The Lord told this parable, "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, evildoers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
I tell you, this tax collector went to his home justified rather than the Pharisee, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
Great Lent, itself a season of preparation for the Feast of feasts, is such an intense period that it needs its own season of preparation. The Sunday of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee is the first Sunday of this pre-Lenten period. Great Lent is also called a season of repentance, therefore, the pre-Lenten period is meant to set our mind to have a fruitful and spiritually beneficial repentance.
The word repentance is translated from a Greek word "metanoia." Repentance does not mean feeling bad about things we did, like having bad thoughts, or cursing in traffic, or being a jerk to one's family members or co-workers. Repentance, metanoia, means drastically and radically changing our life.
Repentance consists of (1) realizing that we are doing something wrong, that we are missing the mark ("to sin" literally means to "miss the mark," as in shooting an arrow and completely missing); (2) confessing it before the Lord, first privately in prayer in our heart, and aloud in church with a priest as a witness to this confession (confessing our sins aloud can be very hard, but it is therapeutic: "name it and claim it," we come to fuller realization of our sins, and this in turn helps us to work on ourselves better); and (3) doing something about it, as in making every effort not to repeat the sin. Repentance is making a 180 degree turn. Have bad thoughts? Fight them. Catch yourself cursing in traffic? Stop, getting all huffy and puffy won't change anything. You'll just feel angry for no reason.
Let's see how the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee helps us prepare for true repentance.
The Lord told a parable. A parable is a story, it can be true or made up, it doesn't matter. It's an analogy. Even though, Sunday's reading begins with verse 10, in the preceding verse we have an explanation of why Jesus told this parable: "He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt" (Luke 18:9).
So, there were some who thought themselves to be righteous, the self proclaimed "good-doers" if you will, and because of this they disliked and hated those whom they deemed "unrighteous." Pride vs humility. Pride leads to hell. Humility leads to salvation.
Tax Collector and Pharisee
As we saw from last week's reading about a very rich tax collector by the name of Zacchaeus, tax collectors were Jews who worked for the hated Roman occupiers. Their job was to make sure that the population paid its tax. The Romans did not care what you did, as long as you paid your taxes and caused no civil unrest. Tax collectors also were very fraudulent - they stole money, but they did not steal from the Romans, which would have meant a sure death. Instead, they stole from their own people by charging a much bigger tax than was required.
Pharisees, on the other hand, were highly respected for their zealous observance of the Jewish Law. They prided themselves on following every possible law (there were over 600 in all). They were highly educated, they knew their stuff, but this led them to being snobbish and self-righteous, if not outright nasty.
The setting of the parable is the Temple, where we find both the tax collector and the Pharisee praying. Usually, the icons or pictures depicting this parable show the Pharisee standing in front of the tax collector, or at the very least inside the Temple. White the tax collector stands somewhere afar, like at the entrance or vestibule.
Pharisee's prayer is a thanksgiving - he is happy that he is not like all other people (not exactly an ideal way to thank God). He is not a thief, an evildoer, does not sleep around with women, and does not rip off his own people. He even fasts twice a week (Mondays and Thursdays), and gives 10% of his possessions to God, as the Law required (usually would be brought to the Temple).
[As a side note, Christians, especially Orthodox Christians, also fast twice a week, on Wednesday and Friday. However, in preparation for the Great Lent, the week following Sunday of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee (this year it would be Feb. 18-24), we have a fast-free week. Partly because the Church is giving us couple extra days to consume any non-lenten foods we have, so that we won't have to throw them out once the Lent starts. And also, and most importantly, we have a fast-free week so that we don't get infected with similar pride of the Pharisee, where we stand before God and tell Him how nice we are for even fasting twice a week.]
There is nothing to suggest that he is lying or making things up. The Pharisee did indeed do all these things. We should assume that in his actions he is righteous. What did him in was his pride. Notice that while thanking God he manages to maintain the focus on himself! He says "I" or "my" five times in two short sentences of his prayer. It's almost as if God should be grateful to have such a committed person.
As a contrast we have a tax collector, a truly proud person, a truly greedy person, and a truly wretched person. Like Zacchaeus, he knew that his way of life led him to nothing but misery. But, in his humiliation he did not even raise his head up to heaven, while praying. He had nothing to offer to God, he could not boast of doing anything righteous. All he could offer was his ... humility. And all he wanted was mercy because he was a sinner, "Lord, have mercy on me a sinner." There is a reason a shorter version of his prayer, "Lord, have mercy," is constantly repeated in our services - in our sinfulness we desire, we hope for the same mercy as he did.
We do not know whether the tax collector changed his ways, but the Lord does say that he went back home justified. His prayer was heard, it was truly a God-pleasing prayer. It's hard to imagine the tax collector not making at least some kind of changes in his life.
Jesus Christ offers a moral of the story - if you exalt yourself you'll be humbled, if you humble yourself you'll be exalted (by God). It's like that saying - "the higher you fly, harder the fall."
Pride is the worst of all the sins. Pride leads to all other sins. It was because of pride that Lucifer defied God and fell. Humility, on the other hand, is central to our Christian faith. We can love only if we are humble. We help others because of humility. Humility leads to true repentance.
If you tend to have episodes of pride, try to catch yourself before they happen and stop. Say the Jesus prayer, "Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." Don't boast about anything, even if you think you deserve it. Pride leads to hating parts of our day, or even our life. Pride makes us despise others, who "bother" us all the time.
Practice some humility. It's not easy because it is almost counterintuitive in our 21st century western world. However, the more humble you become, the more thankful you will be for every person and every event in your life, good or bad. We can't really tell why things happen to us, but we can definitely learn from them, if we approach them in humility and with level head.
Yours in Christ,