“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!