Living the Life of the Publican

For many people in our culture, the idea of private confession is neither attractive nor comforting. We prefer “to put our best foot forward,” and make the best impression on others. Everyone is aware that everyone has faults. Those who have grown up Protestant may have been frequently reminded, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). In the polite Southern Protestant culture in which I grew up, it was also made clear that gentlemen did not discuss those shortfalls despite the fact that their presence was universally true.

Everyone quickly acknowledged that “all have sinned” – it was the specifics that were avoided. And so it is that most can easily acknowledge that they have sinned generally – it is the particulars that we find embarrasing and hard to discuss.

Churches that practice private confession within our culture notice that confession is the sacrament most avoided. People rarely stand in line or rush to their priest. And upon reaching the priest, people frequently rush to describe their general sins and avoid the particulars. One of my closest and most beloved Archpastors once told me, “I still hate going to confession.”

The Church frequently contrasts the prayer of the Publican and the prayer of the Pharisee in the parable told by Christ (Luke 18). The Pharisee goes to the temple, offering his prayer to God. In the course of his prayer he thanks God that he is not like other men (sinners). He tithes, he fasts, he keeps the Law. The publican (a tax-collector and seen as a traitor to Israel) goes to the temple but avoids even lifting his face towards God. He smites himself on the chest and exclaims, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” It is the Publican whom Christ says goes home justified before God: “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luk 18:14).

There is no discussion of the legal merits of either prayer or either man: everything depends upon the state of the heart of the one who prays. The same is true of confession and of the whole of the Orthodox life. There are no measures of achievement – no rules which once kept render us safe and secure. In this life the heart always rests on the line between paradise and hades and rests nowhere else.

In many Protestant models of the Christian faith, it is paramount to render the question of paradise and hades as moot. We perform certain actions, or accept certain ideas, and all is settled. We are forgiven, our place in heaven is secure. Orthodoxy can be unnerving in this regard – it recognizes the on-going and dynamic state of the line between paradise and hades and the movements of the human heart. The stability within Orthodoxy is found in the state of continual repentance. “A humble and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51:17).

Of course abiding in a state of continual repentance runs deeply counter to those habits formed within a legal or forensic context. We would like the matter to have been settled once and for all and never discussed again. We would like God to abide by the rules of polite Southern culture. A gentleman would never discuss such things more often than necessary.

But God is not presented to us as a gentleman, nor is the problem of our sin presented to us as a series of legal problems to be rectified by a pronouncement of “forgiven!” Rather, God is presented to us as the “Great Physician” and we are told that we suffer from a mortal wound or disease. The doctor, having diagnosed us, would be derelict in his duties were he never to mention our mortal wound ever again for fear of scandalizing the mores of a dissolute but polite culture.

For the wound we bear is nothing other than a hard and unrepenting heart. The sickness that infects us is pernicious – for its very character is that it hates and resists both its diagnosis and its cure.

And so the Publican and his prayer become the model for healthy Christian living. We do not repent one time – we repent all the time. Repentance is not a discussion with God over the legal status of our sins – it is a discussion with the Great Physician over the “medical” status of a heart that is hard and far from contrite. Repentance is another word for living with a broken and contrite heart.

I have sometimes counseled parishioners that they should “learn to pray like a Publican.” It is not unusual in the Christian life to fail. We fail at prayer. We fail in our sins. We fail in our well-intentioned and sworn obligations. The most common reaction to such failures is not making another effort, but giving up all together. Our pride overcomes us. If I cannot pray as I have sworn I would, then I will not pray at all. This, of course, is simply a delusion sent us by the enemy. We want to pray like a Pharisee – to pray with a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. We have been taught to hate the feeling of contrition, and to despise a broken heart. The so-called “middle class” in our cultures embraces a middle class standard of virtue. No one is really good, but no one is really all that bad (or so we think). Mediocrity is the perfect standard – for its measure is those around me – and thus I easily engage in judging others and compare my life to theirs. We trust that there is safety in numbers.

Scripture tells us that our measure is the “stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). To make anything or anyone else our standard of measure is, at best, blasphemous. It is an agreement to be less than human, much less the divine union with Christ into which we have been called. It reduces Christianity to mere religion, and a mediocre religion at that.

