The Pharisees get a lot of ink in the New Testament, perhaps surprisingly for a sect that hasn’t existed in its original form since the first century (though much of their approach has survived in classical Rabbinic Judaism). Since one can no longer find a listing for “Pharisees” in the Yellow Pages, isn’t all the New Testament denunciation of the historical sect a bit overdone?
The fact is that Pharisaism is not simply an historical movement in Judaism, but represents an abiding tendency and temptation to all who would seriously embrace a righteous life. When men begin making a concerted attempt at living such a life, the temptation arises to become not simply righteous, but also self-righteous, and to compare oneself favourably with those others around who seem not to be living such a life—to “trust in themselves that they are righteous and despise others” (Luke 18:9). As we Orthodox prepare to begin Great Lent and to buckle down in our attempts to become more zealous for God, the Church wisely sounds the warning to guard against letting our righteousness degenerate into self-righteousness, to guard against the perennial human temptation to become a Pharisee. This is why just before Great Lent the Church reads the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee in Luke 18:10-14.
The Pharisee in the parable is presented as a tragi-comic figure. Entering the Temple along with the publican, he “stood” – i.e. took his stand, presumably positioning himself so that as many people as possible could see him and hear his prayer. (All prayer was offered aloud in those days.) He thanked God that he was not like other men. He was not an extortioner, he was not unjust, he was not an adulterer. Far from it. He was righteous. He fasted twice a week, and gave tithes of all he possessed. That is all we hear of his prayer, though it is unlikely that he ended it there. One imagines that he had a much longer list of accomplishments to wave before God as he continued his boasting, but in the parable the list breaks off here. It is as if the divine attention began to give out and God stopped listening. God’s verdict on the Pharisee’s piety is given at the parable’s end: it was the despised publican, the repentant tax-collector, who left the Temple justified and forgiven — not the Pharisee. God responded to his self-exaltation by humbling him and sending him empty away. His prayer and his piety were a waste of his time.
This much is clear. But how to fix the Pharisee? There is no sense telling him to become like the publican, to become a great extortionate and unjust sinner, simply so that he can later repent. The Church does not in fact hold up the publican for imitation. We are not to imitate the publican’s life, but his humility; in the words of the kontakion for the day we are to “learn humility from the publican’s tears”. But what counsel can we give the Pharisee? What are righteous people to do if they feel themselves beginning to fall prey to the “the pride of the Pharisee”? We can learn what to do by examining again the Pharisee’s prayer, and correcting it line by line.
He began well enough, with praise and thanksgiving: “O God, I thank Thee.” But then he went astray, focusing not on God, but on himself. He gave thanks for himself, as if he were at the center and in the spotlight. A healthier spirituality would focus upon God, for God is the center. The hymn ascribed to Saint Ambrose (called the Te Deum in Christian West) has it right: “We thank Thee for Thy great glory.” Our attention is on the Lord — His glory, His kindness, the blessings which He constantly and unfailingly pours out upon all men, regardless of their deserving. It is as Saint Augustine said at the end of his book The City of God, as he writes, “we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise”. Seeing God, we cannot help loving Him, and pouring out praise. We adore God simply because He is, and because a true and open heart cannot resist such beauty. Our thanksgiving focuses on the Lord.
The Pharisee’s prayer goes on to notice sin. He is surrounded by sinners, by people who are extortionate, unjust, adulterous. (One such, a publican, was even then standing nearby.) And such people were for the Pharisee welcome objects of comparison. He saw them and delighted in the thought that he was better than they were. He saw them not as men and women like himself, but simply as sinners, and he declined to notice whatever redeeming features they might have had, nor to think of their suffering. Here is where correction is needed: we cannot help but noticing unrighteousness around us, nor convince ourselves that perhaps sin is not sinful. Of course sin is sinful. But such sinners should become objects of compassion for us, and subjects of intercession in our prayers, for such sinners are people like us, and like us are in need of rescue. Rather than delighting in their sin because it might make us look better by comparison, we should hold them up before God and implore His mercy for them. Our prayer for such sinners must be that of St. Paul, that perhaps God’s kindness might lead them to repentance (Romans 2:4). And rather than delighting in their plight, let us tremble lest we fall away too. “Let the one who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
The final element mentioned in the Pharisee’s prayer is his attention to his own strengths and accomplishments, for he fasted twice a week and gave tithes of all he possessed. Fasting and tithing are good, but our good works should not function as a pedestal on which we stand to boast, but a foundation which we lay to build upon further. Instead of looking back on our accomplishments, let us use them to go further ahead. We should not focus on what we have done, but on the Lord; not on the ground already covered, but on the finish line. St. Paul once again shows us the way: “one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philipians 3:13-14). Have we fasted well? Good. Now forget about it, and see if we can fast even better. Have we tithed faithfully? Good. Now forget about it, and see if there is anything else we can offer to the Lord. No sensible runner looks back while the race is on. Never mind our past good works, and the ground already covered. More ground remains to be covered before the end. We look not backward, but forward, toward Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).
Spiritual growth can be a difficult balancing act, as we avoid the twin pitfalls of laziness and spiritual pride. Great Lent calls us to zeal, to righteousness, to fasting, and prayer, and almsgiving. We can do all this, and still manage to not fall prey to Pharisaism, as we learn from the prayer of the Pharisee as well as from the tears of the publican. We can see how the Pharisee can be fixed, and let God’s Spirit fix us as well.