I’M OK AND YOU’RE NOT:
THE LESSON OF THE PHARISEE AND THE TAX COLLECTOR
Today’s Gospel reading appears only in the Gospel According to Luke; it is a parable about two very different men coming to the same place to worship. Jesus chose to portray two people who were both Jews, but at opposite ends of the social and spiritual spectrum.
Jesus told this story, as it says, because of “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” So this is a parable that is meant to challenge the arrogant and entitled and to correct the tendency use our religious practices to distance ourselves from others.
We might start by asking: Do I identify with either of the two characters?
To set the scene: Tax Collectors were despised because they were seen as collaborating with the Roman invaders. At the best of times, people don’t like tax collectors, but at the time of the Roman occupation, people were being squeezed for almost everything they had. Tax Collectors were considered sell-outs, and as such were social outcasts, and the target of a lot of resentment.
Pharisees, on the other hand, were generally very well respected. They were a spiritual and moral renewal movement within Judaism, trying to stand against the flood of foreign influences which they saw as polluting the purity of the religious system of Judaism as they had known it, and undermining the distinct identity of Jews as God’s chosen people.
So the parable seems to be a clear good guy/bad guy story. The audience would have immediately recognized the characters, with the Pharisee likely anticipated as the sympathetic character. But in Luke’s version of the way of Jesus, the stories often have an unexpected twist.
Up until the time of when Jesus delivered this parable, Jewish people had been convinced that salvation was gained by observance of the Law, and Pharisees were people who applied themselves to this command with serious effort. The wisdom of this way was expressed repeatedly in the Hebrew scriptures. This passage from Psalm 15 would be typical: “O Lord, who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right … in whose eyes the wicked are despised.” It was the way of ascent – making the effort to elevate oneself above the sordid ways of the world, to find that pure place where God was assumed to be. Of course he expects to be rewarded and respected for his faithfulness. But there is to be no gold star for the Pharisee in Jesus’ story.
You can sympathize with the Pharisee, looking at the ways of the world, with its dishonesty, violence and corruption – of course we don’t want to be that way. And, as many of us might, he begins to express his sense of disappointment – even anger – about the way of the world, epitomized by the despicable tax collector having the gall to dare to come and share that sacred space with him. Many of us, if we saw some notorious criminal sitting in a back pew might have reacted the same way: “What’s HE doing here?”
The Pharisee comes to church to celebrate his place at the centre of things. He not only feels he is one of the chosen, he is a gatekeeper, a defender of the faith, and so he is hyper-critical of anyone unworthy coming into his sacred space. He has no doubt that he belongs there, but he’s very unwilling to grant others the same right. Quite unconsciously, it seems, he has become the proverbial dog in the manger or the pig at the trough.
Unfortunately, much of the power and appeal of religious life relies on this attitude of “I’m the real thing (and you’re not)” – this sense of being special or chosen, and thus distinct from or better than others. I have come to think that the concept of “chosen people” is an unfortunate expression of human insecurity rather than divine will. It merely intensifies the tendency toward division (which St Paul identified as a sign that our lower nature is at work) and nullifies God’s summons to unity.
For Jesus, a Pharisee is someone who begins to take things for granted, who comes to believe that he/she is the epitome of faithfulness, a person whose sense of identification with “God” leads to a distancing from other people and human life in general. There is a sharp contrast with the tax collector, who appealed directly to God for mercy, who remains very aware of his humanity, his failings, and literally beats himself up about it.
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus says. The Gospel points to the gift of humility. St Paul’s great spiritual counsel here was to say “in humility, regard others as better than yourselves,” because Paul knew the power of the ego to distort, to make ourselves the centre of the universe, to see ourselves as being above others, and to close up not only to others but also to our own humanity.
Humility is the gift of proper perspective, that helps us to see ourselves in the larger context, keeps us open and flexible, whereas pride tends to close us off from others and from new possibilities. Humility moves us toward the concept of “one among many” rather than separation driven by pride and prejudice.
Humility is also the capacity to be able to acknowledge our failings. Today there is so much focus on self-esteem and the “You have to accept me exactly as I am” attitude, that people don’t change, they don’t grow, and they don’t experience transformation, because they don’t know that they should or could do so. The Pharisee had become the proverbial full cup into which nothing more could be poured, while the Tax Collector was deeply conscious of his need for transformation and of his own powerlessness to accomplish it. Therefore God could work in him in a way he couldn’t with the Pharisee. Teresa of Avila said: “The only sound foundation of a genuine spirituality is humility.”
