Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Luke 18: 9-14           
Jesus told this parable to those who thought they were very righteous and looked down on everyone else: “Two men went to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up front by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get to the temple.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner. I tell you that this tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus has a way of turning our preconceived notions upside down. Over the past few months we’ve heard a couple of gospels that have ended with an unexpected twist. We heard how a priest and a Levite, the Jewish equivalent of a deacon, crossed the street to avoid helping a man who had been beaten unconscious by robbers and left to die in the gutter. It took a Samaritan, a resident from the wrong side of the tracks, a despised foreigner from a tribe that proper Jewish society looked down upon as a bunch of ungodly social outcasts, to stop and treat the wounded man with compassion and love. Jesus tells us that this Samaritan, this despised social outcast, was much closer to God than the priest or the deacon.
Then we heard how a local religious leader, a Pharisee, invited Jesus to his home for dinner, but failed to welcome and offer him with the customary courtesy of a washcloth to clean the dust of the street off his feet. It took an uninvited prostitute to wash his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. Jesus tells us that this prostitute was much closer to God than the local religious leader.
The above gospel, about the Pharisee and the tax collector, also ends with a counter-intuitive twist. We would expect a parable about a piously scrupulous churchman and a greedy and dishonest public official to end with the churchman as a role model, but not so. Jesus tells us that it was this tax collector and not the churchman who went home justified in God’s eyes.
Who were these two people, the Pharisee and the tax collector? It helps to take a look at their background. The Pharisees were members of a sect within Judaism. They were looked upon as role models of piety. They believed in following every single religious rule and regulation to the letter. The tax collectors back then were not like IRS workers today. They were often wealthy men who purchased the right to collect taxes from local residents. They did this in a brutal and exploitative manner adding hefty commissions for themselves. They were hated as cruel and dishonest agents of the Roman occupying power.
The Pharisee in this parable is not praying with sincerity. He’s not even really praying to God but rather boasting and trying to reinforce his own self-esteem by judging and trashing someone else. The tax collector, in contrast, sits with his head buried in his hands, in the back of the temple examining his own conscience and humbly asking God for mercy.
Jesus uses this parable to show us how God wants a humble and contrite heart, and how self-righteousness and being judgmental of others really drives us away from God.
The above gospel puts a question to each of us: Am I like that Pharisee? Do I judge others whose lifestyles, marital status, or choices are different from mine? Or who vote differently than I do? Or who prioritize different moral issues? Are there times when I am tempted to look down on others; to feel that I am morally superior or closer to God than others; to think that another person is unworthy to call himself or herself a Christian, unfit to receive Holy Communion?
We cannot know what’s in the heart of another person. We cannot judge another’s relationship with God. We can only sit before God with our own humble and contrite heart.
This gospel also offers great consolation to us. There is nothing that we can ever do that will make God stop loving us. No matter what we’ve done in the past, no matter what sins we’ve committed or how bad we think we are God accepts our humble and contrite heart.
God is merciful and unconditionally loving. God calls us to love each other in the same way. In the end, this will be the only thing that really matters.