It’s obvious who the bad guy is in this Gospel. If this parable were a movie, he might as well be Darth Vader or some guy with a handlebar mustache and shifty eyes tying someone up to a railroad track while he runs away with a bag of cash. He’s arrogant and proud. He talks about how great he is while simultaneously putting down everyone around him. His prayer is not something with which we want to identify. The tax collector, by contrast, is sympathetic. He is self-deprecating, humble, and admits his faults. The problem is, after 2,000 years of reading this same story, we miss what would have been pretty shocking about it: the Pharisees, in general, and even this Pharisee, are supposed to be the good guys. They follow God’s law, help the poor, and do what they are supposed to do, while tax collectors were the lowest of the low, stealing, bribing, and taking advantage of the little guy.
To capture this story’s shock value, we should replace the characters. The Pharisee today would be like an Emergency Room Doctor, someone with the universal respect of his peers, while the tax collector would be like a corrupt congressman. The story pops out at us more when we put it that way. We have a good person who does good things but is drunk on his own self-righteousness. He knows he’s good and is prideful to the point that he looks down on his fellow person and looks for nothing from God. The Pharisee’s prayer is filled with “I’s” and “me’s.” Then we have a bad person who does bad things, recognizing he’s a sinner and asking for help from God.
Now, the point isn’t to identify with the tax collector or desire to criticize the Pharisee; at some moment in our lives, we all probably act like the Pharisee, and at other times, we act like the tax collector. The point is to think about how we should relate to God and those around us in how we pray and act. To think not just about what we do but how and why we do it.
Problems in the world don’t generally come about because people are trying to do the wrong thing. People usually, at least to start, think they are doing good things. They desire to help people to make the world a better place. People are generally good. Problems in the world come about because people are also prideful and selfish. Problems come about because we tend to make it more about us and the things we are doing than God and those around us. We are pleased with our accomplishments, and we turn in on ourselves. We become overly critical of the mistakes made by other people, we become excessively pleased with our own work, and we don’t bring God into the picture at all. The problem is, the longer we think this way, the longer we focus on our virtue in contraposition to the vices of others like the Pharisee does, and the more and more we drift away from reality. If we think everything we do is right and everything others do is wrong, then we start doing things just for ourselves over time. Living life just for ourselves, even if we are doing good things, is never enough, but deep down, we know this.
Deep down, we admire the humility of the tax collector in prayer. His desire for God’s mercy and admission of his faults is the more substantial foundation.
It isn’t perfect, sure, but at least he knows he isn’t perfect. At least he is willing to look outside of himself and shun pride and arrogance. At least he knows he needs the help of God in his life.
This is a harsh lesson for us as members of modern western cultures. We live in a world of rapid-fire responses, hot takes, and an incredibly destructive propensity for taking sides. We tend to immediately identify the evil “other”—clergy, politicians, members of opposing political or ecclesiastical subcultures—who is mainly responsible for societal ills and dysfunction. While we are called to be a prophetic people, we ignore Jesus’ castigation of Pharisaical pride at our peril. Again and again, Jesus corrects those whose moral and spiritual identities are wrapped up in celebrating their own virtue and prideful scorning of sinners. A life in Christ necessarily begins with acknowledging one’s weakness and turning to God; with humble supplication before the Lord that he bring strength to our weakness. Replacing that disposition with a spirituality that, even implicitly, boasts of our moral victories, even when those victories are legitimate, misses the entire point of the Gospel and a proper relationship with God.
And that realization is Jesus’ point in this Gospel. The examples are extreme, but the point is well taken. It’s not just about what we do but how and why we do it. It’s about recognizing and admitting our imperfections and seeking assistance. Not because we are bad people, but because we are human people, and human people are at their best when they are not selfish but selfless when we are not prideful but humble. Because God creates us to be good, but to be good in communion with others and with the help of God.
Image: The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector,The canvas is part of a series of parables painted for the Lutheran church in Leiden (see also nos. SK-A-2958 and SK-A-2960). By Barent Fabritius – http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/collectie/SK-A-2959, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34317963
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Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.
You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.