The Idolatry of the Pharisee

Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, February 9, 2020
2 Timothy 3:10-15; Luke 18:10-14

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

A warning we hear again and again in the hymns of the Church and also read about in the pages of the Scripture is the warning against idolatry. But in our day, that might seem quaint and anachronistic. I would be willing to guess that no one in this room has ever set up an image of some pagan god, bowed to it, offered sacrifices to it, ate those sacrifices, and served that demon that he had thereby worshiped.

But if we think that, having done none of those things, we have never been guilty of idolatry, then we are very much mistaken. The warnings against idolatry in the Bible and throughout Church life are very much current and applicable in our own day. And today, the parable that we will use to explore this truth is the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee.

This parable is a short one, so I’m going to give it to you again in full, just so we can focus:

The Lord spoke this parable: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

So this story is about two men who climb up the hill to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray. And when they get there, they pray two very different prayers.

Let’s look at the first prayer, the prayer of the Pharisee. He begins what sounds like a prayer of thanks to God: “God, I thank Thee.” So far, so good. He continues: “I thank Thee that I am not like other men.” Note that he does not say “Thank you for not making me like other men,” but just “that I am not like other men.” So he’s thanking God but not exactly giving Him the credit.

And he goes on to list the kind of people he’s not like: “extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (that is, the Publican who was also there praying). Such a great guy.

Now that he’s finished with his list of the kind of people he’s not like, he picks up and gives us his moral resume: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Again, what a great guy!

This prayer is where we see the idolatry. It’s not just vanity and pride here, by the way, though it totally is those things, too. So what is idolatry? It is to worship a creation rather than the Creator.

If you have any doubt whether the Pharisee is an idolater, notice what his prayer is about—it’s about himself. Note that he does not ask for God’s mercy or help, nor does he even thank God for anything that He has done for him. Rather, his prayer is what we might now call a “humble-brag,” though honestly, it’s not that humble.

To whom is that sacrifice of praise being offered? Himself. With whom is he sharing the feast of this praise? Himself. With whom is he in communion with this prayer? Himself. It is no wonder, then, that the Lord Jesus says that he “prayed thus with himself.” This prayer is about himself. And since he is a creation rather than the Creator, that means he is engaging in idolatry.

Contrast this prayer with the prayer of the Publican, also known as the tax collector. He has just one short thing to say: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”

His prayer is directed to God. His prayer recognizes that he is a sinner. His prayer asks for mercy from God. His prayer reaches out for communion with God. This prayer, in other words, worships the Creator rather than a creation.

To draw this contrast even more sharply, note who the two characters in Jesus’ parable are—a Publican and a Pharisee. The Publican, being a tax collector and collaborator with the Romans, was hated in his community, and he was certainly regarded as a sinner in many ways. It would be completely normal for him to be someone who pursues his fleshly, sinful desires.

You would think that, of either of these two men, the idolater would be the Publican! After all, idolatry and immorality, especially sexual immorality, always go together in the Bible. But he’s not the idolater. He repents. He worships God and is forgiven—“justified,” in Jesus’ words, meaning that He is in the right relationship with God.

The Pharisee, by contrast, seems to be a chaste, restrained, ascetical man. Look at the sins he does not commit! Look how he tithes and fasts! Yet he is the one whom Jesus says is not justified. He is the one who has exalted himself and will be brought low by God. He is the idolater. He may well not be committing the sins he mentioned, but is certainly is a slave to his desires. He is, as Jesus says to some Pharisees, a “white-washed tomb” (Matt. 23:27), who looks good on the outside but whose heart is full of sin and rebellion against God.

So what can we take away from all this? Clearly, we ought to imitate the Publican’s humility and flee from the Pharisee’s pride. But why? It is because imitating the Pharisee is essentially idolatry, worshiping the creation rather than the Creator.

And even though the Pharisee is not bowing down to images of stock and stone and offering up sacrifices to them, he is bowing before another idol—his image of himself. He has made his own behavior his idol. See how he praises it! See how he compares himself favorably with others, even someone standing right there!

We want to identify with the Publican, but in order to get there, we first have to see ourselves as the Pharisee. It is I who think I am a good person, better in fact than most people. It is I who compare myself favorably to others. It is I who take pride in my moral and pious accomplishments. It is I who love myself more than I love God. It is I who worship and sacrifice to the creation rather than the Creator.

And having realized this, I can then repent. I can then spurn the idols of my self-love and worship the one true God. I can turn my loyalty away from my self-image and pledge my loyalty to the One in Whose image I am created.

If we read the parable of the Publican and Pharisee merely as a morality tale about being humble rather than prideful, we miss how it is placed in the larger narrative of the Scripture and all the revelation of God. This parable is a lesson in how to turn away from idolatry—especially the idolatry of self—and to worship the Holy Trinity, the only true God worthy of worship.

What do you sacrifice to? What do you praise? What do you love most? That is your god. And for many of us—perhaps even most of us—that god is often ourselves or our image of ourselves. So let us turn from that idolatry.

And let us turn again toward Christ. Today we begin the preparation for Great Lent. And as we approach this holiest of seasons, let us enter into it not with a sense of becoming simply “better” people. That is really the way of the Pharisee. Let us instead enter into it with a firm intention to worship Christ our King and God. And doing so, we can cry with the voice not of the Pharisee but of the Publican: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”

To the one true 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.