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  • Writer's pictureElisabeth Sesi

Approaches to Pre-Lent: The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee

Depending on which part of the Orthodox tradition you belong, the Gospel on the Sunday before the start of the Lenten Triodion could either be the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) or that of the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28).

In their own way, Zacchaeus and the Canaanite woman, in tradition called Justa, are both desperate people. Furthermore, they both have the contempt of the people around them. To what extent Zacchaeus may have been fleecing people of their money is a moot point: the fact is that he was despised as his profession made him a collaborator with the Roman authorities, so prejudice against him was automatic. The contempt towards Justa was for racial reasons and therefore racist.

In both cases, Christ uses the situation of these two souls to make a learning point for those around Him. The difference in their physical attitude and approach is thought-provoking.

Zacchaeus was desperate for a vantage point – a man of short stature who would have won no concessions from others to allow him a better view, he risks ridicule and shame by running ahead and climbing up a tree. Therefore it seems likely he wanted to hide – to see and not be seen – but the Lord is having none of it. Zacchaeus’s public declaration repentance is a lesson to us all. He knew what he had to do and did it, without the need to be told.

Justa, on the other hand, is desperate to be noticed. Making a thorough nuisance of herself, she finishes up on her knees before Christ, who has hitherto brushed her off. The lesson to the apostles was that her contrition has driven out all evil. The foreigner shows how to expel that which is foreign to our deified nature. Christ’s words to Zacchaeus, that salvation had come to his house because he was also a child of Abraham, could absolutely apply to her. Her daughter, in tradition named Berenice, who was the reason for her actions, was instantly healed of the demons through her faith.

The stories of Zacchaeus and Justa, although they display very different approaches, are both lessons in humility. Today’s parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14) shows us that such humility will bring about our salvation. The Pharisee is a holy man – he’s as upright as he stands – he keeps God’s law: so far so good. But he’s arrogant about it. Like those around Christ in the stories of Zacchaeus and Justa, he despises certain others and treats them with contempt – in the case of the Pharisee, those he views as inferior to him in morals and religious observance. Alongside him is a publican, a tax-collector like Zacchaeus, who in icons is often depicted as crawling on the temple floor as Justa crawls on the ground before Christ. He couldn’t be more unlike the Pharisee in his acknowledgement of his sins and his repentance in all humility. This is the man that the Pharisee wanted to put before God as a sullied example of humanity in order to highlight his own golden record. Christ makes it clear which will be noticed and which needs to learn his lesson.

As we enter the Lenten Triodion, we hold true to our observances and values, but not at the expense of the truth. We are to guard against bigotry and hypocrisy such as that of the Pharisee. The way we approach Christ is a personal matter – it could be the way of Zacchaeus, slinking away to our observation point, or it could be that of Justa – persistent to the point of annoyance. Equally, we could simply be like the publican, beating his breast and crying out over his sins. At different times, we may be doing more than one of those or even all three of them. No matter, the end result is the same: Christ will see us, and we will see Him - as He is.

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