The full measure of the stature of Christ’s fullness is found only in following the path which Christ Himself has set for us: the self-emptying way of the Cross. This too, is nothing other than the daily and continual path of repentance. Christ accepted His humiliation as though it were just – as though it belonged to Him. He neither sought to defend or justify Himself. “Like a sheep led to the slaughter or a blameless lamb before its shearers is mute so he opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). Christ “emptied Himself” according to St. Paul. He went to the Cross with a “broken and contrite heart.”

This way of the Cross is the way of repentance and is normative for daily life in Christ. All theories which seek to set this “mind” aside and replace it with rationalized atonement theories, is contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture and the fathers and the way of salvation as taught us in Christ.

We learn to “pray like a Publican,” for like him, we learn to be meek and lowly of heart. We learn to accept our brokenness, not as a problem to be solved or overlooked, but a state of heart to be embraced and from which to seek God.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”.

And thus it is that publicans and sinners will enter the kingdom of God before many who thought themselves righteous. Pray to be found among the publicans and sinners on that great day.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





26 responses to “Living the Life of the Publican”

  1. Pr. Lovett Avatar

    There was a 16th Century Augustinian monk who posted the first of ninety-five theses with these words: “When our Lord Christ preached repent, He meant that the whole life of the Christian is one of repentance.”
    Legend has it that this same man died with a note fastened to the inside of his pocket which read, “In the end, we are all but beggars.”

  2. Philip Jude Avatar

    Strangely, I was also going to make a reference to one of the great Reformers. Calvin was fixated on this parable, and it inevitably comes up in any debate with TULIPs. They see it through a peculiar light, though one not totally wrong.

  3. Elizabeth Avatar

    I always approach confession in tears and leave feeling light enough to float; like all sacraments, it is a gift from God.

  4. B Peter Brandt-Sorheim Avatar

    A good father confessor is a blessing of remarkable worth!

  5. dutchaunt Avatar

    Thank you, this helps me understand. 🙂

  6. theWomanAtTheWell Avatar

    Thank you for your insightful wisdom.

  7. Andrew B Avatar
    Andrew B

    Well said!

  8. […] Swim swim swim against the current. […]

  9. Lenny J.Heiple Avatar
    Lenny J.Heiple

    Forgive me but where in the Bible does it say we are surpose repent for specific sins?I went to one of the most respected Bible Colleges in the country,got straight A’s,Pastored for many years but never learned this view on repentance.There is something fantasic about the sharing of sins with a Pastor or a close friend.It is very freeing.Still that being said God tells us to repent.With the cross the middle man became Jesus who is our direct line to The Father:)I do agree we need to repent more often.

  10. Darlene Avatar

    Father, thank you for this sobering instruction. Confession within Orthodoxy is healing to the soul. I do not consider it as an obligation or requirement. Rather, as needful for my brokenness and helpful in repairing the damage that sin leaves in its wake. I appreciate the bond in standing with my priest, side-by-side, facing the gospel and the cross. Confession of this sort was what my soul longed for prior to being Orthodox. What a comfort we have in this sacrament and how often we fail to see it that way. Humility is the way to Christ – the way which frees us from the damaging effects of sin.

  11. Darlene Avatar

    Lenny, the Orthodox way of life can seem rather peculiar to a Protestant such as yourself. I once thought as you, so I understand your comments. The “where in the Bible” paradigm can take a course down meandering paths of quoting various Scriptures AT each other without ever getting to the heart of the matter. We Orthodox recognize that we interpret Scripture in light of the abiding life within the Church and the consensus patrum = the consensus of the Fathers. We are not Sola Scripturists. Jesus Christ cannot be extracted from the Church – both are necessary for our salvation. And so it is that we are learning obedience to that which came before us, to that which has had a voice for the past two thousand years, upon that rock which Christ said “the gates of hell would not prevail.”

  12. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    Darlene I’m certain that confession within Orthodoxy is healing to the soul even though I can’t say I’ve ever experienced it. But I do know that just saying I’m sorry when you’ve hurt someone else has healing effects.

  13. Darlene Avatar

    Indeed, Leonard. But to bring oneself to utter, “I’m sorry” to another requires humility. Wouldn’t you agree?

