Posted by: Fr Chris | January 30, 2023

Publican and Pharisee: Be merciful!

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others:  An unusual introduction to a parable in any of the four gospels. Usually, the parables are addressed to the crowd in general. Not this one.

Pharisees formed the dominant strain of Judaism, and they had contrast between demanding unyielding obedience to every rule and regulation while many of them were devout men who sincerely prayed. They were both honored for their devotion to the Law and disliked for the arrogance and hypocrisy of many of their members. Even so, the opening lines of the parable had the people prepared for the tax collector to be condemned and the Pharisee praised.

Why the reputation for hypocrisy? God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ They set themselves above the rest of the population  – he lumps all of the Jews into terrible categories: extortioners, unjust, adulterers, and traitors. What good is his fasting, his tithing, when combined with such arrogance? We have to be cautious – here is the first warning of the preparation for Great Lent. We must be humble, sorrowful for our sins, and cognizant of what we have to work on.

There is a famous story from the Desert Fathers of Egypt: An old man much given to simplicity questioned Father Ammonas: “Three thoughts occupy me, either, should I wander in the deserts, or should I go to a foreign land where no one knows me, or should I shut myself up in a cell without opening the door to anyone, eating only every second day?” Father Ammonas replied, “It is not right for you to do any of these three things. Rather, sit in your cell and eat a little every day, keeping the word of the publican always in your heart, and you may be saved.” What was the word of the publican? God, be merciful to me a sinner!

The Publican, as a publican, dwelled in the depths of sin: he worked for the pagan Romans. The publicans were tax farmers – they did not just collect the taxes due to the Roman state, but got their salary by charging extra. They charged far more than the tax rate. The publicans were generally rich, and because the rest of the Jews despised them, they hung out with other publicans and their families, they invited prostitutes and public sinners to their homes, they generally avoided going to synagogue out of shame and because they would be harassed. They were very much on the fringe of Jewish life, and thoroughly disliked. In paintings and icons of this parable, the publican is always shown in the background, in shadows, in darkness.

 St Gregory Palamas writes: All he has in common with those who live virtuously is one short utterance, but he finds relief, is lifted up and rises above every evil. He is numbered with the company of the righteous, justified by the impartial Judge Himself. If the Pharisee is condemned by his speech, it is because, as a Pharisee, he thinks himself somebody, although he is not really righteous, and utters many arrogant words which provoke God’s anger with their every syllable.

Humility leads me to holiness but arrogance leads me to the depths of sin. The elderly monk I mentioned earlier surely wanted to be holy, but he is looking the wrong way  – he actually was being proud by coming up with exotic and impressive penances. But Ammonas tells him that the only penance that will save him is this one sentence – God, be merciful to me a sinner!

It is so important a phrase that we have incorporated it into our prayer before Communion, it can be used as a short Act of Contrition, it is a prayer that can be used throughout the day.

God – Lord of my life, source of my existence, the one I can call on over and  over again

Be merciful – soak me in your mercy, shower your love on me, pour yourself out over me, love me, love me, love me, love me

A sinner! – forgive me, for I know I’ve done wrong and I am truly sorry. No excuses, no mitigation, no explaining – just I know I’ve done wrong and I am so truly sorry for being a sinner.

 God, be merciful to me a sinner! One of the great dangers historically of being a church-going Christian is hypocrisy, just like so many of the Pharisees and Sadducees in the time of Christ. There are way too many stories of arrogant believers who have exalted themselves and looked down on those known to be sinners; way too many episodes where some of those who condemned people turned out to be leading secret lives of sin themselves. Go back to the opening verse of this parable: He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others.

It is very easy to condemn the politician I don’t like or the other team or fans of the other team or non-Catholics or non-Christians or whatever and whoever! It is very easy to become arrogant about what I know and what I have learned or read or studied. But the key element always in the gospel, in the Christian message, in Catholic teaching is this: to be humble, and to be loving.

God hears the prayer of the sinners who are sorry. God hears our prayers. God longs to hear us cry out to him. God wants us to love him, to change our ways, to come home to him. In the book of the prophet Hosea, God speaks to Israel when the people abandon their pagan gods and return to worship their true Lord. In chapter 14 he says: I will love them freely. The same holds true for us – when we sincerely confess our sins, when we sincerely repent, when we sincerely turn back to the Lord in all humility and trust, when we ask him to once again soak us in his love, he says to each one of us: I will love you freely, for my anger is turned away from you.

Let us make this coming Lent a Lent of loving sorrow, of loving repentance, of honest regret for our faults, and turn to the Lord our God with all our hearts, minds, and souls.

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