The tax collector, a well-known sinner who knows his own need, stands far off asking for mercy. The Pharisee, a religious leader, forgets his own need, stands tall, boasts of his good deeds and takes pride in being better than others like the tax collector. What hypocrisy.[i] The leader’s behavior doesn’t match our belief that we all are lost and need God.
The Pharisee and those who trust in themselves for whom Jesus tells this parable are probably unaware that they are so off track and don’t intend to be here. Eugene Peterson wrote: “Hypocrisy is slow-growing. In its early stages it is difficult to detect. And that is why no one is conscious of becoming a hypocrite. … Distraction from intended good ends up as hypocrisy.”[ii]
Distraction. Distractions can be good, bad, or just busy. Distractions untethered can take us far afield such that we forget where we are and where we meant to be. We can end up trusting in ourselves rather than trusting God. We get overly self-confident and have contempt for others. It’s not intentional. Distracted, we can get so lost we think we are ok and in no need of help.
Jesus’ listeners would have to have been scandalized. If there were anyone to leave the temple “justified,” surely it would be a Pharisee. Pharisees set the mark in their pious practices. Pharisees were faithful, prayerful, dependable, and principled. They were good people. Like us. Not so with tax collectors, who were the scourge of society. Tax collectors were Jews who colluded in a cruel and corrupt Roman system of legalized extortion; they were turncoats on their own people. Tax collectors were the dregs of society, and they were hated and excluded by most everyone… not including Jesus, who sought them out as dinner companions.[i]
What we hear in this Gospel lesson is not a piece of history. This is a parable Jesus tells. A parable is a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. If we are not scandalized by what Jesus’ parable means for us today, we completely miss the point of the parable. We completely miss Jesus’ point if we ever find ourselves saying, perhaps silently, “God, I thank you that I am not like so-and-so.” If so, who is it for you? It’s probably not a tax collector or a Pharisee, but it’s someone or some type. Most all of us have this unverbalized, perhaps secret list of people or types of people we find abhorrent and surely dammed, and about whom we are certain and thankful we are not like.
I am familiar with this type of list. If you have a list like this – a list of appalling people – who is on your list? Because these same people are also on Jesus’ list, the people he associates with and welcomes so indiscriminately. It seems that Jesus even loves them. And he tells us to do the same.[ii] If loving those on your unlovely list is too far of a reach – and some days it certainly is too far a reach for me to love them – then we must at least remember that the God loves them, and that the God of love is not done with them yet… nor with you and me.
[i] Matthew 9:10-17; Mark 2:15-22; Luke 5:29-39.
[ii] Luke 10:37.
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.’
When I was a boy I looked down on my Episcopalian neighbors – mostly because they played outside and watched television on Sunday and we didn’t. They didn’t go to church nearly as often as we did – and sometimes there was beer in their refrigerator. Their boys received a quarter every time they rehearsed or sang with the children’s choir at their church; we did it for free. They went to public schools; we went to Christian schools. Yes, there was a lot to be proud of, plenty of evidence that we were a notch above them on God’s scale.
But even as a boy I could see myself in this parable. The contrast between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is so stark and so dramatic that even children have a hard time missing the point. I knew my feelings of religious superiority were wrong.
Obviously, at some point I must have dropped my bias against Episcopalians. But new biases arose and the pattern repeated itself. Today the temptation is to look with contempt at biblical fundamentalists, or at the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, or at those who count themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Being a Pharisee doesn’t go away easily. I tremble a bit when I read the words that introduce this story: “He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” I have to ask myself, who are the others I regard with contempt?
Obviously this was a problem in Jesus’ day, too – hence this parable. Jesus addressed the issue more than once.
In his Sermon on the Mount he instructed his disciples not to sound the trumpets when they gave alms so that they could be seen by others, but to give secretly without drawing attention to themselves (Mt 6:2-4).
He told them not to stand and pray in conspicuous places, but to go to their rooms and shut the door and pray to the Father in secret (Mt 6:5-8).
