In last week’s Gospel passage from Luke, we heard the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge and about the need to pray and not grow weary. Jesus closed that teaching with a question: “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?”
We can imagine the people around Jesus nodding to one another knowingly, assuring themselves that they will certainly be faithful. Others might fall away, but surely they, who are closest to Jesus, will stay strong. Sounds a little like Peter on the night Jesus was betrayed. Jesus proceeds with another story, the one we hear in this Sunday’s Gospel. This one, Luke tells us in the introduction, is addressed to “those who were convinced of their own righteousness, and despised everyone else” – possibly, the very people smugly nodding to each other, sure that they have what it takes to stay faithful to Jesus, even if others fail.
Jesus describes someone who, by all appearances, is among the most holy and devoted Jews around: a Pharisee. Pharisees receive a lot of negative attention in the Gospel stories, so we need to adjust our perception of them to understand how they were viewed through the eyes of first century Jewish culture.
Pharisees were extremely devout and highly disciplined in their religious practices. A Pharisee was obedient to the Law, even going above and beyond what the Law required. The Law required fasting on one day of the year – the Day of Atonement. A good Pharisee however, fasted at least once a week, and the most religious Pharisee fasted twice a week for the sins of all Israel, as well as for their own sin. A Pharisee was a Really Good Person.
A tax collector, on the other hand, was a Really Bad Person. Tax collectors were considered traitors and cheats. They had sold out to the Romans who oppressed Israel, collecting the Roman taxes and padding their own pockets with whatever they wanted to charge over and above what was required. And it was all legal. But Jews considered the practice to be highly unethical and contrary to God’s commands. If a Pharisee was at the top of the righteousness ladder, a tax collector was on the very bottom rung.
In this Gospel passage a Pharisee goes to the temple to pray, feeling confident before God about himself and about his own righteousness. He knows he’s a really good Jew. In fact, he’s much better at being Jewish than most other Jews, and his prayer reflects this awareness. He “takes up his position” and prays, “O God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of humanity…” As he compares himself to the greedy, the dishonest, the adulterer, and even to the tax collector he sees off in the corner, the Pharisee is proud of the sharp contrast between his good works and the sinners he sees around him.
The tax-collector, standing off at a distance, also prays but, unlike the Pharisee, he utters a prayer of repentance: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He bows his head and beats his breast as a sign of anguish and sorrow.
Jesus shows us the flaw of the Pharisee and of his prayer: he prayed about himself. He was not really praying to God; he was playing to the bystanders. When this Pharisee “took up his position” to pray, he didn’t seek God, he sought attention and even promoted himself; he recites his resume! Surely, God would want someone like him in his Kingdom. His prayer of gratitude may be addressed to the Lord, but it is really about himself. He locates his righteousness in his own actions.
Consider the language of the two prayers. Four times, the Pharisee uses the word “I” as he prays. He sees himself as the subject of each sentence. In the tax collector’s prayer, God is the subject. God is the “do-er”, the one who shows mercy. The Pharisee puffed himself up by comparing himself to those he considered to be less than he was. The tax collector also made a comparison, but it was to the holiness of God, and he recognized how far he was from that kind of righteousness.
Knowing that Pharisees are regularly cast in the Gospels as Jesus’ opposition, we can all too easily judge the Pharisee to be a self-righteous hypocrite and assume that the moral of this parable is to be humble. There is good reason for this straightforward interpretation, as Luke seems to frame the parable in just these terms. The difficulty with such an interpretation however, is that we might end up thinking, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee, and other people who are hypocrites, overly pious, and self-righteous. I come to church each week, listen attentively to Scripture, and have learned that I should always be humble.”
In order to avoid that kind of self-congratulatory reading of the parable, which the parable itself would seem to condemn, it may help to realize that, when we start sounding like a Pharisee, it might mean we are starting to think like a Pharisee!
Jesus concludes his teaching by saying, “I tell you…” – any time he begins a statement with those words, or “but I say to you”, it usually means he is going to draw an unexpected conclusion. The Pharisee, the upstanding “insider”, went home perhaps feeling quite smug and proud of himself. He wanted the admiration of men and it is possible that he received it. But that is all he received. The tax-collector, on the other hand, the “outsider”, most likely didn’t receive any admiration but, Jesus tells us, he went home, justified, – “for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Humility is an attitude – not a mere posture. It “is not thinking less of yourself rather, it is thinking of your self less”. We will never see God when we are captivated by the image we see in the mirror. The quest for spiritual sincerity and genuineness, in prayer and in action, is one we must pursue constantly.