Orthodoxy Today
The Publican: A Model for our Lenten Journey

Our Holy Spiritual Father St. Gregory the Great, in his Book of Pastoral Rule (2007) stated "Pride is the source of all sin." The translator and commentator in a recent edition of his classic work, Dr. George Demacopoulos said "Unlike many of his ascetic predecessors, Gregory did not list pride among the passions but instead identified it as the source, or mother of the passions." To this end he quoted from the book of Sirach: "The beginning of the pride of man, is to fall off from God: Because his heart is departed from Hhim that made him: for pride is the beginning of all sin: he that holdeth it, shall be filled with maledictions, and it shall ruin him in the end" (Sirach 10: 14:15).

The Lenten Tridion is the period of preparation for the 40 day Lenten Period in the Eastern Church. It is meant to call to mind the fundamentals of what it takes tothe hear the words and teachings of Jesus and apply it to our lives that we are especially called on to do during Lent. It would not be far afield from the truth to view the Lenten Season, as a boot camp refresher course that we take each year so Christ teachings can be better lived in us, until we are called before the judgment seat of Christ (cf. Matthew 25: 31-46). This is in keeping with the council of St. Paul: "Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we (to receive) an imperishable (one). Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" (1 Corinthians 9: 24-27).

The preparation for the spiritual training camp starts with the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. Jesus spoke this parable to some who were self-confidently sure that they were righteous and knew God's will while despising others:

The parable:

Two men went up to the Temple to pray. The one was a Pharisee, the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, `O God, I thank thee that I am not as the rest of men, thieves, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of all that I get.' The tax-collector stood afar off, and would not lift even his eyes to heaven, and kept beating his breast and said, `O God, be merciful, to me--the sinner.' I tell you, this man went down to his house accepted with God rather than the other, because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:10-14).

Psychological Basis of Judgment

Cognitive-behavioral clinical psychologists know well that for dysfunctional emotional problems to be overcome and functional pro-social behavior change to take place, patients have to first be able to realistically assess their own motives, the motives of others, and have an objective perception of the world around them. The main barriers to realistic assessment are the cognitive distortions. The two distortions, (Morelli, 2006a,b) in this parable that are most prone to blur reality of our perception of others are arbitrary inference and magnification:

Arbitrary Inference is drawing a conclusion unwarranted by the facts in an ambiguous situation. Mind reading: Is a special case of arbitrary inference. It is how a person thinks others will see them.

Magnification is the exaggeration of the importance of things. Once again, the evaluation of the importance of behaviors or events is based on what the standards the individual has set for themselves.

Psychological Intervention

Psychological intervention is challenging these cognitive distortions.

The Church Fathers would surely have welcomed this procedure. In a similar manner, the Church Fathers emphasized the importance of this disclosure in a complete and systematic way. For the Spiritual Fathers this is done with vigilance (nepsis), watchfulness, and the guarding of the heart. Haucherr (1990) quotes an anonymous old man saying, "When evil thoughts harass you, do not hide them, but tell them at once to your Spiritual Father. The more one hides one's thoughts, the more they multiply and the stronger they become." Quite effective in the disputation process is teaching the "Challenging Questions:"

  1. Where is the evidence (the evidence for or against the idea or thought)?
  2. Is there any other way of looking at it (alternative explanations)?
  3. Is it as bad as it seems (what is the worst and best that could happen, could I live with it, what is the realistic outcome)?
  4. What is the effect of holding onto my distorted thoughts (what would happen if I changed my thinking)?

If one were to view this parable on a purely psychological level, it can be seen that the parable could be understood as the Pharisee mind reading without evidence except by his own standards, what pleases God, God's will, his own righteousness and what he concludes is the Publican's disdain in God's eyes. Also can be seen the consequences or effects of holding on to these distorted thoughts: " ... everyone who exalts himself will be humbled."

Spiritual Root of the Pharisees' Faulty Judgment: Pride

Jesus spoke this parable to some who like the Pharisees themselves were self-assured in their right-minded moral behavior, considered they possessed knowledge of God's will, and who disdained their fellow Jews. At the time of Jesus, the observant Jew prayed three times daily--9 a.m., 12 midday and 3 p.m. This daily prayer was considered to be most pleasing to God, noteworthy and efficacious if it was performed on the Temple grounds. Many observant Jews went up to the Temple to pray these hours. Of course those who were observant could be seen by others.

