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Publican and Pharisee Sunday

As we prepare for the coming of Great Lent, we have the Sunday of the Pharisee and Tax Collector. This parable found in the fourteenth chapter of Luke, speaks of the Pharisee and the tax collector who go to the Temple to pray. The Ukrainian Church places this gospel each year just before the beginning of Lent to remind us about the virtue of humility.

Humility in this context really raises the question as to whether our own good works, our own noble efforts, justify us before God, or whether we are radically dependent on god's good pleasure for our justification.

In response to a question a number of months ago, I mentioned that a parable is a short story with a message. This parable is a classic. There are only two characters in this story. The contrast between them is sharply drawn. The Pharisee was proud of his virtue and looked down on everyone else. The publican was aware of his sinfulness and begged for mercy.

Jesus draws two conclusions from the parable. The first conclusion is particular: The humble publican went home justified; the proud Pharisee did not. The second conclusion is general: "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled but those who humble themselves will be exalted."

If you take a moment and really think about this parable you will find yourself asking questions that challenge the very simplicity of the story. Doesn't Jesus seem to be quite hard on the Pharisee? Wasn't he, all in all, a pretty good guy? Is there something wrong with being faithful to prayer and fasting and justice? What was so great about the tax collector?

To grasp the deeper meaning of this parable we have to recall that it was addressed "to those who believe in their own self-righteousness. We have to emphasize the word SELF-RIGHTEOUS.   The Pharisees actually did observe a strict fast every Monday and Thursday. They did give a tenth of their income to the service of the Temple. The problem was not with these good works but with their belief that because they were perfect in keeping the law, they were therefore justified in the sight of God. The Pharisee's prayer was a smug expression of gratitude that he was no the way to holiness and eternal life.

But, Jesus said, that's not the way it is. The incisive moral point of this parable is the contrast between two views of justification before God. The Pharisee believes he is justified because he has perfectly performed the works of the law. The publican realizes that he has no self-justification and has no choice but to throw himself on the mercy of God. In so doing, he finds justification.

The Christian doctrine of justification would be more fully developed by St. Paul, particularly in his Letter to the Romans (see Chapters 3,4, and 5). But St. Paul's doctrine is rooted in the teaching of Jesus in this parable. The heart of the doctrine is that we cannot justify ourselves; we can only be justified by faith in Jesus Christ. Though the Pharisees as a specific religious sect have disappeared from the scene, many of us Christians are still far to Pharisaical. We sorely need to learn the lesson of this parable.

It is for this reason that our church places this Gospel so close to Lent, the time of preparation and repentance. It is for this reason that our Church is always chanting "Lord have mercy."

 


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