The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 17 “Don’t Kiss the Pharisee!”

Pharisee and publican“Just one thing” said our Priest’s wife to us “Don’t kiss the Pharisee.” I marveled at this solid piece of advice.

She was not referring to a real-life Pharisee, although to go through life and know you are not to kiss the Pharisee is wisdom indeed, rather she was giving instruction on how to venerate the icon of this particular Sunday.

It was the Sunday of the Publican or Tax Collector and the Pharisee. This is a story in the Bible where Jesus speaks to the importance of humility as we approach God. He tells the story of a Pharisee (literally meaning one who is ‘set apart’) and a tax collector.

Pharisees were the religious leaders of the day, wearing their religion with pride and flair, their whole bearing exuding their belief that they held a special place in the eyes of God. They obeyed the Laws of Moses as interpreted through a legalistic lens.Pharisees not only obeyed the law but they made sure everyone else upheld it as well, according to their interpretation. Jesus had a lot of things to say about these religious leaders, most of it a warning that faith is not about how outwardly religious you are.

By contrast tax collectors were despised. During Roman rule there was a fairly complicated system of taxes. Tax collectors were responsible not only for collecting taxes but also for valuing the goods that people were taxed on. So they tended to be a dishonest, unjust lot that didn’t care about the poor. They were opportunists who wouldn’t miss out on a chance to get extra money at the expense of others.

Jesus talks about these two coming to the temple to worship God — the Pharisee with his head held high, thanking God that he was so much better than those around him, setting himself apart from others who were there to worship; the publican or tax collector coming before God in humility, beating his chest, saying “I’m not worthy, have mercy on me, I’m a sinner.” Essentially he didn’t care what anyone else thought – he knew he desperately needed God and recognized who he was before God.

Jesus is telling his audience to be like the tax collector, to recognize who we are before God, humbly bow down, know that it is not through our own righteousness or actions that we are saved, that we are forgiven.

This is an important Sunday because it begins the 4-week preparation for Great Lent. Lent in the Orthodox church is a 6-week period of fasting that makes my previous Lenten activities of giving up a paltry bit of chocolate or coffee laughable. Lent is preparation for Pascha (Orthodox Easter), but the 4 Sundays preceding Lent are preparation for the preparation. Why? Because Lent is hard-core and demands discipline and attention. So we prepare to prepare.

But we also prepare because Lent is not about being good enough for God. It is not about how well we keep the fast, or how many services we go to. It’s about being a tax collector and coming in humility into this time of preparation.

It actually makes complete sense when I think about my human frailty.

I need to prepare to prepare.I need to think about this. Far too often I’ve been the Pharisee. Maybe not outwardly but inwardly my soul stands haughty and proud. It’s not something that is easy to admit, but there you have it. So the Sundays before Lent, beginning with the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, are designed for folks like me.

As I went up to venerate the icon I worried for a moment that I wouldn’t recognize the Pharisee, that I would end up kissing the Pharisee. I didn’t need to worry – there he was, standing apart with his arms stretched to Heaven. I wish it was that easy to recognize the Pharisee in my own soul. 


“Just don’t kiss the donkey!” I was told during coffee hour. They were referring to the donkey in the icon that will be in the church on Palm Sunday. Evidently that’s another mistake we Protestants moving into Orthodoxy make. We tend to kiss Pharisees and donkeys. At least I won’t worry about whether I’ll recognize the donkey!

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The Grace Mandate

I do a great deal of thinking about Grace. Probably because I have basked in its beauty, felt relief through its comfort, and experienced its power so much in my life. Although at one time I think I could have been a poster child for the Pharisees, knowing all the right things to say and do, through various events in my life I have tasted the sweetness of grace and I have been changed.

I have learned when a person’s behavior appears to be inconsistent with what I know about their life from the outside looking in, then I am mandated to give grace without information. I must be willing to give grace without forcing them to show their soul. It’s all about the mandate: to give grace with or without information.

