The Publican and the
Pharisee: a homily on Luke 18: 9-14
by Fr. Dimitri Tsakas
(16th Sunday of Luke)
As often happens in our society, people who big-note
themselves are often the ones who suffer the greatest
humiliation. There's a very simple correlation between how
far up you put yourself and how far down you come - simply
as a result of being human; simply as a result of being a
human being in a fallen world,
Today's Gospel reading teaches us many things. It teaches
us about attitude to prayer - on how we should pray. It
teaches us about self-righteousness, and not to be self-
righteous. But let's look at something else...
Two men went up to pray, One was a Pharisee, a respected
member of his religious community; one who did all the right
things - externally. And yet, when he stands before God, he
stands before a mirror. Because, if you noticed, the Gospel
says to us "and he prayed to himself thus". So he wasn't
praying to God - he was justifying himself. He was
justifying his own existence. He was trying to make himself
look good, He was trying to convince himself that he was
superior to others, and why did he do that?
Simply out of pride. Often we act like that because of
low self-esteem. Often we try to convince ourselves that we
are something beyond what we are, not only because of pride,
but often because we don't have what is good and fruitful
The other man in the parable is a tax collector. Now, a
tax collector in first century Palestine collected taxes for
the occupying power - the Roman oppressors, Being a Jew
himself, you can imagine how this man was treated. He was an
outcast, The Jewish community considered him a traitor. Not
to mention, that what the tax collectors would do, was that
if it was their authority to collect fifty dollars for the
Roman authorities, they would collect seventy from you and
pocket the other twenty! So, not only did they collect for
the enemy, not only did they collect from the people that
oppressed your people, but they also stole from you as
Now, this tax collector goes up and prays; and he doesn't
stand at all close to the altar, He stands far away. (You
see, this man has self-esteem, but we'll talk about that
later). Then he beats his breast and he wouldn't even look
toward the heavens. He doesn't have to convince himself of
anything because he knows who he is; and so he talks to God.
And he asks God, out of the sincerity of his heart, a simple
request that is intimately related to how he sees himself.
He says, "Lord God, have mercy. I do these things. This is
what I am. I'm fallen. I'm sinful. This is what I am."
Yet the Pharisee looks at the tax collector and says,
"Lord God, thank you that I'm not like all these other
people: adulterers, murderers, etc." As if this is not bad
enough, he doesn't leave it at that general level, but he
has to personally attack the person praying behind him. "And
thank you, Lord, that I'm not like that man over there -
that tax collector."
There's a two-edged sword in this story.
People walk away and say, "See why I don't go to Church?
The Pharisee is like the people in Church. They fast, they
pray, etc." But, Jesus doesn't say not to come to Church. He
doesn't say don't pray. He doesn't say don't fast. He orders
those things. Jesus is talking about the attitude with which
we do all these things. The other side of this, of course,
is the people who don't come to Church and are doing the
same kind of things as the people who are. The attitude is
the issue. "I don't need to go to Church, I don't lie, I
don't steal, I don't do anything to anyone, I say my
prayers" (I'd love to listen to them!), You see, hypocrisy
is within and without the community. Within the group that
always goes to Church, and within the group that never goes
to Church. Thus, nobody is justified.
Now, people like the Pharisee may say things like: "I'm
not like this tax collector", or "I'm not like the people
that go to Church" or "I'm not like the people that don't go
One may wish to ask the Pharisee, what's the difference
between you and the tax collector? Have you got three legs
instead of two? He's got two hands, you've got two hands,
He's got two legs, you've got two legs. He's got a brain,
you've got a brain. He's got emotions, you've got emotions.
He's got hardships, you've got hardships. Your life's a
mess, his life's a mess.
But, do you know what the Pharisee's real problem was?
Beyond the fact that he is talking to himself; beyond the
fact that he is trying to convince himself what a great Jew
he is; even beyond the fact he's judging another human being
- there's something deeper. There's a raging subconscious
river here. "I'm
superhuman," he thinks. He's trying to convince himself
that he's something beyond the human. He's trying to
convince himself that he has self-esteem.
What is self-esteem? Self-esteem is to know what you are.
Self-esteem is to be at peace with what you are, knowing
that through prayer, through the grace of God, it is being
transformed, it is being developed, it is being saved, and
being made into something beautiful - and knowing that it is
the grace of God that is performing this miracle in your
Thus, the tax collector has self-esteem - he knows what
he is. He doesn't pretend he's anyone else. The Pharisee is
the one with low self-esteem. Because, not only does he have
to prove himself against everyone else, but he's standing
before God talking to himself, trying to prove something to
So, why does the tax collector have humility? Is humility
walking around beating ourselves on the chest, throwing
ashes over our heads, and putting ourselves down? Is that
what humility is? No. If we look at the experience of the
saints, none of them talked about putting yourself down.
They talked about being what you are, They talked about
being real. That's the aim of Orthodox Christian life - to
become a human being. What a paradox! We think that we are!
But, we are not yet in the image and likeness of God There's
a shadow of it there, but we should be aiming to become
truly human. To become honest, sincere, and genuine human
beings. That's what our aim is. And what it means to have
humility, is simply to know what you are.
The word "humility" comes from humus, the Latin word for
"soil". "Human" is the creature that comes from the soil.
Humility means to know that you are human - that you come
from the soil. You don't need humility to put yourself down.
Your sins will do that for you, if you're genuine.
So, to stand like the tax collector before God (but not
to stand there trying to convince ourselves we're something
we're not) is the hardest thing to do in life - it's easy to
say, but it's the hardest thing to do. And what should you
say when you stand before God? Say what the prophets of the
Old Testament always said to God who called them by name,
"Here I am, Lord!"
Parish of St George, South Brisbane,
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia