TWO MINUS ONE EQUALS NOTHING
The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is unique to Luke’s Gospel and is told as part of Jesus’ final journey toward Jerusalem. Like any parable, it points beyond the immediate circumstances of the story, and so it becomes a matter of trying to figure out what the parable means – both then and now.
Many interpretations of this parable pick up on the arrogance of the Pharisee, and so it becomes a quick and easy contrast between the “good guy” and the bad guy”, with the Pharisee being the “bad guy.” But separating them or categorizing them is not helpful and not (I think) what Jesus had in mind.
Pharisees were a definable group within the Judaism of the time. They were people who had made a special dedication of their life to God, and to preserving Jewish traditions in the face of powerful foreign influences that seemed to threaten Jewish identity and integrity. The fact that the man in Jesus’ story is flagged for arrogance is interesting because it was another group within Judaism, the Sadducees, that had most of the elites of Jewish society among its members. Pharisees were much more popular among the ordinary people than the sophisticated Sadducees.
Some of the most devout people of the day were Pharisees, and, like many Christians today, they struggled with how to live a godly life in the midst of a seemingly godless society. Good ideal, to a point. But that attitude not only can tend to create huge separations between people, ultimately it can also demean God, by suggesting God is not present (in a person or situation) when God actually is, and that is perhaps one of the motivations for Jesus telling this story.
To the original listeners, the response would be: Of course, the prayers of a righteous Pharisee would be more effective than those of a tax collector. Well, as the story suggests – not so much.
The parable is intentionally creating a caricature, so the original historical sense of “Pharisee” has already been departed from. By the late first century, “Pharisee” had become a by-word for someone who is pretentious, hypocritical, and anti-Christian. Certainly the Pharisee was full of himself, as anyone is who feels he/she is on the moral or social high ground of the moment. So, in other words, the guy in Jesus’ story was someone who did all the right things.
What would a modern day “Pharisee” be crowing about? A modern-day Pharisee might be saying: “Look at me! I re-cycle, I work out three times a week, I buy organic, and, on Sunday mornings, I play squash.” A Pharisee is someone who strives to be politically correct and right on the mark about all the important issues. Yet none of this makes him a good person and none of it is a true indication of her inner character.
But “Isn’t the Pharisee bad!” is not the point. This parable is about two men with serious incongruities in their lives, and it reveals how people deal with them differently. In doing so it points up two very different spiritual approaches – two very different ways of relating to God.
Various translations offer interesting descriptions of the Pharisee’s orientation in his prayers. One says: “He prayed thus with himself …” A Greek translation suggests he was facing into himself, almost as if to suggest he was looking in a mirror. Another possible translation might be that the Pharisee prayed “about himself.”
If Desmond Tutu told you he was fasting three days a week and tithing, you would take it seriously, but the point is, Desmond Tutu wouldn’t tell you he was fasting and praying – only Pharisees brag about their spiritual “progress” and make religion an arena for one-upmanship.
With the Pharisee, it’s all about ego: about how he compares to others; about how other people see him; about where he stands in the community. He wants to believe he is head and shoulders above the conventional folks, and he uses his time in the Temple to consolidate his status, so he tries to remind God about all his good points. It’s as if, by standing there hoping someone notices him, he’s saying: “Please! Somebody validate me – tell me all this is worth it” – because he really isn’t convinced within himself. He has no inner connection, so, as the text says, he prayed with himself, which suggests his prayer had no depth and went no further than his own mind. He comes off as obnoxious, self-righteous, and alienated.
There is a story from the Buddhist tradition of an encounter between a seeker and a sage. Nan-in, a Japanese master during the 19th Century, received a Western university professor who came to the Orient to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
The Pharisee in Jesus’ story is one of those over-bearing people whose self-esteem is too inflated. He is too full of himself — too full of self. The parable points out that his inner life is empty – he is mean-spirited, devoid of soul – devoid of any real ability to see himself in context or in relation to something much bigger than himself. He has no depth, because he dwells only in the realm of the ego. So he has this desperate need to be affirmed and flattered. It is a problem many people today have, and are equally unaware of.
This parable was aimed at those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Or, “I’m OK, but you’re not.” The Pharisee exemplified that type perfectly, and it is never very attractive, especially in the realm of spirituality.
The other man, the tax collector, may have left the Temple justified, but when he entered, his life was a mess. The Pharisee was an empty shell of a man, with no inner substance. This man’s outer life was a mess, and, because he was connected to his inner life, he was deeply troubled.
Tax people are often looked at with anxiety and hostility. Apparently, when the Romans took over a town, they held an auction and leased out the position of tax collector to the highest bidder. It was a lucrative and powerful position, but as a tax collector under the Romans he would be considered by his fellow Jews to be a collaborator, a traitor, a dishonest man, because apparently such people not only pressured the people to hand over their earnings to the occupying power, but many of them gouged people much further in order to pad their own fortunes, or turned people over to the soldiers if they couldn’t or wouldn’t pay. He would be viewed much like a drug dealer or loan shark or pimp or gangster would be today. This guy, you might say, “hasn’t got a prayer.”
Yet the character of this man rings truer than that of the Pharisee – he seems more genuine. Whereas the Pharisee’s boasting comes off as false and hollow, this man’s humble honesty seems more likely to get him somewhere.
His profession is an ugly one, and he needs make some changes. The point is, he knows it. The Pharisee is so full of himself he can’t see where he is off track. The Pharisee directs attention toward himself, to feed his ego, while the tax collector actually seeks to address himself to God.
The tax collector’s situation is one many can identify with, because many of us get caught up in jobs, companies and situations we are not proud of, in assignments, responsibilities and circumstances where our values, our ethics and our characters get bent out of shape.
While the Pharisee looks around for external validation, the tax collector has the wisdom to look within himself – he has the wisdom to acknowledge his faults and examine them and confess them. He knows you can’t just address the external aspects of life without also addressing the internal. So, like the prodigal son, he makes his confession and opens his heart with all its conflicts and wounds, and he finds healing. Nowadays, we tend to avoid that kind of guilt-driven, self-hating theology, so we have done away with confessionals and confessions alike. Ironically, though, in doing so we may be encouraging people to be more like the narcissistic Pharisee in the story.
This parable answers a couple of important questions that many people struggle with:
Does someone who appears to be unworthy or unrighteous have any hope of connecting with God? The answer is Yes.
Is someone who does all these righteous and good things, like fasting, tithing and praying, automatically connected with God? The answer is No.
This story, like the Zen story, is about more than the tea. It’s about the struggle that goes on in the Temple of every human heart, between that part of ourselves we believe is acceptable (that up-front persona we offer for public consumption and approval), and the side of ourselves we are ashamed of and tempted to hide (that part that hangs back in the shadows).
It’s about our own incongruities. The two men were disconnected, not only from God but from each other. As in every community, so in every human being, there are persons and pieces of ourselves of which we are completely unconscious, or which we would prefer to leave at the curb. The two men in the Temple actually needed each other, and they were both seeking the one thing that would heal and reconcile them, which is the Spirit of God. Every story about Jesus in some way is about integration, reconciliation, healing — about finding the shalom of God where wolf and lamb dwell together in peace – a place where, as the prophet Joel says, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”
In that divided and conflicted world, Jesus pointed the way toward integrity and wholeness. May we always have the vision and courage to do the same.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers
RCL appointed readings:
Joel 2:23-32 O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame. Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.
Luke 18:9-14 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”