“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
~ Luke 18:9-14 ~
When I first read this Sunday’s lectionary Gospel reading it grabbed my attention and made me sit up straighter for a moment as I tried to decide which of the two characters I identify with: the Pharisee or the tax collector. I also noticed for the first time that Luke says to his readers that Jesus told this parable because he knew that some of his disciples were being a bit smug about their own self-identified righteousness while being contemptuous of others.
He was calling them out! Remember that earlier bit about not telling others about the speck in their eye when you’ve got a log in your own? Yeah, that. Same sort of message here about keeping your own side of the street clean and not taking it upon yourself to decide if others are doing a good enough job of it.
There’s a lot of tension in this parable because even though the Pharisees are usually presented as being full of pride about their religiosity and faithful observance of the Law, they were actually quite liberal in their interpretation of it and wanted others to practice with the same faithfulness. The tax collector, on the other hand, would have been reviled in the community for collaborating with the Romans and for extracting tribute from his fellow Jews by whatever means necessary. What J.C. is not down with is the Pharisee’s self-righteousness and arrogant piety.
They’re both praying in the Temple, but we’re told that the Pharisee wasn’t with others, that he had set himself apart. And then rather than thanking God for the blessings in his life, he thanks God that he’s not like the immoral street trash that he makes mention of—especially not like that tax collector over there! Then he goes on a bragging spree telling God how observant and good he is! So, now he’s not only set himself apart from the others, he’s elevated himself above them and, therefore, above even God himself. Now, contrast that to the tax collector who knows that he’s a miserable bastard and stands there looking up to heaven and crying out to God to forgive his sins! He knows where he stands and he knows he’s at God’s mercy.
OK, so Luke has set up the scene and the characters really well and we’re waiting with bated breath to learn what the Big Lesson is going to be. And that lesson is? That if we puff ourselves up with pride we’re going to get placed on standby, but if we show a little humility we’re going to be bumped up to first class. Pride goeth before a fall, right? Jesus knew his Proverbs.
So, how can we put this lesson into practice? Well, I don’t know about you, but when I’m being real spiritual-like, you know, praying three times a day, studying scripture, saying grace every time I eat, helping old ladies across the street, that sort of thing, I often find myself looking around at other folks and trying to figure out if they’re spiritual enough, and if I decide they’re not, judge them for it. Who do I think I am?
I guess I answered my earlier question. I’m the Pharisee.
(Painting by Rebecca Brogan)