Luke introduces the parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector with the statement that it is addressed “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” Two men go up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee, standing in a prominent place, thanks God that he is not like the rest of humanity—or even like the tax collector he had noticed. He also reminds God that he fasts twice a week, and pays tithes on his whole income. The tax collector, standing at a distance, beats his breast and prays, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus then remarks that the tax collector who humbled himself before God went home justified, not the Pharisee who had exalted himself.
Jesus chose to make the Pharisee a principal character of his parable because Pharisees were the most highly respected religious group in the community. Pharisees were intensely committed to the religious traditions of the people. They refused any collaboration with the occupying Roman military power. They kept the commandments, voluntarily fasted beyond the obligatory annual day of fasting, and even cut down on their standard of living to support the needs of the temple.
Jesus chose a tax collector as the opposite principal character because tax collectors were generally held in contempt by the people. They were not only collaborators with the hated Roman oppressors, but by collecting funds to support a corrupt imperial system, made it impossible for many people to fulfill their financial obligations to the temple. These petty government officials were adept at defrauding people by various strong-arm methods, and were regarded as no better than robbers.
The Pharisee of the parable had every good reason to thank God for the worthiness of his own life, and to despise the tax collector as one who was a threat not only to the temple, but to everything that was worthwhile and holy. When Jesus at the conclusion of his parable remarked that the tax collector went home justified, not the Pharisee, it must have seemed like a shockingly unfair conclusion. He had taken the risk of pressing the parable to the edge of unfairness in order to teach something essential about the way we stand with God.
Jesus in his parable obviously is not advocating collaboration with an oppressive military power, cheating people, moral relativism, or much less, forbidding evaluation of evil behavior or false teaching.
The Pharisee is condemned because he assumed God’s role in judging the spiritual worth of a fellow human being. He exalted himself above the rest of humanity, and despised another through the comparisons he fashioned in his prayer.
It is incidental whether the Pharisee or the tax collector is the one who exalts himself in the sight of God. In today’s culture, Jesus would probably have someone like the tax collector exalt himself and despise others in his prayer: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector.” The desire to exalt oneself can always find a reason—even one’s humility.
Today at our Eucharist we ask to be freed from illusions that we have fashioned about ourselves, and pray for the grace of sharing in Christ’s humility. Through his authentic humility, we will be able to stand before God in our own unique truth, and thus make it possible to receive divine mercy and go home justified.
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.