Jesus, the master storyteller always has a way of setting stories up and allowing the listener to chose sides. We see this again in today’s Gospel. It is the famous parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee.
Face it, the résumé of the Pharisee is stellar! Just look at all his qualities, and look at the things he does. In church lingo he is the ideal parishioner: he prays, he fasts, and he tithes. He is a deeply religious man making me think that he has a genuine fear of the Lord. He hasn’t taken things which he hasn’t honestly earned. He is faithful to his wife, patient with his children, and loyal to his friends. He is disciplined in life and honest with his business. He doesn’t chase after money or women. Here is a guy who comes to church and believes he is abundantly blessed by God. You have to give the guy credit. He is a good person, and he knows it.
If we contrast him to the tax collector you would be keeping your distance. The tax collector is not a person who tells you the truth. No one would really want him to be part of their faith community. He’s not trustworthy. Notoriously, he is good at swindling, and can negotiate deals with power people who are against you. He can take what he wants from you leaving you with no recourse. Look at the company he keeps, his friends are cheats and thieves as well. He is notorious for taking your hard earned money and giving it to the international dictator. The truth is, you would never invite this man to your house for dinner. And now the stage is set. Whose side do you choose?
The majority of rational people would choose the honest, God fearing, law abiding Pharisee. And yet this religious person’s judgment of himself as superior to the tax collector is exactly why Jesus told the parable. Remember, Luke tells us that Jesus addresses this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.
This praying Pharisee not only thinks he is better than the other man in the temple, he has gone so far as to stand before God and declare himself better that the rest of humanity! And while the things he may say about himself are true, he certainly neglects the shadow side of himself. He really doesn’t see his whole self. One could say he is living a partial lie. Paul reminds us that all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God. All of his bragging won’t lead him into God’s grace or gift him with salvation.
Like the people in Jesus’ day, most of us have been taught to strive everyday to be better than this tax collector. And many of us have been conditioned to believe that the better of a person we are the more credit or reward we will have somewhere along the line. Again and again the Pharisee in us pops out when we are challenged with people we would judge as beneath us. And at the end of the day, the tables turn on us, because the person we would choose in this story is not the one Jesus declares to be justified.
Fr. David Colhour, C.P. is the pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Louisville, Kentucky.