The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee

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The first Sunday of the Triodion is called ‘the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee’ after the respective Gospel reading, and marks the beginning of the pre-Lenten period (for more information on the Triodion period scroll down to the Background section). This parable demonstrates two contrasting traits: pride and humility.

Most children will describe pride as ‘behaving as if I am better than anyone else’. Humility, however, is not that easily understood. A simple way of describing humility would be as ‘honestly admitting my mistakes and also taking care of others before myself’. Humility leads to repentance, which is the main theme of the whole period of the Triodion. 

Triodion Parables Learning Set

We have created a FABRIC LEARNING SET covering the parables of the Publican and the Pharisee and of the Prodigal Son, to help teach these topics in a hands-on way. It can be used together with the material on this page during the period of the Triodion. Don’t miss it!

Objectives

Younger children

At the end of the lesson the children should be able to:

  • Point to the Publican and the Pharisee on the icon.
  • Briefly retell the story of the parable.
  • Explain that the Pharisee was proud and the Publican was humble.
  • Give some examples of pride and humility from their own lives.

Older children

In addition to the above, older children should also be able to:

  • Say and write the words “Publican” and “Pharisee” and explain what each word means.
  • Point out the specific actions that demonstrate that the Publican was humble and the Pharisee was proud.
  • Explain how prideful behavior can be turned into a humble one in examples of real-life situations suggested by the teacher.
  • Describe additional details of the icon.

Planning the lesson

  • Introducing the topic: We have been using a third-party animation video to introduce the story in our classes which works very well. See the “Additional Resources” section below.
  • After we show the video we present the story in more detail. Our fabric set or paper puppets can be useful for this. In the older classes, we may also read the story from an Orthodox source such as “Let Us Attend” (see Additional Resources below) and ask the children to listen carefully and point out elements that were not shown or were presented differently in the video. The details they remember often impress us.
  • The icon: We conclude the presentation of the story by exploring the icon, pointing out the characters and their actions, and explaining the icon’s meaning and symbolism.
  • Discussion follows. We explore the concepts of pride and humility discussing real-life examples from the students’ life.
  • Reinforcement work. Depending on the time we have left and the age of the children, we use some of our printable activities to reinforce what was taught.

Our activities include:

Icon worksheets
Cut-and-glue-craft
Worksheets to work on the details of the story
Activities to practice being humble in real life

Additional resources

The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is a very popular Christian catechism topic, so we have found a lot of useful teaching material and ideas available online, both from Orthodox and non-Orthodox sources. We thought it might be helpful to include some of them here. Note: When exploring non-Orthodox sources for activities, please be mindful that what you choose to use is always in line with the teachings of the Orthodox Church.

  • Let Us Attend, handouts and audio for children by the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America – scroll down to Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee.
  • Box visual aid – a creative idea to present the topic from the blog “Flame – Creative Chidren’s Ministry”. (*Non-Orthodox source*)
  • Animation video on YouTube by RodTheNey – We have seen many YouTube Bible story animation videos and we are always cautious about using them in class to introduce the topic, as they often tend to have a feel that is not as reverent as we would deem appropriate, or they introduce non-Orthodox elements. This particular video we have found useful. We don’t think it is disrespectful, it has no narration so there is no fear of introducing non-Orthodox narrative elements, it is very short, and it sparks the students’ interest – after they watch it they are wondering what happened and are eager to hear the explanation, so we have found it works well to start the lesson. (*Non-Orthodox source*)

Main points

Useful vocabulary

PUBLICAN: A publican was a tax collector, a Jewish official appointed by the Roman emperor, with the duty of collecting the taxes imposed on his fellow Jews and then giving them to the Romans. The tax collectors would often charge more money than what the Romans were asking for, and would keep the difference for themselves. They were generally regarded as very sinful people, thieves and traitors to their fellow Jews, so they were outcasts, nobody wanted to be around them. 

PHARISEE: A Pharisee was a high-ranked Jewish religious leader. The Pharisees – like a similar group, the Scribes – were well-educated, knew the Mosaic Law in detail, and interpreted it to the simple people. They were usually wealthy and they formed their own exclusive group. The Pharisees prided themselves in diligently keeping the Law; however they usually kept the letter of the law but not the spirit, and this is why our Lord often used them as negative examples in His teaching. 

