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Sermon for the Sunday of a Tax Collector and a Pharisee

In the holy Gospel, the Lord instructs us in parables onto the path of salvation, prepares us for Great Lent – the time of temperance and repentance, and this Sunday He reminds us of an instructive parable about a tax collector and a Pharisee. Here is its content.

Sermon for the Sunday of a Tax Collector and a Pharisee

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with 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, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” (Lk. 18:9-13). Then Christ said that the tax collector went down to his house justified rather than the other, “for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The humility of the tax collector raises him to the height of righteousness, and the pride brings the Pharisee down to the bottom of sinfulness. For he who thinks highly of himself before God and before people is abandoned by God, but he who considers himself nothing and therefore trusts in the mercy from above receives help and mercy from God, for it is said: “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he shows favour” (Proverbs 3:34).

Who is the Pharisee? The Pharisees tried to fulfil the law of God in every detail, to live righteously, piously, to fulfil all the prescriptions of the law, to observe all fasts, feasts, regularly visiting the temple. They were the teachers of the people, they knew the Holy Scriptures well. But the Pharisee in the parable is not a title or a class, but a way of thinking and living.

And so, it is said, the Pharisee, having come to the temple, did not stop at the entrance, did not remember that he had come to the House of the Living God, before Whom even the Angels bow in trembling, awe and love, but confidently walked forward, to “his” place, knowing that he “has the right” to that place in front, for he lives by the rules.

Both the Pharisee and the tax collector entered the church to pray, but their prayer to God was different. The Pharisee, turning to God, said: God! Thank you. What did he thank for? For the fact that he is very good, unlike others. And then he lists his “merits” before the Lord: “I am not like other people.” Arrogance and judging of others are contained in the prayer of the Pharisee.

Outwardly, the Pharisee is more righteous than the tax collector: he did not rob, did not commit adultery, did not drink wine, and fasted. Yes, but this is according to human understanding. But for God pride is so disgusting, that nothing can be worse than it. Chrysostom says about this: “Virtue combined with pride is exceeded by humility with sin, for pride humiliates virtue, and humility lightens the burden of sin.”

The Pharisee considered himself perfect, an example for others. He expected respect from people and praise from God. “Every one who is arrogant is an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 16:5). There is nothing more pernicious than pride, for pride brought down even angels from heaven. From the history of the Church we see that some people renounced the world, retired into the wilderness, mortified flesh by fasting, but, being overwhelmed by vanity and pride, they destroyed everything and lost their salvation. To prevent us from being vainglorious and proud about fasting the whole week after the Sunday of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee is “continuous”, that is, there is no fasting during it. Pride is indignant at God, it builds treacherous nets for neighbours, it is accompanied by passions and falls. God, through the mouth of prophet Isaiah, speaks of the proud: “Your pomp has been brought down to the grave… maggots are spread out beneath you and worms cover you” (Isa. 14:11).

However, let us refrain from despising and condemning the Pharisee, as he condemned the tax collector. The Pharisees were the people of spiritual feat, their righteousness cost them many labours. Let’s better pay attention to ourselves: sometimes we do not even have the righteousness that the Pharisee had. Do we as strictly observe fasts and prayers? Do we pay one tenth of our income to God with such zeal? Therefore, let us not lightly and hastily judge the Pharisee who had at least an ostentatious righteousness. He was condemned by Christ because his righteousness was proud and his soul was dead and did not reach love. Still, a Pharisee can hope for forgiveness if, while remaining a righteous worker, he brings God the fruits of his righteousness – repentance, love, compassion and mercy. Then the Lord can revive his soul.

But enough about the Pharisee. Let us turn our attention to the tax collector’s humility. The Gospel says: “The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” In which way was the prayer of the tax collector pleasing to God? The reason was that he was humble and had a heart that grieved for his sins, and as prophet David said, “a broken and humbled heart God will not despise” (Ps. 51:17). The tax collector’s prayer was short, but diligent and deep, combined with living faith. It seems he is saying: “I confess to you, O God, my sins, for they are immeasurable, I grieve for them and suffer with a contrite heart. By my iniquity I have angered you, O God, therefore I cry and beat my breast, I realize that I am accursed (like Cain the murderer) and I do not ask anything else of You except for the forgiveness of my sins, help in correcting my life, for, being the greatest sinner, I ask you to forgive me and turn my repentance into salvation.” “Incline your ear, O Lord, and hearken to me, because poor and needy I am” (Psalm 86:1). How important is the outward manifestation of the tax collector’s contrition for his sins! He beat his breast out of great alarm, sorrow and grief, as the one who he had gravely offended the dignity and majesty of God. This is the true pattern of prayer justifying the sinner.

Among Jews the tax collectors were a symbol of sinners, because, collecting taxes for the occupants, the Romans, they robbed their fellow tribesmen, while, obviously, they appropriated a lot for themselves. Cruelty, extortion, ruthlessness were common in their lives. One can imagine what contempt the Jews had for the tax collectors. Therefore, realizing how sinful and rejected he was, the tax collector stood at the entrance to the church, knowing that according to the human and God’s truth, he deserved the same merciless cruelty that he himself constantly displayed. He stood and beat his breast, knowing that it was impossible to buy mercy, but that one could only repent and beg for it as a gift, as a miracle, believing that through the mercy and compassion of the Lord God’s undeserved forgiveness could descend upon him. He does not fall into despair, and, because he believes in the mercy of God, the impossible becomes possible, and, no longer according to the law, but by grace, God’s mercy descends upon him. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and the humble in spirit he will save” (Ps. 34:18).

