The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a familiar story to many. Here is this self obsessed Pharisee placing himself in a prominent position in front of the crowd and praying a self righteous prayer – in effect gloating over that other player in Jesus’ story, the wretched tax collector. And yes, the tax collector is a miserable specimen, in all probability a man with a reputation for dishonesty and by virtue of his occupation, one identified as a collaborator with the hated Romans. As if that wasn’t enough, as a handler of money and an agent of a Gentile Empire the tax collector was also ritually unclean. If you want to get a feel for the loathing he must have experienced, just look at the writings of Jews in the aftermath of the Second World War as they talked of those Jews who had joined the Jewish Nazis or turned against their fellows in the concentration camps. The tax collector in the parable must have experienced a similar feeling of becoming a social pariah. As Luke reports the story, the tax collector is clearly only too aware of his own shortcomings and believes he can only pray for mercy.
And of course each time we encounter this story we all think we can relate to Jesus’ conclusion. Of course the tax collector was the one who finds justification before God with his act of humble and even desperate contrition, whereas the Pharisee for all his pompous obedience to the law has somehow failed.
Our preference to associate with humility – well at least in theory(!) – certainly lines us up with one of the key features of Christ’s teaching. St. Augustine once wrote, “Should you ask me what is the first thing in religion, I would reply, “The first, the second, and third thing therein is humility.” “ He goes on to say that without humility, all the other virtues are mere pretence.
Yet I wonder if the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is always totally understood? The central theme of the story raises the question about which of the two is justified by faith, yet in terms of standard theology, at first glance surely the Pharisee has travelled a good way down the path of faith. He obviously believes in the law, and the customs of his contemporary Church. He follows the main injunctions to the letter, not only giving a tithe, but tithing all his possessions. Isn’t this going the second mile, which is the sort of thing for which Jesus would normally show approval? So what is amiss?
For me the Pharisee only does what is all too common today and misunderstands what faith is supposed to be about. Faith we should remind ourselves is not so much about belief but about being faithful to the spirit of the belief, and more particularly to the extent we live the things we say we trust. Greek word for faith (Pistis) comes from the Greek Goddess of the same name. Pistis (Πίστις) was the personification of good faith, trust and reliability. Claiming belief or making a deliberate outward show of faith is simply not enough to make one seem to have these characteristics, and perhaps before we take too much comfort in our status as Church members or Christians , we should remind ourselves that many convicted criminals including a good number on death row in US prisons classify themselves as Christian.
Bill Long in his exposition and commentary on this passage reminds us that although everybody claims to associate with the abject humility of the tax collector, he is yet to meet anyone who is prepared to associate themselves with the Pharisee. Sarah Wiles goes one better and tells the story of a preacher who once preached a sermon on this passage and finished with this heartfelt prayer. “O God, we give thanks that you have given us grace so that we are not like this Pharisee”….. Whoops …….– yet is that so very different from being scornful of members of some denomination or religion where their background has caused them to express their faith in very different ways to ourselves?
When we think of the number ( and I would have to admit sometimes that number includes me!) prepared to make disparaging comments about those with other beliefs and other lifestyles, we need to take a good hard look at ourselves to be certain there is not something of the Pharisee in most of us.
This attitude where we believe we are entitled to set ourselves above weaker members of the community, and that superiority often justified by the most dubious reasons, is at the heart of this parable.
Again the Greek is interesting. The Pharisee we should note stood …. what was it again…..Pros Heaton which superficially means “by himself”. However in that parable context there is another possible translation – namely that he prayed not to God but to himself. I concede that he started his prayer with a term for God – so at one level it appears addressed to God, yet that doesn’t make the words mean it is a prayer genuinely addressed to God. Like some prayers we occasionally hear in public worship, there is always a suspicion that at least sometimes such prayer is a self serving performance for public effect, and here in terms of the Pharisee’s prayer, the words suggest that it is a product of total self-absorption.
That the tax collector stood at some distance is not just commentary on the tax collector’s frame of mind, but also a commentary on his awareness of the judgemental attitude of the others who were present. Before we decide we ourselves are not pharisaic in our attitudes perhaps we should reflect on whether or not all appear happy to share our company. What signals do you think we might have been unconsciously sending to the so-called street people if they do not seek our company? I can indeed understand why most communities are not particularly welcoming to those who are different particularly when the new-comers’ religious or ethnic dress or habits seem foreign. We do so like a feeling of common and safe familiarity with our own surroundings and a community who relates to us as we relate to the community. On the other hand I am sure most have at least heard the expression: “that since they come to our country the newcomers have to learn to conform to our customs”. I wonder if it ever occurs to us that this might be saying something about us as hosts rather than saying something about those who are new-comers? Do you think – even if the new-comers are maybe mistaken – do you think that just maybe our visitors are picking up the unspoken message – “ Thank God we are not like them”. Even something as commonplace as reflecting on those who stand apart during morning tea after church may tell just as much about ourselves as those who appear reluctant to join us.
William Barclay once told the story of a judge who was an active member of church. His church had started a mission church out in the country. It became their custom that once a year, around Christmas time, the whole congregation of this small mission church would come into the city and worship with the downtown church.
When it came time for communion, the judge found kneeling next to a man from the mission church a new convert who in his previous life also happened to be a convicted robber sent to prison by that very same judge
A friend of the judge was most impressed, “Isn’t it a miracle what God has done in that man’s life.” he said.
The judge replied, “That may be so, but it’s a greater miracle what God has done in my life.”
His friend was puzzled so the judge went on, “I was raised in a loving home. I never went without anything. I had the finest education that could be provided. I think it’s a greater miracle that God could get through to me and show me that I stood in need of a saviour as much as that robber.”
When Jesus is quoted as saying that the tax collector went home justified in the sight of God there is an underlying question which should prick our consciences. The question is do you think the tax collector also goes home justified in the sight of the on-lookers? Well – does he? – for in one sense we are among the onlookers.
We are on-lookers not only to this as a New Testament story, but to the repeated parable in all the forms it continues to take today. Just as St Augustine draws attention to the centrality of humility, we need to be alert to our own tendencies to parade our superiority to those whose past and present setting leaves them vulnerable to our judgement and derision.
We are in need of our saviour just as much as William Barclay’s humble judge or the parable’s penitent tax collector.
Pistis we are reminded was the Greek Goddess personifying all that was good and true, for that is what the Greeks understood faith to be. As our lives continue to take shape and form we too, individually, will no doubt continue to shape and personify what is most important to each one of us. We leave the last word to St Augustine. Without humility, all the other virtues are mere pretence.