“I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get”

Orthodox Christians begin their preparations for Great Lent on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. This is a very famous parable, and as such its familiarity can unfortunately reduce the story into a pantomime of caricatures. At the end of the parable, Jesus makes it clear which of the two men in the story ‘goes away justified’. To us it may seem obvious, but to Jesus’ audience it wasn’t as clear-cut.

Who is the ‘Baddie’?

In British pantomimes, whenever the ‘Baddie’ comes on stage, the audience hisses and boos. It’s great fun. There’s a clear distinction between good and evil, who to like and who to despise. Throughout the gospels, Jesus humbles (literally ‘humiliates’) the Pharisees, showing them in a very poor light. However, we must be careful we don’t turn the Pharisees into pantomime ‘Baddies’. Perhaps we should even stop our booing.

In first century Palestine, the Pharisees were the respected religious leaders of God’s Holy People. They held the best seats at the best tables in Jerusalem, they followed the Jewish laws with great precision, and were seen as the architype of sanctity. They had earned the right to ‘blow their own trumpets’ and enjoyed the praise and fame which came with their position.

Everything the Pharisee says is true:

 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’

Luke 18: 11, 12

In his actions, the Pharisee does as we are called to do. We are called to separate ourselves from worldliness, not to steal or be unfair to others, and to stay away from sexual immorality. He keeps the fast diligently and he gives alms to the poor. He’s a model Christian! So what is so wrong with the Pharisee…

Who is the ‘Goodie’?

We know who the ‘Goodie’ is; we know the story very well. But why is he good, and how much are we like him?

The Publican is a tax-collector. Even within the past 30 years we appreciate what happens if rulers begin to over-tax the people. The ‘Poll Tax’ riots in 1990’s London demonstrate that even we have a sense of just and unjust taxation, and woe-betide any administration who attempts to over-step that sense of justice. The same was true for Jesus’ listeners. Tax-collectors were hated. They were seen as collaborators, thieves, unjustly over-taxing the people and keeping a cut for themselves.

A tax-collector going into the Temple to pray would have been reviled. Tongues would wag with muttering and disdain, “Look at him over there… who does he think he is… filthy tax-collector…”

How like our hero are we? After all, Jesus wants us to identify with him.

Jesus Turns Our Understanding on its Head

There are many things we cannot know; they are beyond the scope of this parable. Was the Pharisee really trying to be a good man, or as we suspect, was his list of achievements just an account of his hollow actions? Did the Publican leave the Temple a changed man? Did he actually repent? We will never know.

The Pharisee may be keeping all the rules, but he is full of pride and judgment. Not only does he proclaim his own self-righteousness, but he does so at the expense of the man standing next to him (about whom, we may assume, he knows nothing). He is so busy praising himself that he even forgets to pray to God (instead simply praying to himself)!

As for the Publican, he is a wicked man. His justification before God in this parable isn’t even his repentance. He receives mercy from God because he recognises himself as he really is. He knows he is unworthy to enter the Temple and pray to God, and in his unworthiness he asks God to be merciful to him, to act on his behalf.*

As Lent approaches, God calls us to act like the Pharisee, but do this in humility without noise, pride or judgement. We are asked truly to pray rather than simply listen to the sound of our own voice. God also calls us to be like the Publican: to recognise our own unworthiness and helplessness before God, to see ourselves as we really are, and plead honestly to God that He will act to bring about our salvation and have mercy upon us.

Luke 18:9-14 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

* The word translated as ‘merciful’ in this parable isn’t a conjugation of  ‘eleison’. Instead, the phrase ‘(h)ilastheti moi’ is used. This may be more accurately translated as ‘propitiate on my behalf’. In this context, it may be that the two men in the parable have entered the Temple to make sin offerings. The Publican knows his offering is insufficient, so he asks God to act so as to bring about the remission of his sins. This may be a way, in the original text, to indicate the future crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and may be one of the reasons it is used to prepare for Great Lent.