|The Publican and the Pharisee|
A real war, though invisible to most of us because we’re already in the thick of it and don’t realize it, is taking place, between religion and reality. Piety, not the godly fear born of our encounter with the Living God, but the hand-me-downs of generations forcing us by a process of subtle mimicry, robbed of understanding, to imitate and finally become attached to everything that is opposed to life with Him who alone grants life. There is a church that was once alive in the Spirit, following Jesus and imitating Him not only in daily life but in worship, making the liturgy truly divine, truly ‘in spirit and truth,’ but as it seeks to protect itself and exalt itself, the living God visibly departs from it.
Ichabod. ‘The glory has departed.’ So, how is this possible? How can such a thing happen to a Christian people? A couple of years ago, I went to church on this particular Sunday. I heard a sermon preached on ‘the publican and the Pharisee,’ and though I paid attention and listened closely, I heard nothing. Only rhetoric, only philosophy couched once again the terms of piety, of religion. What stuck with me for a few hours was the announcement that fasting was forbidden in the coming week. ‘Eat whatever you want. Meat, meat and more meat. And there’s a luncheon to which we’re all invited after the service, yes, chicken will be served, and a vegetarian entrée as well’ (if I heard correctly, but I’m not quite sure: it was tacked on almost in a whisper).
I’ve heard plenty of good sermons on the publican and the Pharisee in that church. I noticed just now that ‘publican’ isn’t capitalized, only ‘Pharisee.’ I guess that’s because only organized religion gets recognized. The preacher confessed that both men praying in the parable had worthy prayers. The Pharisee did as he was told, was a good boy from his religion’s point of view. What was his downfall? Comparing himself to the publican. Yes, I admit I did hear the preacher say that, and it stuck with me too. The emphasis, though, was on the righteousness of the Pharisee. Yes, somebody just like us, doing all the right things, following rules and traditions. Too bad he looked down on little ‘p’.
The righteousness of the Pharisee really made him the better man. The emphasis was subtle but unmistakable. It almost excused him for his transgression, at least that’s what was heard between the lines. Yes, well, let’s forget about the fact that his repentance was, well, imperfect. Let’s not even mention that it wasn’t accepted by God, in Christ’s parable. After all, it’s just a parable. And as for the publican, well, yes, his repentance was heard, even though he was everything but a good, upstanding member of society. Christ doesn’t go on to say what the ultimate fate of either the publican or the Pharisee was, but we can guess. Let’s just look at ourselves, at each other.
The big question of ‘which one are we, the publican or the Pharisee?’ hardly needs asking. We already know that we are the publican even though every bit of evidence about us shows us to be the Pharisee, and we’re even proud of it. We have learned how to put on piety as a garment, our best somber face for church just like we put on our Sunday best. I looked around me during that service. Actually, I had to move to a different seat. A family I know well filled the pew in front of me, and two teenage girls dressed up in their seductive best keep chatting and giggling. Meanwhile their parents seemed to have fallen asleep standing. I found another place a few rows back on the other side of the aisle.
As I was saying before my Pharisee side came out and caused me to move to where I could repent in quieter surroundings, I looked around me during the service, well, not exactly around. Just to either side and in front of me is enough. Pierced by scowls and saddened by socializing, I barely saw anyone who looked as though they were really standing in the presence of the living God. The religiosity of some was evident, but it seemed like they were crushed, or angry, or bored, or all three. Those who were gabbing and grappling with one another seem merrier, somehow, than one would expect when confronted by the Being who once commanded Moses, ‘Take off your sandals. This is Holy ground.’
Once again I am baffled by the mystery of the Church, how it seems to fade in and out, how it seems to open doors and then close them, how the Kingdom of Heaven can be manifested in a single service, and then next week everything speaks the flesh. We push religion and suppress reality, yet the Church is still the Church, no matter what we do. The Holy Spirit can and does come and go, staying when we are obedient and rightly pious, departing for a spell when we grieve Him, even if out of ignorance. What is constant, though, is the mercy of God, which does not depend on humans showing it. Sometimes those ordained to be merciful, simply look the other way. Perhaps that’s just how it is.
Have we ever considered that not just individuals, but perhaps churches themselves, can be publicans and Pharisees? I’m not now speaking of the Church, the Bride of Christ, but of those human congregations, whatever they call themselves, that claim to be what the Church is. Like the words spelled with a capital letter or not, churches can be publican or Pharisee without ever noticing what they’re doing. No church or congregation would admit that they are Pharisee, but what are we to make of the pronouncements we hear from some of them? Or of their attitudes toward other churches, which some of them don’t even recognize as churches, the big ‘P’ versus the little ‘p’ in action?
It’s a beautiful, spring day here at the beginning of the road on the way to Pascha, which begins at a signpost marked ‘Triodion’ at which we are told we must now leave behind all our baggage, all our wistful piety, false appearances, spiritual racism, our jeweled turbans and tiaras, yes, even our self-inflicted religion, and let ourselves be clothed in the rags of our filthy righteousness. Yes, clothed in what we’ve been wearing like concealed undergarments all these years, of which we are so proud. Clothed in them so that we can be unclothed, undressed, disrobed as we enter the road of no returning, no turning back, the road to the cross, to our own deaths, to meet Him we claim to believe in.
Both the publican and the Pharisee must die for their sins, even though the repentance of only one of them was found worthy, the other wanting. They must die so that the new man, nameless but for the secret Name bestowed by Christ at the meeting, can emerge at His command like Lazarus from his four-day burial. They must die and disappear, never to be brought again to mind, because their Redeemer has forgotten all their sin, separating them from it as far as the East is from the West. They must die because the age of publicans and Pharisees is drawing to a close, typically in this time, this year, and ‘in spirit and truth’ for each one who really enters this road, now and ever, and to the ages of ages.