Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily for the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee

Gospel [Luke 18:10-14 (§89)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear Father, brothers and sisters!

So, after many weeks of so-called ordinary time, we finally come to this first official week of the Pre-Lenten period. From yesterday evening in Orthodox churches and monasteries throughout the world, priests and choirmasters will have blown off the dust that had settled on the book of the Lenten Triodion – the book which the Church uses throughout the whole period of Great Lent from today up until the Midnight Office of Holy Saturday. For today is the very first Sunday of the Pre-Lenten period: the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee (not the Publican and the Prodigal as I had erroneous put on the service schedule). Last week, as you will recall, we were meditating together on that extraordinarily rich and corrupt taxman Zacchaeus, whose love and earnest yearning for the Lord caused him to climb up the Sycamore tree and then proceed there and then to change his life and to repent of a lifetime’s worth of greed, extortion and sin. This week’s Gospel reading also concerns another tax collector, a Publican tax collector– contrasting his prayer before God with that of a Pharisee. To interpret this famous parable of our Lord let us turn to our great pastor and wonderworker of the late 19th and early 20th century, St John of Kronstadt.

In terms of its wider context within the Gospel, this parable comes in chapter 18 of St Luke’s Gospel

Which starts with two parables about how to pray, the first regarding the importunate widow and then this parable which starts in the following way –

Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.

Let’s imagine ourselves at the entrance to the Temple watching these two people come in. On the face of things no doubt we would all find ourselves bowing reverently towards the pious and righteous Pharisee in his splendid robes and looking down in surprise and judgement towards the odious and hated publican – “What are you doing here?”, we might find ourselves saying.

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.

Something has gone diabolically wrong. As St John identifies, the Pharisee despite his seemingly superior spiritual demeanor has shown that he has completely misunderstood something very basic, very fundamental about the authentic spiritual life which has turned his prayer into nothing short of an abomination.

The Pharisee, in his blind self-conceit and pride, has forgotten who he is and Whom he addresses: the sinner imagined himself to be a righteous man; the sinner forgot that he speaks with the All-seeing and All-just God.

The Prayer of the Pharisee which seems to start as a prayer of thanksgiving to God quickly turns, quickly degenerates into the exact opposite – a satanic hymn and paean of praise to himself, to his own goodness and piety. Far from praising God the Pharisee comes into God’s House only to ultimately praise himself his own ego and righteousness. Just look how many “I’s” there are in this self-centered “prayer” –

‘God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.’   

This is not prayer, not even the beginning of prayer but something altogether diabolical. As St John says,

Prayer is a great thing; through prayer man communicates with God, receives from Him various gifts of grace; through prayer man thanks Him as Benefactor for His constant mercies, and praises Him as the all-perfect Creator.

However, even though our Lord righteously criticizes the Pharisees so much within the Gospels, it is very important that we do not see this arrogance, pride and hubris which the Pharisees exemplified to be somehow exclusive and unique to this historically specific sect of the Jewish spiritual elite. As if Pharisaism ended with the last of the Pharisees. No, sadly Pharisaism and spiritual hypocrisy is alive and well and thriving throughout the world and throughout the Orthodox church. We are all just as deceived, just as deluded as the Pharisee in this parable. The reason for this, as St John explains is that the pride which the Pharisee showed comes from deep down within us all and ultimately originates from Adam himself.

The passion of self-exaltation and self-praise to this day reigns among the children of fallen Adam … Man was created in order to love God, as He was the cause of man’s being, and in order to contemplate God’s perfection and to imitate Him … But man loved himself more than he loved God, and desired to usurp His perfection, to be as great as God, and to be his own master; thus he subjected himself to self-love and pride, and he fell. Therefore, self-exaltation, or pride, is a passion that is spiritually fatal to man, which makes him hostile to God and contemptuous toward his neighbours.

Thus, we can see that it is the Pharisee’s pride which causes a fracture to arise on two axes, instead of praying and worshipping God, he worships and praises himself and in so doing becomes entirely alienated from God. At the same time as breaking his relationship with God, in judging his brother the Publican also fractures his relationship towards his fellow men. But what causes this pride, this self-delusion and exaltation? Where does this come from? The diabolical prayer of the Pharisee has a clear and diabolical origin. As St John says –

Pride, moreover, is the fruit of the suggestions of the evil spirit … God is the Truth. The Holy Scripture indicates to us one source, the father of lies … the devil.

