Sometimes we read today’s Gospel passage about the tax collector and the Pharisee in the Temple with an air of ‘superiority’ – especially if we are reading it in Church. We might think we are ‘better’ than the Pharisee. We might read it with a sense of humility, being more humble than the tax collector. In either view, we need to understand not only the context of the parable Jesus relates, but the heart of the message.
This was not particularly a “swipe” at the Pharisees as a general group; nor was Jesus suggesting that what tax collectors in Israel were doing to their own people in extorting money and living opulent lifestyles was acceptable. He was using figures familiar to the people in their own culture as reference points to make His point.
What was His point? St. Luke relates how Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
Pharisees were a lay movement concerned with preserving the law of Moses and ensuring that that law, which was as much a part of their religion, history and culture as anything, was lived out amongst the people. As with any group, there would be those who carried things to extremes, considering themselves to be the final word and paying extreme attention to details, losing site of the big picture; or those who considered themselves more important than the message that they were to be delivering and living out. We can see this reflected in our own society – every organization has within it, people who get so caught up in the rules and regulations that they don’t pay attention to what the ‘end point’ of those rules and regulations is.
What this suggests is that not all, or even most Pharisees were legalistic and overbearing – it suggests there were some, just like any other group today.
With the tax collector, those who collaborated with the Roman occupiers, their particular ‘trade’ was considered traitorous to the other children of Israel. They over-collected taxes to pad their own lifestyles, and by associating with the Romans, made themselves unfit to participate in Temple activities. Many used the force of Roman troops that were part of their ‘office’ to extort money from their own people, and many lived only concerned with their own wealth, comfort and privilege.
The example suggests, again, that while many of the tax collectors fit this description, not all of them did.
Maybe if we look at our own modern culture, we could see similar examples in our own secular world; we could substitute other fields for our principle characters; maybe people who consider themselves better than others because they belong to the ‘right crowd’ – religiously or secularly- versus people who have isolated themselves through their own actions, and recognize they are isolated.
Think about government agencies; the popular myth might be that they treat you like a number, not a person – and yet when we deal individually with the people who work in these places, we find they are people just like us; maybe at work they go out of their way to help others; outside work they are generous and caring. We could say there is a stereotype, but not all , or even most fit that stereotype.
We might say church organizations are full of people who are concerned only with processes and not people, with rules rather than compassion; and yet we find that when we deal with these people one on one, again we find that very few actually fit that stereotype.
At the opposite end of the scale, we may think of jail inmates with contempt; as dangerous, hard people. Yet we may find that individually they may be compassionate, generous and humble. Yet again, perhaps very few fit the stereotype.
In this parable, Jesus speaks to all of us regarding our own opinions of our own righteousness before God, and our contempt of others. We are to diligently guard against falling into this mindset ourselves. He did not provide this parable as a means of patting ourselves on the back and pointing at others with contempt. The point of this parable was to remind us all of what our internal disposition should be whenever we approach God.
We need to recognize that everything is gift; undeserved, unearned, freely-given blessings from God. We have no right to demand or feel entitled to God’s grace because of anything we have done or said in our lives. If we participate in devotional practices, we do it out of love and for honour of God; not because God will be impressed with us or ‘owe’ us anything after. When we approach God, it should be as one who recognizes that we have been given far more than we could possible earn or deserve – we have been given the opportunity to live in relationship with the Creator of all.
It should be in a spirit of humility, recognizing our own limitations, that we approach God; God who is always willing to forgive, to provide, to love us, no matter who we are, what we have done, or where we have been.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!