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Parables Bible Study 16: The Publican and the Pharisee

Title: Parables Bible Study 16: The Publican and the Pharisee

Subject: Humility and Pride

Age: 13+ years

Location: Luke 18:9-14

Handout for note taking: Bible Study Worksheet

Begin the Bible Study with a prayer. Read the passage, and then allow time for quiet reflection. Share the following notes on the parable.

"God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble," 1 Peter 5.5. See also Proverbs 3.34.

"Vainglory brings to nothing the riches of righteousness, but humility scatters a multitude of passions. Grant then that we may seek humility, O Savior, and do thou bestow upon us the portion of the Publican. As the Publican let us also beat our breasts and cry out in compunction, "God be merciful to us," that like him we may receive forgiveness." Ode 3, Matins of the Publican and the Pharisee.

This reading is placed on the fourth Sunday preceding Great and Holy Lent. Lent, as a time of preparation, purification, and re-dedication for Christians, was anticipated by the early Church. Therefore, in order to properly orient Christians for this great time of spiritual renewal the Church prescribed certain readings from Holy Scripture to awaken and direct the minds, hearts, and spirits of believers. The primary lesson given in the Sunday reading of the Publican and the Pharisee is one of humility. Rightly it has been taught that the chief virtue of the Christian way is humility. Without it all other virtues wither, to put it another way, the fruits of the spirit do not ripen if humility is absent. Thus, the Church singles out this passage for reflection, heralding the approach of Lent and the necessity to acquire and maintain the attitude of humility.

We must also keep in mind that Lent was for centuries a time in which catechumens, those learning about the Christian faith in preparation for baptism, made their final preparations. Specifically, this period was a time that those preparing for the illuminating waters of baptism made a total effort of repentance, commitment to being disciples of Christ and a reorientation towards the principles of the Gospel. As such, the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee provided a fitting beginning to this intense period of prayer, purification, preparation, and reorientation.

A deliberate comparison is made between a Pharisee, someone highly respected as a follower of God's law, and a Publican, who was a tax collector, despised and a sinner, who collaborated with the Romans and extorted the people. We can compare so much in this parable, from their words to even their body posture. The Pharisee is depicted as praying to himself and not to God, on the other hand the posture and words of the Publican show his deep humility and contrition. What justifies the Publican? It is humility. What condemns the Pharisee? It is his pride, which is self-love. What are the off-shoots of pride? Presumption, arrogance, and vainglory all find their root in pride; in the end pride is contempt of/for God. That is the ascribing of accomplishments to ourselves and not to God. Furthermore, when we are incapable of seeing all that we have as a gift of God, we run the risk of comparing ourselves to others. Judgment creeps in and we despise others. Rather, we should understand that we would be naked with regards to virtue except for the mercy of God which covers us like a garment. Thus we see in this parable the Lord opposing that passion, pride, which is so directly and totally opposed to Him. Note that so dangerous is pride that even though it may be coupled with virtue, it spoils it. See, the Pharisee, who tithed (for the Lord's comment on tithing see Matthew 23.23), was just, did not extort, was not an adulterer, and fasted (for an acceptable fast to the Lord see, Isaiah 58.4-7), yet pride spoiled it all. The Pharisee fell into the trap of self-righteousness and judgment of others. The two are connected and we can see how the Church would be eager to remind those desiring entrance through baptism to remain humble of spirit. The solution to pride is humility.

Archbishop Dmitri shared the following on the danger of today:
"The religious person still faces no greater danger than falling into the sin of self-righteousness, no greater pitfall than pride in carrying out one's religious ‘duties.' Aside from the unchristian feeling of superiority, of being better Christians than others, and of judging the sincerity of our fellows, two requirements of even the new law, of fasting and tithing, ironically afford for some of us the occasion for falling into the Pharisee's sin. Soliciting the praise of others by making it known that we follow the fast in every detail, and worse, pretending to fast when we do not; making sure our fellow Christians know how much we give – these are habits of the modern Pharisee. The Gospel does not justify these things. Quite the contrary, it warns us to be always on our guard against them (Mt 6.16 and 23.23). We learn from the very beginning of the Great Fast of Lent, that, if we would follow Christ, we must do all things in humility and love, even in secret, seeking always to be convicted in our hearts, so as to be transformed and conformed to the pattern give us by Christ Himself."[1]

Ecclesiastes, 7.15, "I have seen all manner of things in my vain days: a just man perishing in his justice." The Lord is teaching us how to approach Him in prayer so that our requests may be heard! It is interesting to note that in chapter 18 begins in verse 1 with the words, "And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart." Prayer in reality, notice the careful arrangement of the Lord, is always the beginning of one's justification before the Lord. In the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, we encounter exactly this encouragement of the Lord: two men go up to pray, and from the start the Lord sees no difference in them, even though one is a Pharisee and one a Publican. As we shall see the difference between the two will come out in the way they pray.

Points surrounding the prayer of the Pharisee: Consider how pure we must be, how single minded in our prayer.

  • In Leviticus 22.20-21 we learn that the sacrifice acceptable to God must be without spot or blemish, and so too with our prayer.
  • Psalm 140/141.3: "Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord, keep watch over the door of my lips!" How important this verse becomes when we consider what is in front of us as we begin to pray and to struggle to make ourselves heard by the Lord.
  • Luke 6:37: "Judge not, and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned.
  • James 4:12: "There is one Lawgiver, and Judge; why then judgest thou thy neighbor?"

Consider with these passages from Luke and James that, one in good health finds no honor or glory by pointing out the sickness of one who is infirm.

Points surrounding the prayer of the Publican:

  • He stands afar off.
  • The Publican does not raise his eyes.
  • He is smitten by his conscience and afraid of being seen by God.
  • He accuses himself.
  • He is afraid of His Judge.
  • As he confesses his offenses he beats his breast.
  • He prays that he may have mercy.

What can we take home from the Publican?

  • 1 Thessalonians 5:17 teaches us to pray unceasingly. "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner."
  • Keep in mind the words of Christ found in Luke 17:10: "So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.'"

To remember and confess one's unrighteousness, one's sinfulness, is good and profitable:

  • Isaiah 43:26: "But do thou remember, and let us plead together; do thou first confess thy transgressions, that thou may be justified."
  • Jeremiah 2:35: "You say, ‘I am innocent; surely his anger has turned from me.' Behold, I will bring you to judgment for saying, ‘I have not sinned.'"
  • Psalm 32:5: "I acknowledged my sin to thee, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord'; then thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.'"
  • "Certainly God justifies those who know well their transgressions, and are willing to confess them," St. Cyril of Alexandria.

For consideration and reflection:

  • Have I been proud of my accomplishments as a Christian?
  • Does my faith in Christ lead me to judge, condemn or look down on others?
  • Do I truly see myself as the Publican did, a sinner, in need of God's mercy?
  • Have I tried to foster the virtue of humility in my Christian walk?
  • Do I understand how central humility is to my salvation?

Allow time for discussion. If time permits, read the passage once more.

End the bible study with a prayer.

[1] The Parables, Archbishop Dmitri, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, p. 107-108.

Prepared by Fr. Evan Armatas

Click the link to return to the Parables Bible Study page or continue to the next Parables Bible Study session: The Tenacious Widow.