Important considerations 

  • The Pharisee appears to be doing his religious duty very well, but he is proud. His prayer is not a real prayer to God, but a recounting of his own virtues. He is self-righteous, considering himself above everyone else, contrasting himself to sinners, even pointing out the Publican as the chief-sinner. Thus, even though he seems outwardly pious, in reality he is entirely disconnected from God and from his fellow man.
  • The Publican is obviously a very sinful person, but he is humble at the moment of his heartfelt prayer in the temple. He compares himself to what God wants him to be, honestly recognizing his own sinful state. The Publican’s prayer really comes from his own contrite heart. By being humble and repentant, the Publican opens himself up to receive God’s Grace.
  • God heard the Publican’s prayer and not the Pharisee’s because the only way to approach God is through humility and repentance.
  • Some people interpret the parable as if it teaches that being humble is more important than following Church rules, so we are free to disregard Church rules if we wish, as long as we are following the “spirit of law”; but this is not an accurate interpretation. The parable rather teaches that we should be following Church rules, also doing it in a humble and sincere way.
  • Inside the Church, humility and repentance is experienced through the Sacrament of Holy Confession.

BACKGROUND

Bible reading

Luke 18: 9-14

Kontakion — Tone 4

Let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee! / And learn humility from the Publican’s tears! / Let us cry to our Savior, / have mercy on us, / only merciful One!

Icon explanation

Photograph by Fr. Ted Bobosh on Flickr, of a mounted icon print found in St. Paul Orthodox Church in Dayton, OH. Photo used with permission by Fr Ted and St. Paul Church. We unsuccessfully tried to locate the creator of the original icon to obtain usage permission. If anyone has relevant information to offer us, or if the artist him/herself sees this post, please contact us. We will be happy to include any credits or remove the icon if the creator wishes us to. Thank you!

The contrast of the story is very well depicted in the icon:

  • The Pharisee is well-dressed and groomed; he stands tall, looking up, making a strong gesture to show that he keeps the law, and pointing to the Publican with contempt. 
  • The Publican is often dressed more simply and his hair is disheveled from the prostrations; he is bending down or kneeling, beating his chest or pointing to himself in recognition of his sinfulness, asking God’s mercy. 
  • A ray of light, God’s hand, or even Jesus Christ Himself, is often shown blessing the Publican. In some versions of the icon the Publican is also depicted with a halo, not because he became a Saint, but to show that his humble state and heartfelt prayer were recognized and blessed by God. 
  • The icon of the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is a ‘didactic’ or teaching icon, which shows us the story and its meaning. It is not meant to be venerated like the icons of our Lord, the Theotokos or the Saints.

THE TRIODION – What is it?

The Triodion is a liturgical book containing the Church services and hymns to be read for a period that precedes Holy Pascha; the word “Triodion” also describes the preparatory period before Pascha during which the Triodion book is used. It lasts for 70 days, or 10 weeks. In Greek, the word Triodion (Τριώδιον) means ‘three odes’, the three sets of hymns that are chanted in this period during the Orthros service, instead of the eight-set hymns chanted the rest of the liturgical year. 

In the Triodion period, there are three weeks and four Sundays before Great Lent starts. The Church has established special fasting rules for these three weeks:
– Week 1: No fasting, not even on the customary Wednesday and Friday.
– Week 2: A regular week, fasting on Wednesday and Friday.
– Week 3: Cheesefare week – everything except meat can be eaten on all days, so we can eat eggs, dairy and fish every day.

What is a Parable? 

A parable is a short story taken from everyday life, with a hidden meaning. The parable was the main teaching tool that our Lord Jesus Christ liked to use when addressing both the simple people and the educated elite, the Pharisees and the Scribes. The hidden meaning of all the parables of our Lord reveals our purpose in life, namely attaining the Kingdom of God.  

EXPLORE FURTHER

Special thanks to Y2AM for allowing us to embed their video into our web page.