On the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee


Sermon preached by Dn. James Wilcox on Sunday, February 13, 2022

Luke 18:10-14

Today, on this Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, we enter into our starting phase of the pre-Lenten journey. Properly speaking, Lent begins three Sunday's from now, but today on our church calendar we begin looking toward the spiritual qualities of Lent. This is to say that well in advance of our entry into Lent, the Church is already preparing us, thematically, for what is to come. And the reason the Church prescribes this 3-week period ahead of time, is because it understands our human nature. In, particular, our fondness for distraction. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann once put it:

"...the Church knows our inability to change rapidly, to go abruptly from one spiritual or mental state into another. Thus, long before the actual effort of Lent is to begin, the Church ... invites us to meditate on its significance. Before we can practice Lent we are given its meaning." [1]

The Gospel lesson we just heard a bit ago offers a rather jarring introduction to this thematic meaning prescribed for us today. And it feels jarring to us because we only hear verses 10 through 14 of the parable. The Church has intentionally left us without verse 9 — which is, in fact, the opening line of the parable. Now, I'm not going to read this introductory verse aloud, because as Father John Behr states: "This verse gives the game away. it would already incline us to side with one rather than the other. Instead we are simply presented with two characters: ... We are asked to identify with one or the other of these characters."[2]

This reflection from Father John, not only gets to the heart of why verse 9 has been dropped entirely from today's reading, but he also suggests something more about the reality of our human nature. We are a people with an inclination to choose sides, and we truly have a difficult time seeing some of the in- between that exists between both ends of a given social dilemma. As Father Antony noted last week, our dualistic minds must always have an "in" and "out." And therefore we don't merely seek to belong, but we seek to belong to the right group — the "in" group. We want to choose sides, in other words, and we strive to always be on the right side. And so now, we have our own social dilemma before us. Jesus has presented us with two characters in this parable — A tax collector on the one side, and a pharisee on the other. So which side do we (you) choose?

The trick for us in hearing this parable, particularly in light of its thematic approach toward Lent, is that we cannot truly approach it with neutral eyes, even when we leave off that introductory verse. We already know how the story shakes out, and so we've already chosen which side we believe is correct. So, to really get to the heart of this Parable's theme more directly, perhaps, we should approach this in a different way. I'm going to ask 3 questions aloud and I don't want anyone to answer. But do think to yourself quietly, and without speaking, what is your initial reaction?
iPhone or Android?
Red Sox or Yankees?
Capitalism or Socialism?

Most of these are relatively benign comparisons, but I think most of you probably had a strong opinion on at least one of those questions. (And if you didn't, just imagine I had said "masks v no masks"). This instinct that you felt upon hearing those options laid before you, pulled at you rather significantly. This is because of our basic human need to be part of the right group. And it turns out that this need is so strong that we, as humans, will ultimately value being dedicated to our tribe, more than we value actually being correct. This is a particular social phenomenon that psychologists and political scientists have observed over the past few decades. And they've deduced that human beings will "choose to be wrong if it keeps us in good standing with our peers,"[3] to the extent we will be loyal to our tribe "over and above any fact-based evidence to the contrary."[4] Worse still is their observation that "once [any] issue becomes politicized, it leaves the realm of facts and figures — it just becomes another way to tell us from them."[5]

In other words these divided loyalties change what we think, and how we perceive our neighbor. We begin to value our membership to our social tribe over and against the well being of others outside of our tribe. Furthermore, we adopt, not merely an us-versus-them mentality, but an us-versus-NOT-them ideology. Which puts us right back into today's parable... right into the shoes of the Pharisee. From today's reading we hear, "The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men ... even like this tax collector.' This is the ideology of the us-versus-NOT-them paradigm. "I am not like other men," he says. As if to say, "I am not like those people. Thank you for that." "I am a Pharisee, after all."

So, with this in mind, allow me to throw out a few more questions for your own personal reflection: "How much time do you spend leaning into those social tribes which influence to you?" Or let me ask that another way... "How much time do you devote toward opinion-based media, or say, politically-oriented podcasts or audiobooks each week?" Now, how much time do you spend seeking that "godly life" the Apostle Paul spoke of in today's Epistle reading? How much time do you spend working on your spiritual life by comparison? If the number of hours spent listening to cable news, or politically-themed media outnumbers the time you've spent in prayer and spiritual devotion, there's a decent chance you're orienting yourself more in the likeness of being NOT-them, rather than orienting yourself toward God.

We cannot simultaneously orient ourselves in the likeness of God, while positioning ourselves against our neighbor, no matter what social or religious group your neighbor belongs to. To do so, is to remain like the Pharisee in today's Parable. If our goal is to continually reinforce our need to be right, we inflate our perceived self-superiority to a level that squeezes out any actual need for God. For we've already worked out all our needs. "I am right."

Father Antony shared a helpful lesson with me years ago, because I am certainly not above any of this. There was a time I was caught up in my own us-vs-NOT- them struggle. And Father said to me very simply "let go of the need to be right." Truly, today's Gospel reading presents only one person who knows they aren't right. And that person is juxtaposed against the other who is certain they ARE. Are you also a person who is determined to be right? Or are you comfortable simply being. So... now we've come to a better understanding of why the Church prescribes us this 3-week period ahead of time — before Lent begins. We must know ourselves! We must learn to find those spaces within us where the ego seeks the satisfaction of being right, over and against the spirit of humility — which is the contentedness in knowing we might actually wrong.

How must it have felt for the Pharisee in today's story to see someone from the opposing social tribe engaging in proper worship! And to be called justified by Jesus for doing so! Would any of us have the eyes to see this properly, and to actually admit that the one we've set ourselves against, is actually the one who is correct? It requires great humility to look deep within ourselves and admit that perhaps, I am the one who is wrong. When we recognize this within ourselves, we begin to shift from the disposition of the Pharisee into the penitence of the Publican, who embodies the pre-Lenten theme given for us today — Humility.

St Isaac the Syrian states:

"He who senses his sins, is greater than he who raises the dead with his prayer. He who groans [for] one hour for his soul, is greater than he who benefits the whole world. He who is made worthy to see himself, is greater than he who is made worthy to see angels. To him who knows himself, is given the knowledge of all things. For the knowledge of ourselves is the fullness of knowledge of all things."[6]

May each of us have the courage to look inward like the Publican in today's parable, that we may look upon one another in 3 week's time, with the spirit of "chastity humility, patience and love." And may God "grant us to see our own faults, and not to judge our brothers and sisters."

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


[1] Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, 17.

[2] John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year, 13.

[3] David McRaney. You are Not So Smart Podcast, ep 122. Transcript, https://youarenotsosmart.com/transcripts/ transcript-tribal-psychology/

[4] Ibid., McRaney. You are Not So Smart Podcast, ep 122.

[5] Ibid., McRaney. You are Not So Smart Podcast, ep 122.

[6] Ascetic Discourses, Discourse 54.