The Publican and the Pharisee on a Commuter Train


A man (Mikhail by name) recently [last year] posted a short story in a social network that was instantly reposted by many. The story is as follows (leaving out the swear words):

“I was on an electric train on my way from Moscow to Petushki. Suddenly a tramp came into the carriage—all bruised up, with a bloated, puffy face. He was about thirty years old. Looking around, he said: “Dear all, I haven’t eaten anything for three days. I’m honest. I don’t want to be a thief because I won’t be able to run away if they try to catch me. But I’m so hungry! Give me as much money as you can. Don’t even look at my face; I admit I drink heavily. And the money you give me, I’ll spend it on drinking too!” And then he proceeded along the carriage.

Here in Russia people are very generous; they swiftly collected about five hundred rubles (about $7.50) The tramp stopped at the end of the carriage, turned back facing the people, bowed and said, “Thank you! May God save you all!”

A malicious looking man sitting by the window in the back of the carriages—he looked like a scientist and wore a pair of glasses—suddenly burst out screaming at the tramp, “You, scumbag! You’re panhandling, asking for money! And I don’t have enough money to feed my family. And what if I have been fired lately?! I’m not a beggar like you.”

After hearing all this, the tramp took everything he had managed to collect that day (about two thousand rubles, both notes and coins) out of his pockets and stretched out his hand to give the money to the man:

“Take it. You need it.”

“What?” answered the man dumbfounded.

“Take it. You need it more than I do. People are very kind!” insisted the tramp, putting the money into his hands. Then he turned around and left the carriage.

“You, stop here!” exclaimed the man instantly rising from his seat with the money in his hands. He followed the tramp. The whole carriage was unanimously silent. For the next five minutes, we attentively listened to their dialogue in the train vestibule. The man was screaming that people were rotten, while the tramp was convicted people were generous and wonderful. The man tried to give the money back to the tramp but he wouldn’t take it. In the end, the tramp went further along the train and the man was left alone in the vestibule. He seemed reluctant to go back into the carriage. He lit a cigarette.

The train arrived at a station. Passengers got in and off the train. The man put out the cigarette, came back into the carriage and took his window seat. No one paid any special attention to him—the carriage lived its own life. The train arrived at some stations; some passengers got off, and some people got in.

Five stations were behind us and the train was approaching mine. I stood up and moved towards the exit. As I passed by I cast a glance at the man. With his head turned back to the window, the malicious man sat there crying.”

I would rather we left a story like this (and I believe that it is a real story) without any comments. But the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee can be grounds for our pondering over what happened in that story. In the parable we all heard at Divine Liturgy today (Luke 18:10-14), the Lord intentionally rejects the existing stereotypes about good and the evil, about those who are good and those who are evil. And it’s definitely for a reason that the parable’s characters are two individuals diametrically opposed in their moral views. For society, the Pharisee is an definitely righteous man, for he is perfectly aware of the subtlest aspects of the law and knows how to obey it. The Publican is definitely a sinner, a sinner by definition, for he has to work for an oppressive government; making use of this shameful benefit, shameful in and of itself, he illegally takes money from his countrymen. Reproving this, Christ directs our attention to two points. Firstly, it’s not meticulous obedience to the law, but a person’s adequate worldview that bears true righteousness. Therefore, a sinful way of life can make an individual righteous for the Lord (provided that the individual rejects the sin, of course); or on the contrary, an outwardly righteous life may lead to a nearly insurmountable barrier between the man and the Lord, when the man ignores the real Source of righteousness and grows in his complacency. The second conclusion we reach is moral. We should avoid any kind of judgment: the mere thought of judgment gives us no chance to know the truth, it’s too superficial. It’s tantamount to our attempt to imagine the size of an iceberg by its white top protruding over the water.

This electric train story perfectly illustrates the truthfulness of Christ’s parable to contemporary man—it unveils the false stereotypes and leads us to moral conclusions. Who did society take the malicious man yelling at the tramp for? He was a man who didn’t show any signs of sinfulness—a well-dressed middle-aged man, he seemed to be neither a drinker nor a beggar. We cannot compare him with the tramp, who spent his whole youth on drinking and was then panhandling. That tramp wasn’t even ashamed to say he wasn’t a thief, for he would be incapable of running away, and that he would squander the money the people gave him on alcohol. What a sinner!

Let us not ignore the fact that we, Christians, sometimes succumb to making similar judgments! Therefore what happened in the story should be a lesson to us, first of all. In the outcome, the passengers warmed up to the bruised tramp, who behaved more righteously than the man who “looked like a scientist and wore a pair glasses”. But why did he behave that way? I believe that we may find a clue about the behavior of that electric train Publican in his own words. Apparently, he realizes what a slave to his passion he is; he realizes that at that very moment that he would not be able to resist the temptation. He speaks about it openly and frankly. Nevertheless, the passengers sympathize with him and give him money, which cannot but instill a feeling of gratitude in him. In his heart, the gratitude bore the answer revealed by his unselfish mercy. Moreover, he was aware that “people were generous and wonderful”, that the next time they would also give him money! The “malicious looking man” looks more like the Pharisee, which is revealed by his own words full of apparent complacency and severe condemnation of the beggar.

God, save us from judging anyone! We’d better give thought to whether we behave like the “malicious looking man”. Before he yelled at the tramp, the former reached the carriage’s end. Only God knows how many people of those who didn’t give any money to the tramp judged him, but they did not dare yell at him. How many of them passed their judgment on him without even giving him a cent. By doing so, they deprived themselves of the chance to take part in the act of mercy that the tramp would soon perform. I wish at least one of them might have learned a lesson and made a promise to both God and himself that he would never judge anyone.

The Pharisee, I assume, was the one who learned the most precious lesson in the story. What the tramp did impresses even those who just read about it, not to mention the one to whom the tramp showed mercy. The tear rolling down his cheek at the end of the story proves Christ’s truth—that good overcomes evil. It must be the main conclusion we should arrive at reading this amazing, modern, true story.

Tomorrow I will travel from Moscow to Petushki.[1] Who wants to go with me?

Priest Dimitry Vydumkin
Translation by Maria Litzman


[1] Petushki is a village in Vladimir province, now famous as the place where St. Afanassy (Sakharov) (July 2, 1887 – October 28, 1962), the Holy Hierarch and Confessor of Russia, lived.
Mary2/9/2020 10:48 pm
Powerful story, but if the tramp went from car to car isn’t that a bit calculating? I have mixed feelings about that. Is that really honest? According to the conclusions, not only must I not judge the tramp (true) but I have to give him money too? Why? If he’s on that train every day going from car to car begging, am I supposed o give to him every single day? Why?
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