Thinking Like the Publican

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Image from Ted on Flickr

“Thank God, that I am not like this tax collector.”

Man, that Pharisee sounds kinda dumb, doesn’t he?

That’s always–God forgive me–one of my first thoughts when I hear the Gospel reading of this Sunday. “You knucklehead! How is it a good idea to thank God for not making you like another one of God’s creations? Dude!”

This really is one of the most extraordinary weeks that the Church gives us. A fast-free week–not following any feast day–but rather that we may “fast from our fasting,” if you will. That we may step away from the works and practices that we so often and so easily substitute for “faith,” and investigate rather our faith in God.

That’s what the publican had that the Pharisee lacked–or rather, that with which the Pharisee struggled. Faith in God.

The Pharisee still believed in God, I believe–but as the Gospel says, the Pharisee stood at the altar and prayed “with himself.” He didn’t pray with Christ, or with the saints, with the Theotokos, as we as Christians are called to do.

The Pharisee prayed with himself because he had faith in himself–not in God. He had faith in his tithes, so he prayed to his tithes; he had faith in his fasting, so he prayed to his fasting. He gave his tithes and fasting and church attendance–his works–praise. He sanctified his works in the temple with his words; he exalted them, because he believed through them he had been saved.

The publican, as we know, had faith in God. He didn’t turn to the liturgical services, the hymnography and the psalms, the works of fasting and tithing as the source of mercy. He spoke from his heart, plainly to God, beseeching that God save him. The publican was only interested in that which mattered: being with God by being saved through Him. He didn’t have works; he had faith.

The parable of the publican and the Pharisee is so powerful, and thank God we use it to begin our fasting period. But when we hear it, we must be wary, less fall into the Pharisee’s very trap:

“Thank God, that I am not like the Pharisee.”

Uh-oh.

“Thank God, that I am not like the Pharisee. I really have a relationship with God, I speak to God directly–like the publican–and I don’t get caught up in making sure I pray every day, making sure I fast when I should, making sure I attend church. I feel spiritual–I feel a connection with something divine–and I don’t get all caught up in the trappings of the Church.”

We forget, sometimes, that the Pharisees are/were the “good” guys. At least, they weren’t actively bad–they were men of faith in God, but often too entrenched in the faith they knew to recognize the New Testament and the coming of the Messiah. The Pharisees modeled good behavior to the faithful: things like church attendance, fasting, and tithing fall squarely under that category.

The traditions of the Church and practices taught by the fathers aren’t bad–they’re good! They’re powerful and necessary and rejuvenating, but only when they serve their purpose: bringing us closer to God, that we may be saved by Him. When they are done for their own sakes–or worse, for the sake of our self-assuredness and pride–they become noxious distractions.

Avoid this week and this Lent the Pharisee’s trap–do not find yourself judging or boasting in either direction. The publican is our example: in humility and without fear, doing whatever he could to draw closer to God.

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