The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a type of parable unique to Luke’s Gospel. It features an unsavory character, who is not a good role model for anyone, but who manages to make a smart choice despite his personal liabilities.
You are familiar with the parable of the dishonest steward who was fired from his job; he said, “What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.” (Luke 16:3-4) His strategy was to cheat his master again, in order to ingratiate himself with his former clients.
Last Sunday we had a similar story. The poor widow in the story had to go to court repeatedly because the unjust judge “neither feared God nor respected any human being.” (Luke 18:2) In both cases the unsavory character demonstrated a surprising degree of wisdom. The dishonest steward used his last day on the job to ensure himself a future, and the uncaring judge passed a just judgment to protect himself from harm; both acted wisely, despite their disordered lives.
This parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is similar to these above. We tend to look compassionately on the tax collector because (we’ve been told to do so, and), we love an underdog. Jesus didn’t intend to engender empathy in his original hearers toward the tax collector; he intended the tax collector to be seen as like the dishonest steward or the unjust judge.
The Pharisee in this parable appears to be the ideal Catholic; every pastor would be happy to have a congregation of people who could say honestly, “I pay tithes on my whole income.” (Luke 18:12) His failing was that he took a consumer’s attitude toward religion. His religion was the best that it could be, and he considered that to be a true mark of distinction. He wanted a comfortable, enviable and manageable life, and he used his religious practice for that end.
By contrast, the tax collector was the sort of person whom today we might call “a hot mess.” The emotional and spiritual burden that he carried led him to stand “off at a distance and not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast.” (Luke 18:13) John Pilch, SJ has observed that “to strike the breast is a Middle-Eastern gesture peculiar to women (Lk 23:27). Men use it only in extreme anguish, as here and likely in Lk 23:48.”
The moral of the story is not that we should live sinful lives, and wait until the last minute to repent; nor should we stand at a distance from God. The tax collector is not a role model for Jesus’ disciples. Rather, the moral of the story is that all the difference the world is made by the attitudes with which we do what we do.
The tax collector did not use religion to control his life, nor as a therapeutic intervention to make himself feel better. His prayer in the Temple precincts doesn’t appear to a last-ditch effort to turn things around. This would have been the same consumer attitude that motivated the Pharisee. The tax collector’s surprisingly wise act was that, unlike the Pharisee, he did not see himself as different from anyone else.
The tax collector asked God to be faithful even while he admitted his own unfaithfulness. He was trying neither to cover up his sins in religious trappings, nor to ensure the status quo in his life. He wasn’t using religion for any personal goal. He was relying on a Savior. This is the definition of humility in the Scriptures: to rely on a Savior, to accept graciously God’s gift of redemption.
Consumer religion is rampant in this country. Some use religion in a manner like the Pharisee: as a way to lift themselves up by putting others down. Some use religion as a self-help program: thinking that God is a service provider who lives to make people happy. Some see religion as a mark of distinction in which the Sacraments are nothing more than collectors items: once you’ve got the whole set, you’re free to move on to the next group of trinkets. Some reduce religion to an obligation like paying taxes: if it’s done grudgingly, late, incompletely or without regard to other people, it’s acceptable as long as it’s done.
Jesus said, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14) This isn’t merely smart advice about how not to embarrass oneself in public. It is revealed teaching that points us toward salvation. Salvation, a right relationship with God and others, forgiveness of our sins, is not a consumer product; it is nothing to which we are entitled, nor is it assurance of a placid, undisturbed or successful life. Rather, it is the result of humility; it is the result of seeing oneself as being just like everyone else: in need of God’s mercy.
Pause, for a moment, to consider all the things that you think God wants from you. A short list might include things like: strict morals, honesty, trustworthiness, doing lots of good things, saying lots of rosaries, polite public behavior, frequent Confession, etc. Now, consider what Jesus said God wants from you: humility, the total reliance on redemption by God alone.
The pride of the Pharisee made him think that he was different from everyone else. The humility of the tax collector made him think that he was just like everyone else: in need of the redemption that only God can give. Salvation isn’t the result of being better than others; it’s the result of realizing how much we have in common.
This parable is intended to be ironical; it was the grievous sinner who went home with a right relationship to God. The Pharisee could have gone home that day with God’s approval and mercy, if only he had prayed, “O God, I thank you that I am so much like the rest of humanity.”