He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 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.’ – Luke 18:9-14 NRSV
There are a lot of great stories in the Bible but there are some I never get tired of hearing, reading or thinking about. This is one of them.
Jesus tells a story to some folks who thought a lot more of themselves than they should, to use an expression from back home. In the story before, he had been talking to the disciples but this episode seems to be one of a number of parables that were told to various groups in various places, including the disciples. Were there Pharisees present at the telling of this story? Perhaps, or maybe it was aimed at some of the disciples. For whoever it was, though, it certainly was a very pointed lesson.
Pharisees represented one of four factions of the Jewish religious and judiciary structure that existed within the Roman occupation (the other three being Sadducees (priests), Essenes (ascetics) and the Zealots (revolutionaries). They were sort of the middle class, teachers and interpreters of not only the Torah but also the oral tradition and values, perhaps sometimes a bit too rigorously, especially when it came to interpersonal relationships and purity codes. What was important to them was being righteous, observant and pure. They also wanted to make sure everybody else was the same too, which is what often brought them into conflict with Jesus. In this story, the Pharisee wasn’t shy about demonstrating how prayer was supposed to be done: openly, full of self-congratulations and commendation to the Almighty, and definitely pointing out to God who was beneath God’s (and therefore their) notice.
The tax collector huddling over in the corner, trying to be invisible, was definitely one of “those people,” in the Pharisee’s opinion. Thing is, it wasn’t just the Pharisee’s opinion; lots of people agreed with them. Who likes a collaborator, and tax collectors were definitely Roman collaborators, collecting monies from the people to pay for the soldiers and whole Roman occupation, not to mention spectacles and infrastructure in Rome? To make things worse, tax collectors made their living by skimming. They collected what Rome said they should and then tacked on a sort of service fee of their own which became their salary. If there’s anything worse than being somebody working for the enemy it’s someone making money off us while still working for the enemy. The tax collector had two strikes against him right there.
I usually would say that I definitely identify with the tax collector if I had to pick a role in this story. I’m not so convinced of my own rightness or righteousness that I’m willing to stand in the middle of a room and proclaim it to God and the whole universe. I’m not even willing to say it to God because I don’t think it is true. Today, though, it occurred to me that really the two characters can represent two sides of the same person. There’s the outer person, the one the world sees, and the inner one, the hidden one. They exchange places when situations or opportunities arise. What I show the world is what I think the world wants to see; with God, there’s just me, warts and all, knowing it isn’t any use to try and bluff my way through it with protestations of my righteousness. I can’t be a self-promoter, even to God.
The tax collector might have had two strikes against him but when it came to his prayer, it was totally honest. The world saw the outer person, the collaborator and the skimmer, but the inward person, the real person, knew itself and its limitations. All in all, I think I’d rather be him rather than the Pharisee, not because I don’t try to respect the law and don’t want to be perceived as a good, righteous person, but because I think I’m better off being honest. As for standing in the darkened corner, that suits me just fine.
God, be merciful to me, a sinner.