Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, February 5, 2016
2 Timothy 3:10-15; Luke 18:10-14
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
In his famous work On the Priesthood, St. John Chrysostom says this about the priesthood: “For the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks among the heavenly ordinances” (Book III, ch. 4). He is speaking here of what we normally think of as the ordained priesthood, that is, the presbyters and bishops who stand at the altar and lead our prayers and sacrifices.
But there are actually three ways in which we can speak of the priesthood. One is what we have just said—the ordained presbytery and episcopacy. But we cannot speak of that priesthood without speaking of the royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9), the holy nation that every baptized Christian belongs to. And we also cannot speak of that priesthood without speaking of the priesthood of Jesus Christ Himself, the great High Priest from Whom all priesthood flows.
It is in all three of these senses, then, that we can say with Chrysostom that “the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks among the heavenly ordinances.” Not only do the presbyters and bishops discharge this priestly office on earth which ranks among the heavenly ordinances, but so does our Lord Jesus Christ in and through them and also by His own direct actions. And so do all God’s people, who are ordained through their baptism and chrismation to be that royal priesthood, performing priestly acts on earth that are heavenly in their inner meaning—a priesthood which flows from the priesthood of Christ.
Over the next ten weeks, beginning today with the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee and continuing all the way through Palm Sunday, we will be discussing many facets of the priesthood. This will be our theme for these preparatory Sundays before Lent and then the Sundays of Lent themselves. So I hope that you will make a commitment to be here for all of them, so that we can explore this theme together and examine it from many angles in the light of the Scriptures and the other themes of Lent.
Today, we begin with the parable of the Publican and Pharisee.
This parable, which the Lord Jesus relates in the eighteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, shows us two men who go to the Temple to pray. One is a Pharisee, a teacher of the Law of Moses, a religious expert of the Jewish people. The other is a Publican, a tax collector, a known sinner, hated by his own people for his collusion with the Roman occupiers.
In this parable, the Pharisee stands up and thanks God that he’s better than so many people. He’s not a sinner like so many, especially (and he mentions this explicitly) not like that tax collector who stands in the back. And what’s more, he is really good at being religious, tithing everything he has and fasting twice a week.
The Publican meanwhile stands in the back, bows his head down and cries out to God for mercy on him, for he is a sinner.
In the Publican we see something about the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Certainly, the Lord is not like the Publican in his sin. Jesus is sinless. But He nevertheless took the sins of the world upon Himself in His sacrifice on the cross, and He cries out that God would have mercy on us. He is humbled by becoming man and by suffering at the hands of His own creation. And He bows His own head in humility when He gives up His spirit on the cross.
And this image is contrasted with a Pharisaical priesthood, which exalts itself for its religious exactitude and asks for no mercy and does not even have mercy on the one standing by. The Pharisee is exercising a priesthood of sorts, but it is not the priesthood of Christ.
The Publican is justified, Jesus said—meaning that he is fulfilling his part of the covenant. This is what makes the Publican an image of Christ’s priesthood. Here we see Christ’s priestly offering—He enters into the Temple to pray, and instead of exalting Himself (as He rightly could have, since He is God and He is perfect!) He humbles Himself. He shows us what the proper posture of the priesthood is, a posture of humility and prayer and crying out for mercy.
In this image we also see something of the ordained priesthood of our bishops and priests. If a priest is to offer up the sacrifice of prayer and mercy properly, he cannot exalt himself above others. He cannot hold himself up as better than his flock. Even as he sets a good example for them, even in tithing and in fasting, letting his light shine before them so that they can see his good works, he does not direct the glory to himself but to God (Matt. 5:16). The Pharisee’s problem was not his tithing and fasting but rather his boasting and self-exaltation.
The ordained priest also knows, like the Publican, that he is a sinner. He is a sinner who needs mercy. He is a sinner who is not worthy to lift up his eyes to heaven. He is a sinner whose purpose is to cry out for mercy for himself and for his flock. He needs to be healed of his sins, and he asks God to heal his flock of their sins, as well. And when he does this, he becomes justified in the sight of the Lord, because he is fulfilling his part of the covenant with God.
Finally, the Publican also teaches us about the royal priesthood that we all belong to. We are sinners—we are! This is not just a religious cliché. We come here with sins. We come here needing mercy. We come here to be forgiven. We come here not worthy to lift our eyes to heaven. We come here trying to set a good example in piety, tithing, prayer, etc., but also knowing that we cannot exalt ourselves over others. Even if I am better at one thing, I am worse at another. My religious exactitude is betrayed by my other sins. So I need mercy.
And as the royal priesthood, we come here to ask God for mercy on our families, our friends, our co-workers, our classmates—on the whole world. This sacrifice of asking for mercy that we the royal priesthood offer up is a request not just for ourselves. This is a request we make that is ecclesial—it is churchly. With this request for mercy, we draw in the whole Church and through the Church we are drawing the whole world. We are all priests here, ordained to implore God for His mercy on us sinners and on all sinners everywhere.
So as we seek to emulate the humility of the Publican and to reject the arrogance of the Pharisee, we see a beginning of what defines the priestly task—the priesthood of Christ, the ordained priesthood of presbyters and bishops, and the royal priesthood of every Orthodox Christian.
And if we imitate that Publican, asking God for mercy in humility, then what we are doing is a fulfillment of what St. John Chrysostom said about the priesthood. What we do here on earth in these priestly acts is ranked among the heavenly ordinances. What we do here as priests of whatever kind, no matter how humble or homespun it might seem to our sinful eyes, is in fact making things happen on a heavenly level.
Don’t sell yourself short. When you are asking God for mercy, aware of your sinfulness, even if all you can feel is what you can see and touch, even if it all seems merely earthly to you, you can have faith that you are participating in a heavenly reality. And because you are part of that royal priesthood, equipped with baptism into Christ and chrismation with the seal of the Holy Spirit, what you offer has an effect beyond just yourself. What you offer is in behalf of all and for all.
We thank God for His great gift of the priesthood—in the priesthood of Christ, the priesthood of the clergy, and the royal priesthood of his holy nation of Christians. And so we begin today with the priesthood of humility.
To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.