  14. E-bro Avatar

    Well, Father, this Roman Catholic and generally non-commenting reader can certainly echo yhe Archpastor who still dreads confession. Like him, I’ll bet, I don’t know what I’d do without it, though…

  15. Aunt Melanie Avatar

    There seem to be different aspects to the person of Christ, to His identity or role among humanity: a physician, a shepherd, a teacher, a savior, the Messiah. I appreciate your elaboration on the physician aspect. While sins may not be “overlooked,” and continual repentance is part of the spiritual life, I think forgiveness nevertheless involves a certain release, deliverance, or liberation.

    “….her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But, the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

    “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7: 47, 50)

    I have had bad experiences with a couple of priests: a “gotcha” attitude which is so inhibiting to making an honest and full confession and so reinforcing of shame and guilt. Most priests are not like that, but it only takes a couple of bad experiences to scar an individual.

    For myself, I have to believe in the “go in peace” consequence of forgiveness, the release to love in return, the way of the Cross as the way of hope. Otherwise, it is almost depressing.

  16. NW Juliana Avatar
    NW Juliana

    Father, bless, thank you for your words. I am faced daily with is sick and sinful heart, and yet persistently resist the very thing the Church has given me for its healing — attentiveness and repentance. And yet this is one of the greatest gifts that I am so thankful for now within Orthodoxy, the hope for cure. O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.

    If I may, there is a spelling typo in the third paragraph (my homeschooling-mom-former-copy-editor self is kicking in, forgive me). The first word should be “Churches.” Feel free to remove this comment as desired.

  17. Andrew B Avatar
    Andrew B


  18. Aunt Aardvark Avatar
    Aunt Aardvark

    Of course we might “pray like a Pharisee” when we first start out, but then as we make the change to “pray like a Publican”, we may be tempted to silence those who have suffered at the hands of our “Great Physician”.

    But then, when we offer back the non-contradictory refrain of “Take your medication EXACTLY as prescribed by your doctor” and “Say NO to drugs”; we are aghast when the next generation dumps all of our prescription drugs into a big common bowl, and passes them out to each other for random sampling at one of their parties.

  19. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    It seems to me that the publican wasn’t any better than the pharasee, just that he realized that he wasn’t any better than the pharasee,

  20. David Avatar

    This is my first time to read from your blog. What an awesome post . . . and one I needed to hear.

    I am almost persuaded to become Orthodox! But I think I will remain true to my non denominational heritage.

    If only the Orthodox would drop the name “Orthodox”, become Christians only, and sever its ties to nationalism/regionalism. What a wonderful world it would be. Just dreaming mind you . . . just dreaming.

    Great post!

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s kind of hard to have a “heritage” that is not even 100 years old. Orthodoxy is the only “non-denominational” Church. There were no denominations when we were founded (33 a.d.). We are Orthodox, because we have kept the True Faith given us by Christ without change. We have no ties to “nationalism” or “regionalism” other than being in one nation or another and deep parts of those cultures because we have been there so long. But the wonderful world part – God’s Kingdom is indeed wonderful and it is that we must seek.

  22. Andrew Avatar

    Father and David, if I may. One needn’t fret about who in fact subscribes to the ‘one true faith’. In His perfect wisdom, the good Lord has chosen to identify with the unseemly prisoner, hungry, sick and thirsty of this world (Matthew 25:35). This way, there could be no mistaking Him. Thank you for sharing. Insightful.

  23. Avarachan Avatar

    Father, thank you for this beautiful post. I converted to Orthodoxy from Protestantism two years ago, yet I’ve had difficulty understanding the Orthodox concept of salvation. Thank you: this article is a great help.

  24. David Avatar

    Our forefathers dropped ties with denominationalism in the early nineteenth century. True, in some ways we are young. But we strive for the ancient paths . . . for true faith. We seek to follow Christ . . . The Way . . . without change as well.

    It has been a hard road for our brotherhood, and the fellowship has made some poor decisions. After reading your post, it struck me that many of our congregations stand in the shoes of the Publican. Many hearts have been broken. But we are not without hope. Our fullness is found in Christ alone. He is our shield and defender and saviour.

    I live in Texas, but since you are in Tennessee, you probably know of the people whom I speak of. We share many of the same convictions Orthodox have.

    I am looking forward to learning from you through your blog. May God bless you and keep you close.

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