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Homily for the Sunday of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee

Archimandrite Kyril Jenner

Luke 18:10-14

On this Sunday, three weeks before the start of the Great Fast, we read the Parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee. We are sometimes inclined toward regarding one, the Pharisee, as bad, and the other, the Tax Collector, as good. That is something of an over-simplification.

In the New Testament the Pharisees are often represented as hypocrites – those who teach one thing and do another. Some of them were. Many were trying to do good, but got things wrong. Their main error seems to have been the reduction of faith to a set of mechanical rules. Obey the rules and all will be well between you and God. This is getting things back to front.

We see this in today’s Gospel reading. The Pharisee does many good things – regular fasting, giving a tenth of his income to charity, avoiding extremes of evil. His problem is that he regards these as ends in themselves, rather than as the result of a right relationship with God. This is shown in our Lord’s condemnation of this attitude in Saint Matthew’s Gospel: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Matthew 23:23) The hypocrisy is seen in the application of the rule of tithing (giving one tenth to charity) to things of very little worth, but failing in the higher matters. The Pharisee in the Parable, like the real Pharisees referred to elsewhere, is noted for doing the right thing for the wrong reason. He is condemned because this leads to a wrong relationship with God. He takes pride is his achievements whilst missing his faults. His primary fault being a lack of love for his fellow human beings.

The Tax Collector, on the other hand, is all too aware of his faults. The tax collectors were often corrupt, and were despised as the agents of an oppressive foreign ruler. The Tax Collector knows his faults, but also knows his own inability to overcome them. Only God can help him, so he throws himself on God’s mercy. He repents of his sin and asks God to lead him back to the right way.

The contrast between the two ways is brought out in the hymns for today. “The Tax Collector and the Pharisee ran the race of life together, but the one was overcome with foolish pride and brought to shameful shipwreck, while the other was saved by humility.” (Canon of Matins, Ode 3) If we achieve anything good, we should give thanks to God for his mercy and not take pride in any achievement of ourselves. We need to be humble before God, following the example of Christ. Saint Paul spells this out in his Letter to the Philippians: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)

This is again brought out in the hymns for today: “Let us zealously follow the ways of Jesus the Saviour and his humility, if we desire to attain the eternal place of joy and to dwell in the land of the living.” (Canon of Matins, Ode 3)

So let us follow the good things that the Pharisee did: fasting, giving to charity, doing other good works, but do them as a means of showing love for God and love for one another, and not as things only aimed at our own reputation. Let us also be humble before God like the Tax Collector, and acknowledge our sins and pray for God’s mercy, as, despite our imperfections, we try to follow the way of God in our daily life.


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