He said, Don’t disfigure your faces when you fast so that people will notice your piety; put oil on your head and wash your face and act normally so that only God will see and know your practice (Mt 6:16-18). Spiritual disciplines lose their power when they’re done in order to draw attention to ourselves.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” Jesus says, “for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Mt 6:1). Don’t consider yourselves better than others or more righteous. “Judge not, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged” (Mt 7:1-2)
And we get it, don’t we? And yet arrogance, conceit and self-centered pride creep in, again and again and again. We find ourselves thinking, if not actually saying, “Thank God I’m not like them.”
How does it happen? How does the enemy so easily ensnare us? St Ignatius of Loyola, the 16thcentury Spanish saint and founder of the Jesuits, has an answer. It’s like this, he says:
First, we recognize that we have riches– wealth or success or physical beauty or popularity or some special talent or a spotless reputation or a good family.
Because of these riches we receive honorfrom others. They praise us, look up to us, consider us special – and we believe them.
This, says Ignatius, is what leads to arrogant pride– the pride of the Pharisee in Jesus’ story. We deem ourselves to be special, unlike others, worthy of praise and honor from others, separate from them, higher and better. Riches, Honor and Pride – that’s the progression, says Ignatius.
And it’s not just something that happens to us as individuals. It happens to groups of people, to nations, for example, and to religious groups, and to ethnic or racial groups. We long for “riches,” those things that are most valued in the world – popularity or fame, a certain lifestyle, financial security, social status, worldwide power and influence. These are the things that bring us honor and respect (or maybe fear) in the eyes of other people. And these riches and honors cause us to swell with pride. We see ourselves as better, more righteous, more deserving. And we consider with contempt those less righteous, less gifted, less influential and less worthy than ourselves.
Dean Brackley, author of the book The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, quotes a letter which a friend of his received from a leading credit card company, inviting him to apply for a new credit card – (he doesn’t say what card it is – I’ll call it the Gold Card, just for now).
Recently I invited you to apply for the GoldCard…. I believe you’ve earned this invitation. You’ve worked hard and have been recognized for your efforts. And nothing is more satisfying than achieving your own personal goals.
Now it’s time for you to carry the card that symbolizes your achievement – the GoldCard.
Only a select group will ever carry the GoldCard. So it instantly identifies you as someone special – one who expects an added measure of courtesy and personal attention. And with the GoldCard, you enjoy an impressive degree of convenience, financial flexibility and service….
TheGoldCard says more about you than anything you can buy with it. I think it’s time you joined the select group who carry it.
Here’s the message: You’re special. A cut above. Worthy of “an added measure of courtesy and personal attention.” You deserve the honor and respect of others. You’re special. The fact that you have the GoldCard puts you in a special class of people (a modern day version of the Pharisee).
These are the ways of a world gone wrong – a world infected by covetousness and greed. A world that climbs and pushes its way to the top of the ladder, often stepping over others in the process. A world that grasps after the symbols of power and success. A world of competition, a world of upward mobility….
It’s a world that creates outcasts, that values or devalues people based on their social and economic status, their gender, their sexual orientation, their race and class. At the top are the glamorous movie stars, the well-paid athletes, the successful CEOs, the rich bankers. At the bottom are the mentally ill, homosexuals, prostitutes, people with AIDS, homeless alcoholics – the people it is easiest to despise.
“Whenever one group of human beings is treated as inferior to another,” says Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, “hatred and intolerance will triumph.”
[quoted in The Washington Post, Sunday, October 23, 2010 in an article by Navanethem Pillay entitled “How We Can Fight Back Against Homophobia”]
Jesus shows us a better way. He tells us to humble ourselves, to stoop low so that we can listen and learn from the marginalized and the poor, to be indifferent to honors, to drop out of the race for social status, to put ourselves in solidarity with the needy, to cooperate rather than compete, to give rather than take. His way is a downward way, a way of service and self-offering; it is the way of humility rather than pride. “[Jesus] emptied himself,” the Scriptures tell us, “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:7). He came not to be served but to serve. He counted prostitutes and tax collectors and sinners as his friends, and ate and drank with them.
And we are to have the same mind. “Let each of you look not to your own interests,” St Paul writes to the Philippians, “but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:4-5)
There’s no room in the kingdom of God for arrogance and pride. Everyone’s equal there. There are no outcasts, no persecuted minorities, no inferior peoples.
“He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Let’s learn the lesson well. The world will be a better place.
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.