These Parables: The Pharisee and the Publican

Miguel de Unamuno said that a temple is the place where people go to weep. If all the tears shed in a parish church could be bottled, I think the oceans would look small. All tears. Not only of grief, for some are shed raucously at weddings and more softly when a baby is held over the baptismal font. But the greatest tears are in confession.

Jesus told a parable about two men in the Temple, only one of whom wept (Luke 18:9-14). He was a sinner, in Roman law a Publican commissioned to collect public revenues and in fact a rapacious man and a collaborator with enemies. When one was a child, the son of a family of fixed political loyalties, one misunderstood the sermon about the Pharisee and Publican and heard that Jesus approved a Republican, though it seemed odd that a Republican favored higher taxes. The Publican was a sinner and had yet to put action into his faith. The Pharisee was not a sinner in the way of common sins, but he had yet to put faith into his action.

Here is the old faith-versus-works quarrel fought out so long as the two are posed as inevitable opposites. The Pharisee’s small soul lacked the élan to know how to be forgiven big. Pride is shameless in its shameful underestimation of grace. The Pharisee might have given Jesus a polite nod, but he could never have washed His feet with tears, and he could not love much because he had not been forgiven much.

The Pharisee went to the Temple to boast, like those who go to funerals to praise the dead and by so doing smile at death with nervous bravado. The Temple was the Pharisee’s sounding board and its arches a frame for his virtue. St. John Climacus called pride the annihilation of virtue. The Pharisee “trusted in himself and despised others.” He thanked God that he was better than the Publican. It was not gratitude. It was self-canonization, and self-canonization ends with the self, for the self has not the metaphysics to haul itself up to the holy altars.

Priests hear the familiar refrain, “I’d go to confession, but I don’t know what to confess.” If we examined our own consciences as thoroughly as we examine others, and followed the penances we mentally prescribe for others, all of us would be dancing with the saints. The pedantic Pharisee simply misses the holy dance and dances with himself in imitation of bliss. He strides boldly through the sanctuary while the Publican is “standing far off.” He leaves out the penitential rite, makes the Sign of Peace the climax of worship, and dons the leotards of the liturgical dancer and the jolly red nose of the liturgical clown. Or he would have, had not he been saved by his oriental dignity, which has left us in our own day.

The Publican dares not raise his bloodshot eyes to the blinding glory of Heaven. He is both the mystical Byzantine and the critical Latin. He is a sinner, and he knows it, sensing a splendor that the miniature mind of the puffed-up Pharisee missed. Both have souls, but only the Publican knows what his soul can yet be. The Pharisee’s charade of holiness struts like Napoleon who, as Victor Hugo said, “embarrassed God.” Sins hurt the Divine Mercy, but the chief sin of pride is immeasurably worse for it embarrasses the Divine Majesty.

Jesus says that the sinner beat his breast. The Novus Ordo Mass enjoins a beating of the breast in the penitential rite. It is one of the least observed rubrics. John Bunyan would have fled the Mass, but he knew this gesture well: “Smiting upon the breast, seems to intimate a quarrel with the heart for beguiling, deluding, flattering, seducing, and enticing of him to sin: For as conviction for sin begets in man, I mean if it be thorough, a sense of the sore and plague of the heart. So repentance, if it be right, begets in the man an outcry against the heart…. Indeed one difference between true and false repentance lieth in this. The man that truly repents crieth out of his heart; but the other, as Eve, upon the serpent, or something else. And that the Publican perceived his heart to be naught I conclude, by his smiting upon his breast.”

This is the 24th, and last, of the holy parables. In these columns, I hope I have not embarrassed God by writing of these majesties each in 800 words. Eternity may be long enough to measure all that is in those stories, but there will be no need for any parables if we should be allowed to see the Master face to face.

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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