St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

On the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee

“God, Be Merciful to Me, a Sinner!”

Luke 18:9-14 - The Publican and the Pharisee
Sermon Preached by Fr. Peter DeFonce on Sunday, February 20, 2005

As you may have noticed in various passages throughout the four Gospels, Jesus had a major problem with the Pharisees, those belonging to a sect of Judaism known primarily for very exacting and overbearing adherence to rules and regulations—these people do everything “by the book,” as it were—and for the nearly complete lack of understanding they had for the work Jesus Himself was trying to accomplish. Whenever He performed a miracle on the Sabbath, the ancient Jewish weekend holiday, the only reply by the Pharisees was that Jesus profaned God’s Law by healing a person on God’s “day off!” Since the Lord could certainly heal someone on any day of the week He so pleases, why should He choose to break His own Law by asking His Son and Messiah to perform a miracle on a Saturday, when every pious Jew is supposed to be at the temple saying prayers, surrounded by billowing clouds of incense, killing the occasional animal as a sacrifice for sins he may have recently committed. They failed to see the logic in Jesus’ actions, in that when someone is ill or in need of an exorcism, he doesn’t really care what day of the week it is—can you imagine a demon-possessed soul responding to Jesus by saying: “Oh no, Lord, please don’t heal me today… I realize that this is your Father’s day off, and I really don’t want to put Him to too much trouble on my behalf. Feel free to come back tomorrow morning around 8:30 am once everyone else has gone to work, and you can heal me then. I will still be hopelessly possessed, and you will be more rested for the exorcism!”

This is why Jesus had absolutely no tolerance for the idiocy of the Pharisees. No matter what good deed He did, no matter what brilliant inspired message He taught the masses, no matter how many demons He cast out into unsuspecting herds of nearby pigs, the Pharisees had something to say about it. They found the dark cloud behind every silver lining. If there was a rule to be broken, they no doubt were right there watching the Lord’s movements in order to catch Him doing it. If this were to take place in today’s world, God forbid, these people would be running around bugging all the synagogues in Jerusalem and setting up hidden cameras in peoples’ houses just on the offhand chance that Jesus would stop by at some point and do something illegal, according to the strictest rendering of the Old Testament Law of Moses, the Torah.

Well, in today’s parable, Jesus is trying to make a statement about righteousness, about what is really means to be righteous according to the underlying meaning of the Law of Moses, to which the Pharisees give a great deal of lip service, but in the end they fail to satisfactorily perform. He uses a common enough example, of two men going up to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector, which for us should be interpreted as a major sinner—tax collectors, as we may recall from the story of Zacchaeus we heard a short time ago, were not looked upon very highly by Jews in the ancient Roman Empire. They defrauded their own people, giving what was due to the Roman authorities, and pocketing the rest of the money to fill their personal bank accounts. For many people, there was little difference between a godless pagan and a tax collector; both were referred to as “sinners,” and despised accordingly. Note how the Pharisee thanks God that not only is he not a thief, a Gentile, or an adulterer, but how wonderful it is that he is not “like this tax collector;” after all, he fasts twice a week, and gives a tithe of all his income to the Temple collection plate. He sounds very Orthodox, doesn’t he? How many of us rejoice within ourselves when we think of our spiritual achievements, such as not eating meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, or going to sacramental Confession during every fasting season (versus those we call “sinners,” who only go once or twice a year, if at all), or giving a large contribution to the I.O.C.C. tsunami relief fund? Do we not have the same capacity as this unjust and accusatory self-styled religious know-it-all to devour our brothers and sisters, for whom Christ died, since they obviously don’t measure up to the standards of “Christianity” which we have determined for ourselves?

The message in this morning’s Gospel reading is clear, brothers and sisters. The tax collector standing at the back of the Temple, who was humiliated in the eyes of the Pharisee and (we may assume) the other people praying nearby, was afraid even to lift his eyes towards Heaven; the only thing he knew to do was to humbly beg God’s forgiveness for his sins, which indeed were many. Jesus assures us that “this man went down to his house justified (=declared righteous), rather than the other… for he who humbles himself will be exalted.” As we now enter the period of the three preparatory weeks before Great Lent, let us endeavor to take a lesson from the response of the Publican to his growing sense of personal sinfulness. We will be called to follow the customary Lenten traditions of our Orthodox faith, regarding: fasting and abstinence, almsgiving, increased amounts of prayer, numerous prostrations, various extra services, and so on; there is certainly nothing sinful in this, but rather it is a gift graciously offered us by God, to be received eagerly and with great joy! As we go through this wonderful season of preparation for the Holy Pascha, let us not fall into the trap of the Pharisee’s deceit and pride. Let us not look down on our neighbors, whether they fast or not, whether they tithe or not, whether they repent of their sins or not, but rather let us consider the depths of darkness, evil, falsehood, ignorance, and intolerance to which we ourselves have sunk, and beg God, as did the righteous Publican of old, that He would be merciful to us sinners. Amen.