Publican and Republican


The readings for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee:

LAST NIGHT I attended the vigil service at Holy Trinity Cathedral (OCA), my former parish. Since my Byzantine Catholic Parish does not have vigil services, I think I may make a few trips over to the Cathedral this Lent. The Dean greeted me and asked what prompted my visit and I replied, “Publican and Pharisee.” “Which one are you?” He asked. “That’s what I’m here to find out.”

“We’re all the Pharisee.” he replied.


It’s important to realize that any of Jesus’ listeners would have known the good guy and the bad guy in this story. Everyone hated the tax collectors and everyone respected the Pharisees. Some scholars posit that Jesus, himself, was a Pharisee and there’s good reason to read many of the stories in the Gospel within the context of contemporary, Second Temple rabbinic debates. So, begins Yeshua, Let me tell you a story about a tax collector and a Rabbi I know. Everyone settles down knowing how this will end.

Except suddenly the bad guy is the good guy and vice versa.

This is not a parable about “legalism” or about Jews, this is not even a parable about Pharisees. Yes, the prayer the Pharisee says is a slight mockery of three of the prayers one says waking. But these didn’t (seemingly) start in Judaism. Yeshua taught us not to judge, it would be odd if he made a parable judging others – and teaching us to judge that group of people as well! It’s about You-know-who-the-bad-guy and You-know-who-the-good-guy, except you’re wrong.

This is a story about the listener or, in this case, about the reader.

My brother in Christ drew this 12 years ago. It’s still right. We always want to compare ourselves. Jesus wants us to focus each on our own journey. But we want to see how others are doing. That’s why this week is a fast-free week in the Eastern Tradition: there’s no fasting at all. Meat for seven days! Don’t look at what others are doing. And, by the way, what you can do doesn’t really matter that much either. It’s your heart. Rend your heart, not your garments, as the prophet says. Rend your soul, not your diet. Rend your life, not your neighbor’s.

When we think we know who the good guy is, we usually make a first-person inclusion there. Aquinas says no one loves evil because it’s evil: everyone thinks he’s loving a good. Of course I’m the good guy. Or at least one of them.

The lesson in this parable is that we can’t tell from the outside and – worse – if we’re making judgments at all from the outside, we’re exactly like the bad guy in this story who judged himself good and the other guy evil when… in fact… the other guy was saved.

Rather than looking anywhere else, it’s much better to look at your own plate, at your own heart, at your own life and see what’s out of place and pray for God to have mercy on you. When you sit down to hear a story and it seems you may have misjudged who was the good and bad guys, yes, the storyteller was very crafty.

But the problem (which the storyteller used) was your judgment.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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