Today marks the beginning of the Triodion which is a service book used throughout the great fast. Today of course is not the beginning of Great Lent but we are starting to prepare for this spring clean of the soul. Right at the very beginning, therefore, the Church in her wisdom puts before us the famous parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. She does this because this particular parable, perhaps above all others, teaches us precisely how we should start, maintain and end our Christian lives. In short we could summarise this as: “shun pride, embrace humility.” This is how St. Theophylact explains the matter:-
“Pride also beyond all other passions disturbs the mind of man. And hence the very frequent warnings against it. It is moreover a contempt of God; for when a man ascribes the good he does to himself and not to God, what else is this but to deny God? For the sake then of those that so trust in themselves, that they will not ascribe the whole to God, and therefore despise others, He puts forth a parable, to show that righteousness, although it may bring man up to God, yet if he is clothed with pride, casts him down to hell.”
So, the tax collector is humble whereas the pharisee is proud. He is proud of his religious achievements because he thinks that these will please God and win him heaven. They will not. On the other hand the tax collector, a sinful man, dares not even to raise his eyes toward heaven but rather implores God’s mercy. It is he of course who is justified before God, not the pharisee. Pride shrivels the soul but humility enlarges it. King David in the 50th Psalm knows from personal experience of that which he sings: “a broken and a contrite heart O God Thou will not despise.” (Psalm 50:17). A heart that is broken in sorrowful repentance is soft and malleable in the hands of God. It may resume its proper shape, a heart of love. An unrepentant, proud heart is as hard as stone. It is resistant to God’s love; it reaps its own reward in judgement. What we are all striving for, therefore, in our Christian lives is a hearts repentant before God, soft and malleable, capable of great love and mercy.
But where did the pharisee go wrong in all of this? According to the Law he was blameless; doubtless many would have called him a good and righteous man and yet this is the kind of righteousness of which the Prophet Isaiah writes when the Lord, speaking through him, says: “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousness is as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” (Isaiah 64:6) Now the word “filthy” is a polite mistranslation of the Hebrew word “iddah” which means a woman’s menstrual cloths. We get the same uncompromising language about ungodly religious idealism, now overtaken by Christ, in an autobiographical note of St. Paul in the third chapter of his letter to the Philippians, verses 4b to 9. It is worth reminding ourselves of this in full:-
“ … If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith … “
Just as in Isaiah we have a bit of polite mistranslation going on here in the use of the word “rubbish”. The King James New Testament translation is actually closer to the Greek, the word being “skubalon.” The King James Version translates this as “dung“ - or as we might say today, “crap.” So St Paul is saying that all his training in the law, his religious zeal and the righteousness that flowed from that had to be cast out, eliminated from the body as excrement for the sake of knowing Christ and acquiring a salvation not based on the Law but upon grace and mercy.
With these insights we can now return to the parable and understand more clearly where the pharisee had gone wrong. It was not that his fasting and giving of tithes were bad, far from it. These became, as filthy rags, dung, because his heart was not right with God. The tax collector on the other hand, for all the fact that he had broken the Law in so many different ways, knew his fault, repented and opened his heart to God’s mercy. This was the crucial difference made in the coming of Christ the Messiah; not that the Law was wrong but that it could neither save nor lead to a virtuous life. Without the redeeming grace of God’s sacrificial love flowing from His heart into the heart of a repentant person there could be no true virtue, no God likeness, no salvation. This undoubtedly was the revolutionary shock imparted to Saul, the observant Jew, whose own stony heart was broken, softened and remade. His persecuting fanatical zeal disappeared and he acquired an open Christ-filled heart that was capable of a love denied to the Law.
Finally to ourselves. We have a choice here. We are either going to live our lives as the pharisee or as the tax collector. In the manner of the pharisee we have plenty of opportunities to fulfil good and honourable religious duties, to do Christian things, to even be thought of by many as virtuous, yet if our heart is not right with God our righteousness is indeed as dung or filthy rags. If, however, like the tax collector and for that matter St Paul, we choose to become sensitised through our consciences to our weaknesses, frailties and sins and then repent with humility of heart, we shall acquire a righteousness from God that is glorious and fitting to our dignity as children of God. Moreover, we shall make a positive impact on the lives of others who will see in us the transforming power of God’s love made flesh in the lives of the saints. Yes we shall still fast, yes we shall still tithe, but this time with a heart that boasts not in its own righteousness but in the transforming power of God’s love and mercy.