The story of the Pharisee and the tax collector is not one of the more famous of our Lord’s parables, though it has long been a favorite of mine, in large part since it is depicted in a beautiful stained glass window in the abbey church where my brother monks and I pray each day. The window was made in the early 1900’s in Munich and shipped with all the others in our church to Latrobe, being installed in the transept of the church where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved.
Many of our stained glass windows are easily identifiable: the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, the Good Shepherd, the nativity, and so forth. However, only a few of the many visitors whom I have shown around the church have been able to recognize the window illustrating the important lesson from the Bible we hear today. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is found only in St. Luke’s gospel, and is only read once every three years at Sunday mass, and on the Saturday of the third week of Lent each year.
As is normally the case in our liturgies we are prepared for the gospel by the Old Testament reading and the Psalm; in the first reading from Sirach we are reminded that God judges justly and shows no favorites: “he is not unduly partial toward the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed” (Sir 35:16). The Psalmist reinforces the notion that “the Lord hears the cry of the poor” (Ps 34:7). The first part of Sirach’s teaching, that God is not unduly partial to the weak, is expressed in the ancient manuscripts of this book through a colorful idiom literally meaning “to receive the face of a person”. We might think of a sly con artist smiling broadly and welcoming someone they only want to cheat out of some money—God does not put on such false shows. Nonetheless, God does receive the prayer of the poor, and in fact has a predisposition toward them: not in the dishonest way that a con artist affects, but in a genuine and loving recognition of their vulnerability and indeed a desire to be close to them in their humble state.
When it comes to the gospel we hear that the Pharisee approached the presence of the Lord in the Temple with arrogance and a sense of entitlement, saying to himself: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income” (Luke 18:11-12). He is essentially justifying himself before God, “smiling broadly” as I put it earlier and expecting that he can manipulate God by this public show of piety. The tax collector by contrast stands off in the distance and strikes his breast saying: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). The former was taken by pride and the mistaken notion that he could “win” the Lord’s approval by false piety, the latter understood properly that God shows no partiality, but is rich in mercy to those who revere him and who are humble of heart.
Every time I see the window representing this parable in the Basilica I think of the many temptations we all face to try to “sway” God or to win God’s favor, as foolish as those thoughts are. As we listen carefully to the gospel this Sunday let us resolve not to be proud like the Pharisee of our Lord’s parable, but rather to embrace in humility the weak and the poor whom we encounter daily, and to rejoice in the brilliance of God’s gracious mercy which delivers us from our own weakness into his radiant light.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.