Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. So begins one of Jesus’ most familiar parables [Luke 18:9-14].
For many, perhaps, the point of the parable may be missed due to a negative and caricatured image of the Pharisees, reinforced by centuries of anti-Semitism and contempt for Judaism.
In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were a deeply devout movement of lay people, preoccupied with being holy and fulfilling God’s Law. They were probably among the most religiously observant and morally upstanding people in 1st-century Israel. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, it was the Pharisees who rebuilt Jewish life and reconstituted it in its post-biblical form (what we now call Orthodox Judaism). In effect, the Pharisees (and their followers) and those who became known as Christians (and their followers) were the two strains of Judaism that survived the Temple’s destruction. So they inevitably saw each other as rivals – one reason why the New Testament tends to highlight stories of Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees.
But the New Testament also preserves the memory of good relations Jesus had with various Pharisees and some important beliefs that they shared in common. In any case, we can only appreciate the parable if we understand that the Pharisee is the presumptively good person in the story – a good, religiously and morally upstanding person. Only then will we appreciate the surprise at the end.
Now the Pharisee, we are told, prayed: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous … I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”
Presumably, he was telling the truth. The parable would make no sense if he were a phony, a hypocrite, who didn’t live the way he said he did. No, the whole point is precisely that he is a religiously and morally upstanding person, who faithfully and dutifully obeys God’s law. Indeed, he does even more than the minimum the Law requires. So, if anyone were going to go home justified, shouldn’t it be the Pharisee?
But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Like the Pharisee, the tax collector was also telling the truth. Without knowing anything else about him, we know that, as a tax collector, he worked for the Romans. God had given the land of Israel as part of his permanent promise to his people forever. So to collaborate with the Romans was widely seen as self-evidently sinful. Everyone would have understood that. Hence, the tax collector’s honest prayer: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
But God had long been in the habit of being merciful – all the way back to when, instead of ending their lives after their sin, God instead made clothes for Adam and Eve. So, as surely everyone would have understood, if the tax collector were truly sorry for his sins, God might indeed be merciful even to him, and he too might go home justified.
That would have made a nice, happen ending to the parable.
Jesus, however, had a surprise in store, which must have totally shocked his audience. “I tell you, the tax collector went home justified, not the Pharisee.”
The shocker was not that God’s mercy might extend even to the tax collector and that he also could go home justified. The surprise was that the Pharisee – in spite of all the honest good that he was doing – did not!
So what went wrong?
In acknowledging his sin, the tax collector acknowledged that only God could get him out of the hole he had hopelessly dug for himself. But the Pharisee, Jesus tells us, spoke his prayer to himself. For all his moral correctness, even as he prayed he remained focused on himself – as if he, on his own, were the source of his good works, as if being justified in relation to God could ever be his own accomplishment.
That was – and is – a universal human temptation – as common in the 21st century as it was in the 1st. We all want praise and recognition for our accomplishments.. Yet didn’t Jesus, just 3 weeks ago, warn us? When you have done all you have been commanded to do, say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”
If only the Pharisee had heard that and taken those words to heart! Then he might have understood – as the tax collector, whatever his other faults, evidently did – that God didn’t owe him anything. The kingdom of God is not about what I have accomplished. In fact, it’s not about me at all. It’s about God and about experiencing God’s great mercy God in my life, and so allowing myself to be changed by that experience of God’s mercy here and now, so as to continue to experience God’s mercy in his kingdom for all eternity.
Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 23, 2016.