A Bit of the Pharisee in Me?
I guess 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. This prayer in effect is gloating over that other player in Jesus’ story, the wretched tax collector.
True the tax collector is a miserable specimen, in all probability a man with a reputation for dishonesty. By virtue of his occupation, he is also identified as a collaborator with the hated Romans. In the eyes of the Pharisees, as a handler of money and an agent of a Gentile Empire, the tax collector was seen as 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. Remember the tax collector was the one who finds justification before God with his act of humble and even desperate contrition, whereas, of course the Pharisee for all his pompous obedience to the customs of his religion is not the one Jesus praises.
We like to think we have a preference to associate with humility – Ummm … well at least in theory(!) – and if true, this 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? Did we happen to notice in terms of standard theology, at least 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?
In an age where we are surrounded by those with different beliefs is it surprising we treat some as worse than ours. I heard one self claimed man of faith saying that while he supposed it was possible to be a good Muslim he thought that when they died they might be better not to pack sunglasses – but rather a fire-extinguisher. Yet faith is far more than being called Methodist, Presbyterian or whatever our Church membership certificate says. We might even need reminding faith is not so much about passive 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. 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 at present on death row in US prisons classify themselves as Christian.
I guess most of us associate with the abject humility of the tax collector, I don’t know how many would go out of their way to get to know the modern equivalents of the tax collector. I am also not so sure how many would be prepared to claim that their daily behaviour and attitudes have nothing in common with the Pharisee.
I once heard the story of a preacher who 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”….Well hold on a minute. 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? Our equivalent Christian today would show humility in the way they related to the streeties, Mormons and JW’s. That us?
Well Papakura is blessed with plenty that some are too proud to associate with – don’t forget that was what identified what was wrong with the Pharisee. He didn’t want to associate with the tax collector. Can you think of anyone you know who prefers not to associate themselves with those rejected by society? There are some who walk the streets of our town centre who don’t know the names of any of our regular beggars. There are some who sail past those thought of by many as religious nutters – the JWs, the Mormons, the Hare Krishnas. Is that perhaps like saying that Thank God we are not like them?
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 I wonder if 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 judgmental 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 himself kneeling next to a man who was a new convert. The only problem was 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 onlookers? Well – does he? – for in one sense we are among the onlookers.
We are onlookers 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 judgment 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”.