He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11The 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. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13But 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!” 14I 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.’
I’ve sometimes wondered what it would have been like to have seen Jesus in person, but I’m not sure I would have always enjoyed being part of his audience.
The gospel writer tells us that he “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (v.9). And I suspect it wasn’t addressed to just a few individuals. Jesus told it because he recognized that even the best of us are prone to see ourselves as “righteous.” I have no doubt that this story made some of his listeners – especially the Pharisees in the crowd – squirm a bit. Others may have initially enjoyed seeing their religious leaders squirm, only to realize that they had fallen into the exact same trap by thinking, “God, I thank you that I am not like the Pharisee.” Oops. Gotcha.
Of course, that’s the danger we all face when hearing this parable. It’s easy to portray the Pharisee as the bad guy and point a condemning finger at him, but when we do, we become just like him. We’ve all been guilty of this.
To actually appreciate this parable, we have to understand that Pharisees were not “bad guys.” If they were, the story would not have worked. The punchline depends on their good reputation. The story is only shocking because they were highly respected.
The Pharisees were a highly educated and admirable sect with Judaism. They were known for their ability to interpret the Scripture, for their right living, and for their prayer. They refused to swear allegiance to Caesar. Their name, “Pharisee,” means “separated one” and they saw themselves as ones set apart, even from the Jewish community, for a particular role (which is, by the way, much like the way that monks see themselves and their calling). They believed they had to remain pure and clean to do their job. Their main focus was to obey the laws of God and to help others to do the same.
One commentator describes their contribution in this way:
“The Pharisees preserved faith in God even under the crushing force of Roman military domination, and they preserved it by maintaining clarity about the way the goodness of God ought to shape all of human life.” (Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Luke)
In his prayer, the Pharisee tells the truth. He fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of his income. He leads an honorable life. I would imagine that most priests would love to have more people in their congregations who cared enough to fast and to tithe, who studied and lived by the Scriptures, and who dedicated themselves to living pure and exemplary lives. People like this are the pillars of the Church.
And why shouldn’t he express gratitude to God that he is able to do these things? Let me ask you this: Is it wrong to be grateful that you find prayer not only possible but deeply meaningful? Is it wrong to be glad that you have opportunities to engage in ministry projects that benefit the needy in your community? And if you are able to avoid committing crimes or cheating on your spouse, is it wrong to be thankful for the strength of character that keeps you from walking down these destructive paths?
The problem is not with the Pharisee himself or with the way that he is living his life. Nor is it that he feels and expresses gratitude that he is able to do these things. The problem is with making himself the focus of attention and with comparing himself favorably with the tax collector – because the moment he makes this comparison, he has shifted his focus from being grateful to God to being grateful for himself. The moment we begin to stack up our lives against the lives of those around us, the focus shifts to what we do, how we act, what we perform. It’s no longer about God; it’s about us.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next [person]…. It is the comparison that makes you proud; the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.”
This is the problem: that we trust in ourselves that we are righteous, and regard others with contempt (v.9). And it’s so easy to do! It’s so easy to divide humanity into groups, to decide who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys,” to draw a line between who’s “in” and who’s “out,” between who is acceptable and who isn’t. And the minute we make these distinctions, we align ourselves with the Pharisee.
Over here is the Publican – a tax collector and a sinner, a traitor to his own people. He knows he is hated and despised – and not without cause, because he is an instrument of oppression, a collaborator with the Roman occupiers, and ritually unclean. “Tax collectors are not merely ‘misunderstood,’” writes David Schnasa Jacobsen, “they are on the wrong side religiously, politically and economically.” (New Proclamation, Year C, 2007)
The Tax collector doesn’t dare to lift his eyes to heaven. He has no means by which to claim righteousness. He has done nothing of merit; in fact, he has done much to offend God. He doesn’t try to rationalize his actions or justify himself. He feels the weight of his guilt, and he throws himself on the mercy of God. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (v.13)
“I tell you,” Jesus says, “this man went down to his home justified rather than the other” (v.14).
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “A great man is always willing to be little.” Jesus says, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (v.14).
The difference between these two prayers is that the prayer of the tax collector is addressed to God and God alone; it is an open and honest prayer, seeking nothing but the mercy of God. The Pharisee’s prayer is different: though it may be spoken to God, it is really about the Pharisee himself. And it is about him, in comparison to the one who stands afar off. It is a prayer of self-justification, and its tone is one of condescension.
Most of us will invoke almost anything to justify ourselves before others. We drop into our conversations little references to our background, our accomplishments, our children, our good works, our education, our financial status, our political views, our religious practice, our extensive knowledge, our athletic prowess, our important work, our up-scale neighborhood… I suspect we do this, in part, because society is relentless in demanding proofs and justifications from us, and it’s easy to take the bait.
“As long as we continue to live as if we are what we do, what we have, and what other people think about us,” writes Henri Nouwen, “we will remain filled with judgments, opinions, evaluations, and condemnations. We will remain addicted to putting people and things in their ‘right’ place.” These two things are closely linked: self-justification and contempt for others.
But self-justification doesn’t work, and it isn’t necessary, because in truth, God accepts us just the way we are. Period.
This Pharisee and this tax collector can stand together on common ground if they both will see that their hope is not in themselves, but in God. We can stand on common ground with all manner of people if we will see that we are united in our desperate need for God. When we acknowledge our need for God and our oneness with all humanity, we no longer need to justify ourselves. We will be able to drop all comparisons with others. And we will begin to enter into the “freedom of the children of God” who know that their righteousness depends not on what they have done for God, but what God has done for them. This is the foundation of the gift of humility, to recognize that God is God, and that we are not God.
“What makes humility so desirable,” writes 20th century British author Monica Baldwin, “is the marvelous thing it does to us; it creates in us a capacity for the closest possible intimacy with God.” The tax collector found this intimacy; the Pharisee did not.
Do you see yourself in this Pharisee? Are you upright, respectable, and perhaps a bit self-righteous? Or do you see yourself in this tax collector – more of an outcast, with little to be proud of? Either way, you stand before God as one in need of mercy. Either way, the only One who can save you is God.
Permit me to close with a prayer of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Let us pray.
Deliver me, O Jesus,
From the desire of being loved,
From the desire of being extolled,
From the desire of being honored,
From the desire of being praised,
From the desire of being preferred,
From the desire of being consulted,
From the desire of being approved,
From the desire of being popular,
From the fear of being humiliated,
From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of suffering rebukes,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being wronged,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
From the fear of being suspected.
(A Simple Path, p.37)
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.