The modern impression of the Pharisees comes from their one-sided portrayal in the Gospels, but this impression would have been foreign to most people during Jesus’ lifetime. Most of Jesus’ hearers would have looked upon the Pharisees as being extremely devout and respectable men.
As a result, Jesus’ hearers’ would have gaped in disbelief when they heard the parable in today’s Gospel reading. Please pardon the anachronism and the plebeian cultural reference, but I can imagine the crowd responding to Jesus with Scooby-Doo’s famous, “Huhh?” The Pharisee in the parable did everything right. He prayed, fasted and kept the commandments. The tax collector, on the other hand, was among a class of people who were considered traitors, thieves and blasphemers.
In the Scriptures and in Hebrew religion, “righteousness” meant that one had fully and adequately fulfilled one’s obligations of loyalty to God and neighbor. Jesus concluded the parable by saying that one of the most distrusted members of Jewish society had attained righteousness, while one of the most trusted members of society had failed to do so. (Luke 18:14)
Surely, Jesus was joking when he suggested that the public sinner was in a better relationship with God than the scrupulously devout man. Even the Pharisee’s prayer was enviable. It’s structure and content are very similar to Mary’s “Magnificat” or Simeon’s “Nunc dimittis,” both of which occur earlier in Luke’s Gospel.
While it is true that these three prayers are rather similar, it is their dissimilarities that are most significant. Mary and Simeon thanked God for God’s blessings, and did so in utter humility; the Pharisee thanked God for God’s blessings, but did so with unassailable self-assurance. The message of this parable is identical to the message of the Sermon of the Plain. (Luke 6:20-42) It is a parable about God’s judgment. On the Day of Judgment, the poor will be recompensed eternally for their temporal suffering, and the rich will lose forever the recompense they enjoyed in this life. In the case of today’s parable, the “wealth” referred to is not material wealth, but the intangible “wealth” of accomplishments, public approval and personal satisfaction.
This parable might well have been composed to speak directly to Twenty-first century American culture. We hold material wealth in very high regard, but we hold intangible wealth in even higher regard. It is very desirable in our society to amass great material wealth, but this is a goal attained by the few. On the other hand, anyone can create a life that is distinguished by unique and praiseworthy accomplishments. The primary function of social media, for example, is to tout the triumphs of individual effort.
We (that is, our secular society), are the Pharisee in the parable, and all of us collectively have a Scooby-Doo moment of “Huhh?” when it is suggested that our self-esteem, our individual accomplishments and our unique experiences have very little lasting value. Such a suggestion sounds like an affront to our individuality and to the unique gifts we offer the world. This is so because we have a shallow, infantile understanding of individuality.
Mary prayed, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. . . He has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness. . . He has thrown down the mighty from their thrones, but lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:46-52). Simeon prayed, “Now, Lord, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32) Like the Pharisee, we pray, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11) This is a favorite prayer of many church-goers. Is it really any wonder that so many church-goers have the experience of feeling as if their prayers aren’t heard by God? Perhaps God has God’s own Scooby-Doo “Huhh?” moment when God listens to our prayers.
The tax collector’s prayer was heard by God because of its honesty. When he addressed God, the tax collector was brutally honest about his own moral inadequacy. When the Pharisee addressed God, he was tragically deluded about his personal moral uprightness. The message of the parable is the same as the message of all of Jesus’ teaching; any moral strength or weakness we own is of little consequence when addressing God. The only thing of consequence when we address God in prayer is our ability to be honest with ourselves about God’s goodness and our perpetual need to receive God’s goodness.
We live in a society that encourages us to create a life that we can rejoice about publicly and repeatedly. God invites us into the society of believers, where we can rejoice about what God has accomplished on our behalf. Our culture compels us to seek constant praise from others; our religion requires us to praise God alone. Jesus said that these two options are mutually exclusive. (Luke 18:14) If this is surprising news, perhaps you haven’t been entirely honest with yourself about where you search for righteousness.
The tax collector’s prayer was the act of someone who had come to terms fully and honestly with his individuality. If you truly want a righteous life, if you want to see yourself in the best possible light, try praying, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” (Luke 18:13) If you pray this prayer you will find that God is intimately close to you, and that God is the highest value in your life. You will also find that your worries and concerns seem far away, and of much less value than faith; this is righteousness.