The reason why Jesus told the story was because of those who treated others with contempt. In the parable itself, the reason the two men go to the Temple is to pray. They’re both Jews but they believe they have nothing in common. Beatrice Bruteau said “The work of prayer is to transform our sense of identity.” The two men have very different approaches.
I love the old King James translation of this passage, “the Pharisee prayed thus with himself . . .” I think that captures more accurately what Jesus is saying: that this man’s prayers went nowhere, his time in the Temple wasted because he no longer knew how to connect with God, having become a prisoner of his own self-righteousness. Out of touch with God, he had also become closed to the world around him – cynical, hostile, suspicious of everyone else – he had lost touch with his own humanity.
It’s easy to respect and admire someone like the Pharisee who appears to do everything right. It’s not so easy to understand the person like the tax collector, who’s struggling, who’s different, and seems to be a failure. Yet as Jesus tells us, it’s the Pharisee who has the real problem, not the Tax Collector.
The Pharisee seems to come to the Temple to gloat about how fulfilling his life is; the Tax Collector comes to acknowledge and face into the emptiness and futility of his existence. You would think he would have far less to gain from being there than the Pharisee, but in Luke’s Gospel especially, the surprise twist is always lurking.
We have come to know that Luke’s Gospel speaks for the outsider, and reminds us of the voices from the margins. In Luke’s version of the Good News, the mighty are dethroned and the lowly are raised up. In Luke’s version of the story of the Incarnation, we come to know the God of downward mobility.
The Pharisee is consumed by the superficial aspects of religious practice, closed up to himself and others, eager to reassure himself that he and people like the tax collector are not in the same league, while the tax collector opens himself up, acknowledges his human nature, and in the depths of his despair, becomes open to the love of God.
So it is the tax collector who goes away justified (or aligned) with God, Jesus says. The good people of the city must have just about fallen over to hear a Pharisee portrayed in such a negative light, and the tax collector coming off as the hero – like speaking negatively of Jean Vanier and speaking of someone like Bernie Madoff as a hero, or suggesting that a gangster could be a better person than a doctor.
This is the shock of it, but what the Pharisee was really most incensed about was the idea that there could be room in God’s mercy for both of them. The Pharisee in his perfectionism resents the tax collector looking for “cheap grace,” whereas the Pharisee knows exactly how much his exertions cost him, at least financially. Perhaps he is afraid that all of his effort is really less about God than about “keeping up appearances” in any case. He wants his religion to keep him away from people like this.
I asked at the beginning if you could identify with either of the characters. I think that the truth is that both of them are us.
Like the Martha and Mary story, you begin to get the sense that maybe Jesus is not talking just about two separate people or in a larger sense about two ways of relating to God, but that he is pointing to conflicting tendencies within ourselves, speaking to the way we become closed to ourselves, and to the Christ who shows up as a stranger at our own door.
Both personas are extremes – the one way too good, the other way too bad; the one so full of hubris that he has lost touch with his humanity; the other tending toward self-hatred and despair; the one so much in the spotlight he’s over-exposed; the other so full of shame that he is hidden in the darkness and virtually lost to the world. The parable points up this painful paradox of the human condition: the more we tend toward God the more we can tend to despise the world; and the more we get enmeshed in the world, the more we can tend to distance ourselves from God, and hate ourselves. These are problems any person on the Christian path must contend with.
The story reveals that God is a God of love and understanding, not a God of rules and performance. God is personal, not a set of formulas that can be mastered like a Meccano set or a jigsaw puzzle. And our real duty, to be like God, is to be merciful, as Jesus taught. For the Pharisee, the mercy he might have extended toward the tax collector would have been mercy extended toward himself.
Ultimately, the story is really about God, and how God’s love can bring peace and reconciliation when we are stalled or conflicted, enabling us to connect with those lost, unrecognized or despised parts of ourselves, that we find in the face of the stranger – and in the mirror.
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you. (Derek Walcott)
As we open our hearts to God, we may find that we become integrated with ourselves, that the pieces of ourselves we hate and like to complain about by pointing out the faults of others, gradually become familiar and develop compassion for each other. And so the reconciliation of the world continues in us. Thanks be to God in Christ!
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
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.”