Jesus tells us about two of them. First the Pharisee. The name comes from the Aramaic word peras (Daniel 5:28), signifying "to separate," owing to a different manner and way of life from that of the common people. It could be said that the Pharisees in their zealousness for the law actually deified it. Their behavior and demeanor however was merely external, formal, and mechanical. Their hearts were not touched. They stressed, not righteousness of love of God and neighbor rooted in their hearts and informing their actions; but the external formal correctness of what others could perceive and adulate.

According to Jewish law of the day there was only one compulsory fast-- on the day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). For special distinction or excellence a devout Jew could also fast on Mondays and Thursdays. Not coincidently these were also the market days when Jerusalem was crowded by sellers and buyers. Those who fasted whitened their faces and wore disheveled clothes. This external piety had was to be seen by all. Thus the words of Jesus recorded by St. Matthew: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity" (Matthew 23: 27-28).

The Pharisee in Jesus' parable went even beyond the temple priests in his devotion. The Levites or temple priests were to receive a tenth or tithe of all a man's goods (Numbers 18:21; Deuteronomy 14:22). But this, the self proclaimed most righteous Pharisee tithed all he had, even that which was non-obligatory to tithe.

The Pharisee reminds God of this in his 'Temple Prayer." He did not go to pray to God, but to inform God of his goodness. He wanted to make sure God would read his mind, by telling God his mind. His value was based on his own view that he could tell God what to think and at the same time what to think of others that from his view did not measure up to his exalted standards. He was better than the other. Jesus is describing someone not only filled with pride by attempting to control God's thinking, but the pride of building himself up at another's expense by comparing himself to the other who in his eyes was inferior. True prayer is always offered to God and to God alone. The Pharisee was glorifying himself. One historian (Barclay, 1975), recorded that Rabbi Simeon ben Jocai once said, "If there are only two righteous men in the world, I and my son are these two; if there is only one, I am he!"

The Spiritual healing of the Publican: Humility

The other man was a tax collector, "a farmer of the tax" (from telos, "toll, custom, tax"), They were naturally hated intensely by the Jews; they are classed with "sinners," (see Matthew 9:10), and with harlots (see Matthew 21:31). "The tax-collector stood afar off, and would not lift even his eyes to heaven, and kept beating his breast and said, `O God, be merciful, to me -- the sinner." The emphasis on the publican, the tax-collector calling himself "the" sinner rather than just "a" sinner points out he did not seem himself as one among many, but the chief sinner." It was just this willingness to stand before God, alone, with no excuses or props -- simply throwing himself on God's mercy that won for him the exalted acceptance before God.

Our Preparation for Lent

This is our preparation time for Lent. What is the lesson for us? We have a choice. We can either be a Pharisee or a Publican. But it is not so easy because we do not see ourselves as we really are. Psychologically we are given to delusion irrationality and self judgment. Spiritually we are given to pride. Consider the image given to us by St. John Chrysostom of the Pharisee and the Publican as drivers of two yoked chariots running a race: For this (pride), even when conjoined with righteousness and fastings and tithes, fell behind; while that (humility), even when yoked with sin, outstripped the Pharisee's pair, even although the charioteer it had was a poor one. For what was worse than the publican? http://www.bulletin.goarch.org/quotes/index.asp.

We do not want to be poor charioteers of our lives. Unlike the Publican we have the great holy mystery of the Church given to us by Christ: Holy Penance. In emulation of the Publican who saw himself "the sinner", let us use gift of grace for the forgiveness of our sins.

Our first preparation for Lent is to acquire humility. Look ahead to what we are to hear during Lent: we have to follow the call of Jesus and be without guile (cf. John 1:43-51); we have to see that Jesus can forgive our sins as we forgive the sins of others (cf. Mark 2: 1-12); we have to carry our crosses in life and follow God's will (cf. Mark 8: 34-9:1); we have to have complete trust in God in our actions and prayer (cf. Mark 9:11:14); and be the servant of all and know no servant is greater than his Master (Jesus) (cf. Mark 10: 32-45). We have to have to come to know about Jesus: "I and the Father are one" (cf. John 10:30), and "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (cf. John 14:9).

And all these teachings culminate in the priestly prayer of Christ, read at Friday Holy Week Matins (read by anticipation Thursday evening):

I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him." ... "If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the word which you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me (cf. John 14: 20-24).

He (God) has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree (Luke 1:52)

The path to the glory of the end of our Lenten Journey: the glory of the Resurrection is blocked by arbitrary self-righteous -- self-evaluating, self-judging pride. The proud will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It is closed to the Pharisee.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: February 14, 2008

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