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Preparation for Lent - The Publican and the Pharisee

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The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (or the Pharisee and the Tax Collector) appears in the Gospel of Luke, 18, 9-14; a self-righteous Pharisee, obsessed by his own virtue, is contrasted with a tax collector who humbly asks God for mercy.

This parable shows Jesus’ teaching that justification can be given by the mercy of God irrespective of the receiver’s prior life, and that conversely, self-righteousness can stop one from being justified. Further, coming as it does in a section of teaching on prayer, it demonstrates the need to pray humbly. 

This painting, which is unattributed, is done in the Baroque style of the 17th century, a style that accentuates the fact that there is evil, sin and suffering in the world, symbolized by the dark shadows, but contrasts this with the hope that transcends it, the Light of the World, which is Christ. We see here that the Light is clearly directing our attention to the lowly and humble publican, and shrouding the Pharisee in darkness. All areas of the painting are rendered in sepia and in a loose focus, except for the primary focus, which is more brightly and naturalistically colored, and rendered in greater detail. The artist is making use of the fact that the intellect directs the eye to rest on those areas that feed it with a greater amount and variety of visual information.
It is traditional to reflect on this parable just prior to or at the beginning of Lent, so that we can appreciate the mercy of God as we see our sins, but also, so that we can guard against pride in our approach to the Lenten observances of fasting, prayer and almsgiving.


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