The Pharisee and the Tax Collector: A Reflection on Luke 18.9-14

Self-righteousness is a funny form of sin: It is pretty much universally loathed, yet also pervasive, and it is among the easiest sins for us to spot in others, yet one of the hardest to spot in ourselves. This very problem, however, says something important about what self-righteousness actually is: an inversion of repentance so that we turn the spotlight outside of ourselves onto others rather than inward so that we might actually come to repentance. Today’s Gospel reading features a story told by Jesus to address this very issue. And that’s what I’d like to look at today.

Rare among Jesus’ parables, Luke 18.9-14 is introduced by a preamble providing the context and purpose of the story: “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:” There are three closely related problems here. First, these people “trusted in themselves”; this isn’t our normal ‘faith’ word, but one that carries a connotation of persuasion or intellectual certainty: instead of putting their faith in God, they have convinced themselves of their own reliability. Second, this self-certainty concerns their own righteousness or justice. They don’t feel the need to examine their actions or attitudes because they already know they’re ‘the good guys’. And third, this confidence in their own goodness leads them to be contemptuous of others — the Greek here is even harsher than the English translations: a more literal translation would be ‘be contemptuous of the rest’. Anyone not like them is just a leftover of no value to them or to God. These three related problems are sadly evergreen and very apparent in our own culture and political moment. So let’s see what Jesus says about it.

He begins by setting the stage: “Two men go to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” This is important context. We don’t have a contrast between a ‘believer’ and an ‘infidel’, or a ‘Jew’ and a ‘Gentile’, but between two Jewish men who take their religious responsibilities seriously. Both go to the Temple to do their business with God. The difference is in what they think that business is about. The two men are described in terms of common cultural tropes: the Pharisee, a follower of a strand of Judaism greatly concerned with the meticulous following of the Law, and the tax-collector, a despised collaborator with Rome who enriches himself through his own people’s colonization.

Then Jesus starts his story in earnest, allowing us to eavesdrop on the men’s prayers:

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.”

The Pharisee’s self-righteousness is clearly evident in his prayer. The ‘business’ he has come to do before God is essentially to brag about his religious credentials and compare himself positively to ‘the rest’. It’s an interesting detail that where the tax collector’s location is described in terms of how he positions himself within the Temple, and therefore symbolically before God, the Pharisee’s is described in terms of how he positions himself towards other people: the Pharisee stands alone. His whole piety is intended to separate himself from others, including those in his own community. By contrast, the tax collector, humbly standing in the back, is doing the genuine self-examination that is at the heart of repentance. Where the Pharisee ‘prays’ to talk himself up before God and put down others, the tax collector prays to acknowledge his sins and ask God for mercy. Where the Pharisee’s spotlight is faced towards others, the tax collector’s is aimed at his own heart, where it is supposed to be, because that is the only place where it can do its job.

It is, of course, the tax collector — the quintessential ‘sinner’ of his day — who leaves the Temple ‘justified’ before God.

There’s something curious about this parable and how it’s come down to us. As much as it is about ‘keeping our eyes on our own plate’ and not comparing ourselves to others, its very structure invites us to compare these two men. And because of this, there is a long history of this parable being weaponized by one group against another: Christians against Jews, Protestants against Catholics, Fundamentalists against Progressives (and vice versa). It’s so ironic that I have to wonder if it’s intentional, to demonstrate just how prone we are to compare ourselves to others and to cast ourselves as the ‘good guy’: Even in applying a story about not comparing ourselves favorably to others, we so often end up doing just that. In the Orthodox Church, this Gospel is read in the lead-up to Lent and, at least in my experience of that tradition, there is really only ever one message attached to it, which is to always cast yourself in the role of the Pharisee. That way, you are always the one who needs to hear the message. There is a lot of wisdom in this. It is really the only way to avoid enacting the ‘scapegoat mechanism’, in which we point our fingers at ‘the other’ (whoever that may be for us) for all the world’s ills.

Self-righteousness is an easy trap to fall into — one of the easiest. Our current social and political discourse is rife with it — finger pointing, distraction, ‘but what about…’, and ‘at least we’re not …’. Today’s Gospel is a reminder that this is a dead-end road, that leads only to contempt and hardening of hearts, and not to any kind of solution. Rather, we must always take the tax collector as our teacher, and point our fingers at ourselves, take responsibility for our part in the world’s state, and pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

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