Metropolitan Kallistos Ware at St. Andrew’s

March 1, 2013 Length: 14:43

The Publican and the Pharisee. Learn more about Patristic Nectar Publications.





In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today, on this Sunday, brothers and sisters in Christ, we are making a new beginning, a fresh start. It is the commencement of a new period in the Church’s year, the period known as the Triodion. Last night at vespers, the reader came and picked up the book of the Triodion that was resting just in front of the icon of Christ on the icon screen, and this is the book that we shall be using for the next ten weeks. So it is now three weeks before the beginning of Lent, the Great Fast, and it is ten weeks to Pascha, to the great joy of the Resurrection.

We are making a new beginning, but what kind of new beginning shall this be? How shall we begin anew? In today’s gospel there was set before us two figures with two contrasting prayers. Let us compare these two figures with their prayers. First there is the Pharisee. He begins his prayer: “God, I thank you.” Now, that in itself is a good beginning. As a great priest of 19th century Russia, Fr. John of Kronstadt, used to say, “Prayer is a state of continual gratitude.” We should not begin our prayers by confessing our sins or lamenting our difficulties. We should begin by blessing God, by giving him thanks.

And in his prayer, as he proceeds, the Pharisee speaks the truth. He is indeed a righteous man in his outward way of life. When he says that he observes the fasts, that is really what he does. When he says that he gives to the poor, he is speaking the truth. What, then, is wrong with the Pharisee’s prayer?

Now let’s turn to the other figure, the publican or tax-collector. He, too, speaks the truth in his prayer. He is a sinner. He is involved in the iniquitous system of tax collection that existed in the Roman empire. The collection of taxes in different districts was put up to auction, and the person who was willing to pay the highest price to be tax collector was awarded the duty of gathering tax. He would naturally wish to recover his money that he had spent on obtaining the office of tax-collector. So the tax-collectors were guilty of grinding the faces of the poor and oppressing all who were in need, exploiting the people, inflicting suffering.

Moreover, the tax-collector has good reason to feel a sense of hopelessness. What can he do to change his situation? He’s caught in a trap from which there seems to be no escape. Under the Jewish law he was bound to make a restitution of all his fraudulent gains and to add one-fifth more to that. He spent the money that he raised from the taxes. Where is he going to find enough money to pay off all that he’s taken? How can he find all those whom he has cheated? So why, in the parable, is the sinful tax-collector justified rather than the seemingly righteous Pharisee?

Let’s look again at the two prayers. The Pharisee gives thanks, but in the wrong way. Seemingly he blesses God, but actually he congratulates himself. He is self-satisfied, complacent, and so he leaves no room for God to act. What is more, the Pharisee looks sideways; he makes comparisons. He says, “I am not as other people are.” Nor is that all: he denies, he repudiates his fellow human, his brother, the tax-collector. He dismisses him. He feels no compassion for him. He treats him as an object, not as a person.

And what about the prayer of the tax-collector? Whereas the Pharisee is self-satisfied, the publican is self-dissatisfied. He is not complacent. He does not try to justify himself before God. He is broken in spirit. He puts no trust in himself, but he simply asks for God’s mercy. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He’s just like the repentant thief on the cross, about whom we shall hear on Great Friday. He, too, hanging on the cross, does not try to justify himself, but he simply appeals to Christ for mercy. “Lord, remember me,” he says, “in your kingdom.”

So then the publican, the tax-collector recognizes his need, his need for forgiveness. He cries out for help, and because of all this there is hope for him, although at this particular moment he does not realize it. Now the positive element, then, in the publican’s prayer is precisely: he does not seek to justify himself, precisely because, unlike the Pharisee, he is self-dissatisfied, not self-satisfied. He leaves room for God to act, room for the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.

So now let us apply all that to ourselves. Whom do you resemble? Whom do I resemble? Is it the self-satisfied Pharisee or is it the self-dissatisfied tax-collector? Lent is a time for repentance, and repentance, in Greek, metanoia, means literally “change of mind.” Repentance is not primarily a feeling of guilt and shame. Repentance is not the same as self-disgust. Repentance means a new way of looking at myself, at my fellow humans, at God. A change of mind. How are you and I going to change our minds this Lent?

In a second-century text, The Shepherd of Hermas, it is said, “Repentance is a great understanding.” Not a feeling of horror and self-disapproval, but a new understanding. How shall you and I grow in understanding during the coming season of the 40-day fast? Shall you and I indeed show the great understanding that was to be found in the publican? Shall you and I be accepted in the mercy of God because of the true prayer of repentance that we have offered with full intensity from our heart?

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.