Homily on the Publican and Pharisee
WRITTEN BY CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA
From Homilies on the Gospel of Luke, Sermon 120
Luke 18:9-14. And He spoke also this parable unto certain men who trust in themselves that they are righteous, and despise others. “Two men went up unto the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. And the Pharisee stood and prayed thus to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like the rest of mankind, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or as this publican. I fast twice in the week. I pay tithe of all that I gain.’ But the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up even his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful unto me the sinner.’ I tell you that this man went down to his house justified rather than the other. For every one that exalts himself shall be abased, and he that abases himself shall be exalted.”
You who love instruction, and are eager to listen, receive once again the sacred words: delight yourselves in the honey of wisdom; for so it is written, “Good words are honeycombs, and their sweetness is the healing of the soul.” For the labour of the bees is very sweet, and benefits in many ways the soul of man: but the divine and saving (honey) makes those in whom it dwells skilful in every good work, and teaches them the ways of (spiritual) improvement. Let us therefore, as I said, receive again in mind and heart the Saviour’s words. For He teaches us in what manner we ought to make our requests unto Him, in order that the act may not prove unrewarded to them who practise it; and that no one may anger God, the bestower of gifts from on high, by means of those very things by which he imagines that he shall gain some benefit. For it is written. “There is a righteous man, who perishes in his righteousness.”
For see, I pray, an instance of this clearly painted, so to speak, in the parable set before us. One who prayed is condemned because he did not offer his prayer wisely. “For two men, it says, went up unto the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.” And here we must admire the wise arrangement of Christ our common Saviour, in all things whatsoever He does and says. For by the parable previously read to us, He called us to diligence, and to the duty of offering prayer constantly: for the Evangelist said, “And He spoke unto them also a parable, to the intent that men ought always to pray, and must not grow weary.” Having then urged them to diligence in constant prayer, yet, as I said, lest by doing so sedulously but without discretion, we should enrage Him Whom we supplicate, He very excellently shows us in what way we ought to be diligent in prayer. “Two men then, He says, went up unto the temple to pray.” Observe here, I pray, the impartiality and entire fairness of the unerring Nature: for He calls those who were praying men, since He looks not so much at wealth or power; but regarding their natural equality, He considers all those who dwell upon earth as men, and as in no respect different from one another.
And what then was the manner of their prayer? “The Pharisee, it says, prayed thus to himself. God, I thank You that I am not like the rest of mankind, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or as this publican.” Many at once are the faults of the Pharisee: for first of all he is boastful, and without sense; for he praises himself, although the sacred Scripture cries aloud, “Let a neighbour praise you, and not your own mouth: a stranger and not your own lips.” But, O excellent sir, one may well say to him, Behold, those who live in the practice of good and holy actions, as any one may see, are not very ready to listen to the words of flatterers: yes, and even if men extol them, they often are covered with shame, and drop their eyes to the ground, and beg silence of those that praise them. But this shameless Pharisee praises and extols himself because he is better than extortioners, and the unjust, and adulterers. But how did it escape your notice, that a man’s being better than the bad does not necessarily and of course prove him to be worthy of admiration: but that to vie with those who habitually excel, is a noble and honourable thing, and admits a man into the number of those who are justly praised.
