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Publican and Pharisee Sunday

By Fr. Alexander Schmemann

 

One of the main distinctive features of the gospels, and quite unique to them, are the short stories known as parables which Jesus used in his teaching and meetings with people. What is most striking is that these parables, told two thousand years ago in conditions utterly unlike our own, in a different civilization, in an absolutely different language, remain up-to-date and right on target, going straight to our heart. Other books and words written only recently, perhaps yesterday or the day before, are already old news, forgotten, van­ished into oblivion. Already they don't speak to us, they're dead. But these parables, so apparently simple and unsophisticated, continue full of life. We listen to them and something happens to us, as if someone were looking straight into the deepest part of our life and telling us something just about ourselves, just about me.

In this parable of the Publican and the Pharisee we have a story about two men. The Publican was a tax-col­lector, an occupation universally despised in the ancient world. The Pharisee belonged to the ruling party, the elite of that society and government. In contemporary lan­guage we could say that the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is a symbolic story about a respected representative of the ruling class, on the one hand, and a petty, disreputable "apparatchik" on the other. Christ says:

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector. The pharisee stood and prayed thus within himself, "God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adul­terers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get." But the tax collector, tanding far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Lk 18:10-14)

 

The story takes up only five short verses in the gospel, yet it contains something eternal that applies to all times and situations. For now, however, let's consider the parable only in light of our own time and ourselves. If anything lies at the foundation of our government, society, and yes, our personal lives, then it is the Pharisee's continuous self-promotion, self-affirmation, or to use a more venerable and eternal word, pride. Listening to the heartbeat of our times, we can't but be amazed at the frightening self-advertisement, boasting and shameless self-praise that has entered our life so completely that we almost don't notice it. All self-criticism, self-examination, self-assessment, and any hint of humility have be­come not simply weaknesses, but worse, a social or even government crime. Loving one's country now means forever praising it brazenly while belittling other nations. Loyalty now means forever proclaiming the sinlessness of authorities. To be human now means to demean and trample others, raising yourself up by putting others down. Analyzing your life and the life of your society, its basic structure, you will surely admit that this is an accu­rate description. The world in which we live is so perme­ated with deafening boastfulness, it has become so natural a part of living, that we ourselves don't even notice it. This indeed was Boris Pasternak's observation, as one of the greatest and most clear-sighted poets of our time: " ... everything is drowning in phariseeism ... " Most frightening, of course, is that phariseeism is accepted as virtue. We have been inundated so long and so persist­ently with glory, accomplishments, triumphs; we have so long been held captive in an atmosphere of illusory pseudo-greatness, that all this now seems good and right. Imprinted on the soul of whole generations is now an image of the world in which power, pride and shameless self-praise are the norm. It is time to be horrified by all this and to remember the words of the gospel: "Every one who exalts himself will be humbled."

 

At present, those few who are just beginning to talk about this, in a whisper, who little by little remind the world of this, are shunted off to court or imprisoned in psychiatric hospitals. They are hounded without pity: "Look at these traitors! They oppose the greatness and might of their country! They are against its accomplish­ments! They have doubts that we are the best, most pow­erful, most free, most happy country of all. Be thankful that you are not like these unfortunate renegades." And so on ... But understand that the argument, the war being waged by this embattled minority, is a fight for the spiri­tual foundations of our very life, because the Pharisee's pride is not merely words. Sooner or later his pride fills with hatred and turns on those who refuse to acknowledge his greatness, his perfection. It turns on them with perse­cution and terror. It leads to death. Christ's parable is like a scalpel lancing the worst pus-filled boil of the contem­porary world: the pride of the pharisee. For as long as this boil grows, the world will be ruled by hatred, fear and blood. And that is the situation today.

Only in returning to the forgotten, discredited, and discarded power of humility will the world be made clean. For humility means acceptance and respect of the other, the courage to admit one's own imperfection, to repent, and to set out on the path toward correction. To leave the boasting, lies and darkness of the Pharisee, and to return to the light and wholeness of genuine humanity. To turn toward truth, toward humility, and toward love. This is the call of Christ's parable, and this is the invita­tion, the first invitation of the lenten spring ...

 


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