Our sick brother the Pharisee thus was tempted by the devil to transform his opportunity to pray to God into a disturbed hymn to himself.

God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.

As St John says –

The simple fact that someone praises himself, be it in church before God, or before everyone else, is already suspicious. True perfection, true virtue is modest: it likes to hide in secret and does no dare to ascribe to itself its own perfection, much less humiliate others

In order to do this we have also forgotten another basic fact of spiritual reality, that God is the only Just Judge, and that our judgement is inevitably flawed, skewed and partial.


How can we appraise our own actions? How are we capable of weighing them? What is the measure we use? … How easy it is sometimes to hide from our own consciousness the unseemly motives that were in fact the true reason for our good deeds. The poison of sin has penetrated deeply into our souls, and unbeknownst to us, it poisons almost all of our virtues.

Part of our healing from this terrible and endemic sin of pride which stalks our every move, is to remember that the only True Judgment is not ours, but God’s. And as part of this pre-Lenten period, in just two Sundays time we will again meditate on this fact when we come to the Sunday of the Last Judgment.

As St John asks, ‘how many reasons to humble ourselves do each of us have?’ The answer is of course the innumerable sins that we have committed from the time of our birth up until the present day and hour. Each of us should know and pay more attention to our faults, to that constant stream of sins that pours out behind us at every minute of every single day, in that vivid image of St Moses the Black. And even if we do achieve some good, we are virtuous in some small way, even this cannot be called purely our own, something that is truly our own.

As St John says-

Man possesses nothing of his own; all that he has he received from God: his soul, his body, everything that he has, except for sin. Every good deed also comes from God. If he boasts of his virtues, then he blasphemes, ascribing to himself that glory that belongs to God alone.

If – by God’s grace – we are inspired to do any good, making use of the good things that God has already given us then rather than being tempted to pride and self-exaltation we should remember our Lord’s own counsel to those who follow His commandments –

So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.

If the Publican was diabolically deceived and ended up making a mockery of prayer. How then should we pray? For the answer, our Lord – in the topsy turvy world of the Kingdom of God which we are already familiar with directs us to a seemingly unlikely source – to another tax collector.

And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.

There is nothing verbose, nothing complicated about the Publican’s prayer. In fact he only says just seven words: “God be merciful to me a sinner”. Yet just as important as the simple words are also the sincere, humble and self-effacing spirit with which he prays. He stands not at the front and center, to be seen and recognized, as no doubt the Pharisee would, but rather ‘afar off’. We also learn that he doesn’t look up towards God or even look around at other people, he doesn’t dare to look down on anyone else, rather he is entirely centered, entirely focused on his own sins, and his sins alone which he sees and feels acutely as if they are heavy weights around his neck. He also shows a true and proper sense of the utter holiness of God’s House and feels in his heart a profound sense of his own utter unworthiness – smiting his breast. We can see in this way that the humble Publican whilst not being a spiritual professional like the Pharisee and without his theological qualifications or fancy clothing is far closer to God as well as closer to reality. As part of our ongoing spiritual delusion, our ongoing fight with pride we fall into this notion that being humble and looking with spiritual eyes is a form of religious idealism, where we have to half close our eyes to things that we “know” to be the case. Yet in actual fact, it is this earthy, humility of the Publican which is truly closer to reality, how things really are.  

I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

Dear father, brother and sisters: today’s parable is another profound wake-up call in living the true spiritual life if we would let it be. As we begin this intense period of preparation before the Struggle of Great Lent, let us seek to learn of the humility and groundedness of the Publican so that we might make a start on the way of repentance that lies before us. As St John ends his sermon –

Lord! Without Thee, we can do nothing. Give us the humility of the publican and expel from us every thought of Pharisaical pride. And may we always remember that we are all Thine, with everything that we possess and see around us, and that we have nothing, absolutely nothing, of which to boast.