Our virtue therefore must not be contaminated with fault, but must be single-minded and blameless, and free from all that can bring reproach. For what profit is there in fasting twice in the week, if your so doing serve only as a pretext for ignorance and vanity, and make you supercilious and haughty, and selfish? You tithe your possessions, and make a boast thereof: but you in another way provoke God’s anger, by condemning men generally on this account, and accusing others; and you are yourself puffed up, though not crowned by the divine decree for righteousness, but heap, on the contrary, praises upon yourself. “For I am not, he says, as the rest of mankind.” Moderate yourself, O Pharisee: “put a door to your tongue, and a lock.” You speak to God Who knows all things. Await the decree of the Judge. None of those skilled in the practice of wrestling ever crowns himself: nor does any man receive the crown of himself, but awaits the summons of the arbiter. Lower your pride: for arrogance is both accursed and hated by God. Although therefore you fast with puffed up mind, your so doing will not avail you: your labour will be unrewarded; for you have mingled dung with your perfume. Even according to the law of Moses a sacrifice that had a blemish was not capable of being offered to God: for it was said unto him, “Of sheep, and ox, that is offered for sacrifice, there must be no blemish therein.” Since therefore your fasting is accompanied by pride, you must expect to hear God saying, “This is not the fast that I have chosen, says the Lord.” You offer tithes: but you wrong in another way Him Who is honoured by you, in that you condemn men generally. This is an act foreign to the mind that fears God: for Christ even said, “Judge not, and you shall not be judged: condemn not, and you shall not be condemned.” And one also of His disciples said, “There is one Lawgiver, and Judge: why then do you judge your neighbour?” No man because he is in health ridicules one who is sick for being laid up and bedridden: rather he is afraid, lest perchance he become himself the victim of similar sufferings. Nor does any man in battle, because another has fallen, praise himself for having escaped from misfortune. For the infirmity of others is not a fit subject for praise for those who are in health: nay, even if any one be found of more than usually vigorous health, even then scarcely does he gain glory thereby. Such then was the state of the self-loving Pharisee.
But what of the publican? He stood, it says, “afar off,” not even venturing, so to speak, to raise up his eyes on high. You see him abstaining from all boldness of speech, as having no right thereto, and smitten by the reproaches of conscience: for he was afraid of being even seen by God, as one who had been careless of His laws, and had led an unchaste and dissolute life. You see also that by his external manner, he accuses his own depravity. For the foolish Pharisee stood there bold and broad, lifting up his eyes without scruple, bearing witness of himself, and boastful. But the other feels shame at his conduct: he is afraid of his Judge, he smites upon his breast, he confesses his offences, he shows his malady as to the Physician, he prays that he may have mercy. And what is the result? Let us hear what the Judge says, “This man, He says, went down to his house justified rather than the other.”
Let us therefore “pray without ceasing,” according to the expression of the blessed Paul: but let us be careful to do so aright. The love of self is displeasing to God, and He rejects empty haughtiness and a proud look, puffed up often on account of that which is by no means excellent. And even if a man be good and sober, let him not on this account suffer himself to fall away into shameful pride: but rather let him remember Christ, Who says to the holy apostles, “When you have done all those things, those namely which have been commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants, we have done that which was our duty to do.” For we owe unto God over all, as from the yoke of necessity, the service of slaves, and ready obedience in all things. Yes, though you lead an excellent and elect life, don’t exact wages from the Lord; but rather ask of Him a gift. As being good, He will promise it you: as a loving Father, He will aid you. Restrain not yourself then from saying, “God be merciful to me the sinner.” Remember Him Who says by the voice of Isaiah, “Declare you your sins first, that you may be justified:” remember too that He rebukes those who will not do so, and says, “Behold, I have a judgment against you, because you say 560 ‘I have not sinned’.” Examine the words of the saints: for one says, “The righteous is the accuser of himself in the beginning of his words.” And another again, “I said, I will confess against myself my transgression unto the Lord: and you forgave the iniquity of my heart.”
What answer then will those make to this, who embrace the new tenets of Novatus, and say of themselves that they are pure? Whose prayer do they praise? That of the Pharisee, who acquitted himself, or that of the Publican, who accused himself? If they say that of the Pharisee, they resist the divine sentence; for he was condemned as being boastful: but if that of the Publican, why do they refuse to acknowledge their own impurity? Certainly God justifies those who know well their transgressions, and are willing to confess them: but these men will have the portion of the Pharisee.
We then say, that in many things we “all of us offend,” and that no man is pure from uncleanness, even though his life upon earth be but one day. Let us ask then of God mercy; which if we do, Christ will justify us: by Whom and with Whom, to God the Father, be praise and dominion, with the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever, Amen.