In order to understand this Bible story properly, we should remind ourselves what the roles of Publicans and Pharisees were in Judean society at the time of Christ’s ministry. The Pharisees belonged to a Jewish sect, known for its strict observance of religious ceremonies and practices, adherence to oral laws and traditions, and the coming of a Messiah. They belonged to the middle-class of society, and also believed in an afterlife and the resurrection of the dead. They regarded themselves as righteous people, and their relationship with God was purely legalistic. By certain historical records, at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem A.D. 70, there were around six thousand of them. Publicans were actually tax collectors employed by Romans – occupiers of Judea at the time. They were obliged to pay an agreed amount to the Romans, and whatever was left over they were permitted to keep for themselves. They grossly overcharged people extorting money from them. This was the primary reason they were despised and hated by their own people.
This Bible story talks about one Pharisee and one Publican coming to the temple to pray. The Pharisee seemingly starts his prayer in the right way: “God, I thank you…”. What comes after that is a classical example of self – exalting and self - praising, which drives a person further away from God. He doesn’t say: “God, thank you for helping me to try my best to stay away from sins”, he says: “ ….I am not like other men – extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector”. He attributes everything he achieved to himself, as something he has done by his own strength. If he believed that his achievements were done with God’s help, he would have never compared other people to himself, and would never despise other men. If he stopped thinking about himself as superior to others he would indeed see himself as a very weak and sinful person, who is protected and shielded by God’s mercy. The place where he stood in the temple, right in front of the altar, also indicates his lack of humility. Commandments about fasting and giving tithes are the easiest ones, amongst all of God’s commandments. That’s why he’s using these two commandments in his boastful exaltation.
He doesn’t understand that fasting and giving tithes are not the primary goals of someone’s faith. These are merely instruments to achieve higher goals – cleansing and preserving a human soul. Fasting and giving tithes are the primary weapons against the passions of lust and greed, which are mentioned by the Pharisee as adultery and extortion. However, without a humble and repentant heart, these practices do not bear fruits worthy of repentance (Matthew 3:8). They are actually worthless, and lead only to pride, and to judgment of others. Basically, spiritual discipline is useless, if a fruitful life doesn’t follow. Following God’s commandments will help a man to attain humility, generosity, temperance, a wish to serve others and above anything else: love towards God and people. Instead of achieving those and many other virtues, which are really “fruits worthy of repentance”, the Pharisee who’s regularly fasting and giving tithes: despises and hates other people, and boasts. Only because he knows that the other man in the temple is a tax collector, he’s thanking God, that he’s “not like this tax collector”. That means: his soul is sick, and regardless of fasting and giving tithes, he has ended up in spiritual blindness.
The tax collector prays to God in a totally different manner. He is standing far from the altar with eyes cast downward. Beating his breasts, he’s repeating only one prayer:” Lord, be merciful to me a sinner”. This clearly shows awareness of the sinful state of his soul. He doesn’t quote his deeds – good or bad, because he believes that God knows everything, and puts all of his hopes not in his own strength, but in God’s mercy. That’s the moment when Jesus Christ says that: “ This man went down to his house justified rather then the other”. The tax collector went down to his house justified, not the Pharisee. This is an important lesson for us: we must not only pray continually, but we must first acknowledge our sin. Prophet Isaiah confirms that :”Declare your sins first, that you must be justified” (Isaiah 43:26).
Our Lord concludes this Gospel with the following words:” For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who hates himself will be exalted.” Whoever wants to exalt himself before God and people by humiliating and judging them will in fact humiliate himself before God. That’s exactly what the Pharisee did. On the other hand, a person who humiliates himself is a person who recognizes his own humility through his sinfulness. That is a person who is aware of his sinful soul, and puts all of his trust and hopes into God’s hands, just like the tax collector. Through him we learn what is said in the Bible: “The righteous is the accuser of himself” (Proverbs 18:17)
We read this parable in the forth week before the beginning of Great lent. That’s how we slowly start preparing for fasting seven weeks before Easter. This parable is dedicated to those who trust in themselves and who do not attribute everything to God. Pride, presumption, arrogance, vainglory, and also judging, despising and hating others are all the offshoots of self-love. For Orthodox Christians who hold fasts, this Gospel bears the message that holding the commandments of God will bring us closer to Him, but there should not be room for pride within our souls. That is why the Church tells us to begin all our prayers with “God cleanse me a sinner and have mercy upon me”. We say that three times before we start any private or public prayer, to prevent praying with ourselves as the Pharisee did. That will help us to approach God as the tax collector, recognizing our detachment from Him, so that we may praise Him properly and give thanks to Him for everything.
Fr. Sasha Radoicic