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, rogues, 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 man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
When the Lord began telling this parable, as soon as He mentioned the two main characters, the tax-collector and the Pharisee, His audience immediately chose sides and came to a conclusion as to who is the "good" guy and who is the "bad" guy.
Tax-collectors were traitors, in the eyers of Jewish society, who worked for the Gentile Roman government. They were dismissed as worthless sinners, along with murderers and prostitutes. Pharisees, on the other hand, were considered to be religious, pious, and, therefore, highly admired. Christ did spend a lot of time of His ministry pointing out that the Pharisees were not as pious as they seemed, that they were, in fact, rotten on the inside.
But, when Jesus began the parable, at the mention of the main characters, the people assumed that the Pharisee will be given as an example worthy of imitation. And part of the prayer that he offers in the Temple is not that bad, if we don't take into account that it was all centered on himself. Notice how many times he says "I" or "my" while praying.
The hated tax-collector can't even lift up his eyes to pray (people would pray with uplifted arms and head while praying in those days). And his prayer was very simple. Just like the Pharisee realized that he is not a thief, rogue, or adulterer, so did the tax-collector realize something - that he is a sinner. And sinners don't really have much to boast about, unlike non-thieves, non-rogues, or non-adulterers.
The conclusion to this short parable was shocking to the crowd, "I tell you, this man [the tax-collector] went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee." What?! Traitor scum can be justified? Who has the power to justify them? Well, God, as long as the person, traitor or not, has come to a realization that he/she is a sinner and can't fix it on his/her own. If it was up to us, human beings, to justify, forgive, and save others, then we'd all be mutually cursing each other in hell.
Thankfully, God has lifted the heavy burden of justifying others off of our backs. And He does it very well. Every sinner that is ready to humble him/herself is exalted by God. However, every self-righteous person, who exalts him/herself, eventually gets humbled. When we build ourselves up, puff up our ego, any sort of humility or humbling that comes our way, would feel like crushing humiliation.
As a side note, this Sunday is the beginning of our pre-Lenten journey, where we prepare for the season of preparation for the Feast of feasts - Pascha, Lord's Resurrection. This pre-Lenten season consists of four Sundays, but three full weeks. The first full week, following the Sunday of the Tax-collector and the Pharisee is usually fast-free. Meaning, the usual days of fasting, Wednesday and Friday, are non-fasting. One of the reasons for that is the Pharisee's boasting of fasting twice a week. By having a fast-free week right after we hear this parable, the Church is teaching us avoid the Pharisee's prideful negligence of self-righteousness.
To see the notes on the same reading from previous year, click here.
Yours in the Lord,