The Lord accepts the prayer that comes from a humble heart, when a person realizes his sinfulness before God. Christ said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). He promised that tax collectors and harlots would enter the Kingdom of God through repentance, and the first of those was the robber who repented at the Cross of the Saviour. But the Pharisees, in their ostentatious righteousness, went so far as to crucify Christ.

There is something in the parable that at first glance causes bewilderment. The sinful tax collector was more justified by God than the Pharisee who did the right thing. Well, maybe you may swear, rob, commit fornication, and then beat your breast and say: God, be merciful to me, a sinner? No, the Lord does not want us to do this, but urges us to fulfil His commandments and do good to our neighbours, for repentance and good deeds soften our soul, leading it to God. However, if this is mixed with vanity, showing off, self-praise, desire to emphasize one’s merits, to receive abundant reward for them – this is not appreciated either by people, or even more so by God. Therefore, the Lord says, “When you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10). Therefore, let no one who constantly goes to church, devoutly fasts and tithes exalt himself, for there is nothing special in what he does. This is what every Orthodox Christian must do. Of course, he is more pleasing to God than an outspoken sinner is, but God looks not at our external actions, but at what is in our hearts, at how we ourselves evaluate our actions and deeds. St. John Chrysostom says, “True glory consists in despising human glory, considering it as nothing, and doing and speaking everything to please God.” If we exercise in man-pleasing, try to be glorified by people, that is, we are full of vainglory, if we judge others, putting ourselves above those around us, then our prayer in this state will be fruitless. The Lord warns us about this: “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55: 9).

We judge people only by their single external actions, but we cannot know the whole life of a person. Knowing only a particular character trait, we should not draw a conclusion about the spiritual merits or demerits of our neighbour. Only the Lord sees us comprehensively. Only God can justly evaluate a person, as He did in the case of the tax collector and the Pharisee.

The Lord is close to the repentant sinner. Out of His mercy, He does not send him sorrows and trials beyond his strength. We have to learn to see the Lord’s care for our salvation, to accept any trial from His hand with humility. Then our life will be filled with joy from the fact that the Lord loves us sinners as His children and as the Father wants to embrace us, instruct us, sometimes punish us, and then lead us into His palace. Then we will have no sorrows, but only joy and thanksgiving, like Abba Dorotheus, who writes, “The humble one does not grieve at all, because for everything he gives Glory to God!”

However, humility can also be false, when, for example, because of the fear of taking on the burden of important matters, some refuse to serve the Lord as priests, alleging their unworthiness. This does not indicate humility, but a weakness of spirit. Prophet Isaiah, when the Lord said: Whom should I send, and who will go to this  people?” – stood out zealously before the Lord and said: “Here  am  I;  send  me!” (Isa. 6:8). The Prophet understood the meaning of the call to serve the Lord and with humility obeyed the Lord’s will, leaving his own, thus showing his strength of spirit and the nobility of humility.

The Lord glorifies the humble. Thus, King David received the Kingdom of Israel only for his meekness, praying: “O Lord, remember David and all his meekness” (Ps. 132:1). At the end of the Psalter he writes about his election by the Lord with a certain surprise: I was small among my brothers and the youngest in the house of my father… The Lord himself, it is he who listens… and anointed me with the oil of his anointing. My brothers were handsome and tall, and the Lord did not take delight in them… (Ps. 151, in the Septuagint). The power of meekness is truly great! The great preacher, Apostle Paul, was chosen by God as the supreme apostle, although he says about himself: “I… do not even deserve to be called an apostle” (1 Cor. 15:9). Humble John the Baptist said about Jesus and himself: “he… the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:27), and was honoured to be a friend and Baptizer of the Lord. The Lord promises us the Kingdom of Heaven for humility: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). The saints say about humility: “Humility is the beauty of all virtues. Like a rain for the dried soil, or like an anchor for a ship, is humility for a human soul. It is the key that opens the gates of the paradise, the shield that wards off the arrows of the evil one.” By humility saint Anthony the Great defeated the devil, who himself confessed that to him, saying: “You eat little, and I do not eat at all, you sleep little, and I do not sleep at all, you surpassed and defeated me by one thing alone – by humility.”

God says through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, “To whom will I look but to the one who is humble and quiet and trembles at my words?” (Is. 66:2). Humility is the health of our soul, according to the testimony of Solomon: “A meek-spirited man is a healer of hearts” (Prov. 14:30). There is nothing more dear to Christ than the meekness of heart, and on such people He sends His grace. The grace of God descends not on proud and exalted hearts, but on the souls of the humble, it rushes to the kneeled humble hearts.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, rejecting all pride, let us learn humility, let us love it, for the Lord calls us, “Learn from Me. For I am meek and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). On the eve of our ascent to Great Lent, let us think: whom we are more like – the Pharisee insane with pride or the tax collector saved by repentance? Let us think: do we have at least the Pharisee’s virtue, that is, do we give God what he deserves? Let us consider: how do we look at our neighbour, how we judge him, sometimes not having in our souls even the sterile righteousness of the Pharisee? The Holy Church, preparing us for Great Lent, in the Parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee gives us the image of prayer. Let us not pray pharisaically, brethren! In prayer we can turn to God, who is always close to us, who sees our state of mind better than we ourselves, and wants us to always pray to Him in repentance and humility: God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

May the Lord help us to acquire humility and repentance!