I have also known absence of grace.  I have felt accusations and judgment from those who don’t know the situation and yet decide to write my story in their minds where it quickly becomes their reality. In the cast of characters I am labeled as either villain or vain. I don’t stand a chance. My inner voice shouts out at the accusers daring them to cast the first stone…and then I remember the grace mandate.

I want to scream against the mandate “It’s not fair! They don’t deserve grace because they don’t give it!” But my screams are met by a God who slowly and kindly reveals that this is what it’s all about. Grace for Pharisees, grace for sinners – no respecter of persons is grace.

Philip Yancey, an author who devoted an entire book to grace says this: “As I studied Jesus’ life, the notion of grace kept hitting me in the face.  All his stories made the wrong person the hero: the prodigal son not the responsible older brother, Lazarus not the rich man, the good Samaritan not the Jewish rabbi.  And I began to see grace as one of the great, often untapped, powers of the universe that God has asked us to set loose.  Human society runs by Ungrace, ranking people, holding them accountable, insisting on reciprocity and fairness.  Grace is, by definition, unfair…”From

And this is truth – Despite being surrounded by Ungrace, we are called to give Grace. It’s the Grace Mandate.

I will have nothing to do with a God who cares only occasionally. I need a God who is with us always, everywhere, in the deepest depths as well as the highest heights. It is when things go wrong, when good things do not happen, when our prayers seem to have been lost, that God is most present. We do not need the sheltering wings when things go smoothly. We are closest to God in the darkness, stumbling along blindly.
― Madeleine L’Engle

Warm Slippers and Tortellini Soup

I asked her if she was hungry and she looked at me out of her one good eye. “Yes! A bowl of soup would be great!“. And so I got it. Hot, steaming tortellini soup, bread to go with it, a banana, and mango Snapple. I stooped down to give her the heavy brown bag and help take the soup out for her. “You need something for your feet!” I said. “I’ll be right back”. “You would do that for me?” said she, completely shocked. I smiled and left her in her usual spot outside the 7 Eleven on Washington Street, but inside, I was feeling a little bit great.

And so I got them. Strong, boot-like slippers with good soles. And as I was buying them I had that little feeling inside again – the “I’m a little bit great!” feeling. I pushed it aside and looked around me, afraid that someone could have overheard that thought, felt the feeling. I would have hated to be found out. To have it discovered that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t about Sheryl, there was a little something in it for me. A little something that would pat me on the back and say – “Wow – look at you! Aren’t you something?!”

But I pushed the thought down, and resolutely walked back to Sheryl, warm slippers in hand, slightly Pharisaical in my bearing.  And there she was. No food. No soup. No banana. No mango Snapple. No napkins. No spoon. No bread. Nothing. Just Sheryl. Sheryl asking me for money.

The Pharisee left and the plain outright mean in me came out. “What’d you do with the soup?” I demanded. “I just bought you soup. Where is it? Where is the banana, huh? Where is the Snapple? I like Snapple, I would’ve drunk it.” She peered up at me with the good eye – “Oh, It’s over there in the square with my boyfriend.”

I was furious. And then I stopped short. I had given away something and it was no longer mine. I gave the food to her, and it was then hers. I had no right to ask her what she had done with it. I had no business giving the food if there were strings attached. The self-righteous part of me was what was angry. I had taken my precious time, when I had things to do and places to go. I had done this for her and look how she repaid me! And I realized that the minute I let those “You’re so great” thoughts come in, it ceased being about her anymore. It was all about me.

I put the slippers on her, humbled. If I choose to give, it can’t be about me. The minute the gift leaves my hand, I have relinquished my right to it. It belongs to the receiver. If it was any other way than it wouldn’t be a free gift. It would be like the offers that fill my inbox promising me a free iPad or trip only to discover that I have to complete 12 to 15 offers and scroll through numerous pages before I can even think about a gift, exhausting me in the process. In the case of Sheryl and me, it has to be about her. That’s what a true gift is. It can’t be about strings attached that would entangle me. It has to be about a free gift and grace.

When I see her again, she may not have the slippers. And I might choose a different way to show I care. But whatever way I choose, it has to be about warm slippers, tortellini soup and God – it can’t be about me.