle:            II Timothy 3:10-15
Gospel:            Luke 18:10-14

We’re challenged today by the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.  Once again, Christ God thrusts a lesson before us that catches us off guard.  Here, as with last week’s Gospel on the repentance and restoration of Zacchaeus, a publican is at the center, exemplifying the humility that is requisite for relationship with Him.

The publican recognizes himself as a sinner—so much so, that he is on his face before God, not even daring to lift his face toward heaven.  He is utterly prostrate—in body and in soul, confessing his sins openly.  Like the harlot who anoints Christ’s feet, weeping openly for her sins, the publican too finds favor with God.  David reminds us of this truth about God in his psalm of repentance, Psalm 50, “a humble and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.”

How easy it is to be like the Pharisee though.  All of us have been there: we’re focused on the ‘doing’ of the Faith, our book knowledge, or our ethnic heritage in the Church, to the exclusion of its inner meaning, our communion (koinonia) and relationship with God, which can only progress with growth in humility and love for God and our neighbor.

Now, let’s be clear: the Pharisee isn’t condemned because he fasts twice a week or because he gives tithes.  These actions are commendable: all faithful Orthodox Christians are called to do so.  No, rather, it’s his spirit of boastfulness, the lauding of his own actions, thinking that these things justify his self-glorification, that they merit favor with God.  These are among the sins of the Pharisee.  Proverbs 27:2 reminds us that we should never praise ourselves, but rather, “let a neighbor praise you, and not your own mouth.”

Likewise, we too can commit the sin of the Pharisee if, in our repentance  and confession, we seek to mitigate or justify ourselves before God for the sins we have committed—shifting the blame or, at least, watering it down, lessoning our responsibility for the sins we commit.

The final sin of the Pharisee is his condemnation of the Publican next to him.   The Pharisee cannot see into the Publican’s heart, but judges him based on what he knows of his occupation or past sins with no reference to the repentance and forgiveness that God offers us all.

Many people today misunderstand the Pharisee’s sin, admonishing others simply not to ‘judge.’  It’s true:  we must always remember that God is our judge, that we cannot see inside the hearts of man, and that we ourselves are in need of repentance when we judge another.

At the same time, however, we must be very careful to not sin on the other extreme, which can be just as evil as the intentions of the Pharisee here.  We live in an extremely relativistic culture where the greatest ‘sin’ you can commit is to tell someone else that they or their lifestyle are wrong, that their actions are sinful and hurtful to themselves and/or others.

Many of the same people who condemn judgmentalism, are guilty of prideful over-sensitivity either towards themselves or others, or both.  While being ‘tolerant’ of another’s destructive behavior, words or thoughts, they are quick to hold a grudge or resent anyone who challenges their ideas or actions, or strives to hold them or another accountable for their words or actions.

God calls on us to recognize sin when we see it, disobedience and deviance to God’s way of life, to relationship and communion with Him.  In the Old Testament, God warned His people over and over to “put away the evil from among you” (e.g., Deut. 17).  In the New, the Commandments are repeatedly reiterated and all the works of the flesh are soundly condemned, and, if known, are not to be left undisciplined in the Church.

The sins which the Pharisee enumerates: extortion, adultery, injustice—are all evil, but God desires to forgive those who are guilty of these sins if they repent with a sincere heart—as does the Publican.  If God forgives one of our fellow human beings, created in His image, who are we to judge that brother or sister?  Who are we to condemn men generally.

The truth is that we must never condemn a sinner.  Rather, we’re called to strive for the healing from sin-sickness of ourselves and others, with our and their eternal salvation in view.  To stand by and do and say nothing while someone departs from God’s way or engages in behavior that separates them from God, or hurts themselves or others, is the opposite of true love.  On the contrary, it becomes our own shameful judgment and condemnation of that individual.

So why do we shrink back from holding others accountable, of challenging those in sin, of calling them to repentance?  Perhaps it’s our prideful fear of their or society’s disapproval; we fear man more than we fear God; we love ‘fitting in’ more than we truly love those around us, who are created in the image of God and called to healing and holiness with us.

It’s true that in confronting sin we may ourselves be judged, labeled, or find ourselves the recipient of an angry backlash no matter how much we strive to speak the truth in love.  We are reminded in today’s Epistle, that we should expect this; that such rejection and suffering for the sake of the Gospel is not only to be expected, but embraced as part of the cross of being a follower of Jesus Christ, part of loving our fellow man into the Kingdom of God.

As we look toward the start of the Lenten Fast, we do well to keep ourselves from judging those around us for how they fast or what they do.  We keep our focus on Christ and our own need for growth in humility.  At the same time, we speak the truth in love to those around us, we purge  ourselves of our own sins, and we refuse to be a party to the relativism and evil going on around us in our society, preferring instead to be a living witness of Christ’s love, power, healing, and glory, that others too may come to join us in our repentance, learn to die to the world, to live for Christ.