Jesus addressed this parable
to those who were convinced of their own righteousness
and despised everyone else.
"Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity --
greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.'
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
In the ancient world, everyone hated tax collectors. The Romans, who levied the taxes, allowed private entrepreneurs to travel around collecting the dues. In order to make extra money, though, these collectors ― sometimes called “publicans” ― usually cheated people out of extra money, which they then kept for themselves. Indeed, tax collectors were often scandalously rich. So when Jesus tells this parable about the imaginary tax collector praying in the Temple, we should not imagine that his audience was predisposed to admire such men.
How provocative, then, for Jesus to say that this despised tax collector “went home justified” from the Temple while the Pharisee who “fasts twice a week and pays tithes on [his] whole income” did not. Even though the tax collector had been leading a corrupt life, Jesus insists that “the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” In God’s eyes, the publican ― though a scoundrel by trade ― is more righteous than the Pharisee. The tax collector knows he is a sinner and his confession has transformed him. The Pharisee, on the other hand, is righteous only on the surface. He keeps the fasts and pays the tithes, but he “was convinced of his own righteousness and despised everyone else.”
But there’s a subtle detail to Jesus’ parable that, though often overlooked, deepens the story in a crucial way. It is true that the Pharisee prays all sorts of self-righteous and judgmental things ― “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity!” ― and that, in itself, is damaging enough. But we should also notice that, when the Pharisee began to pray, the text says he “spoke [his] prayer to himself.” This does not just mean he spoke his prayer in such a way that only he could hear it. No, as St. Basil the Great (d. 379) once said, the Pharisee actually “prayed ... not to God … but to himself…. For his sin of pride sent him back into himself.” The Pharisee was so preoccupied with his own righteousness that his words were really just directed at himself rather than the God he claimed to worship.
This is actually a very troubling detail. Recall that Jesus addressed this parable “to those who are convinced of their own righteousness.” That means it’s addressed to you and me. We all admit we’re imperfect. But, if we’re honest, we often think, like the Pharisee, that we are “not like the rest of humanity,” that we stand out from the crowd. Jesus also addressed “those who … despise everyone else.” We would never say we “despise” them, but, if we’re honest, don’t we sometimes look at the people around us ― without ever trying to know their story ― in the same way the Pharisee looked at the publican? “O God, I thank you that I am not … like this tax collector.” Don’t we often harbor a similar unspoken disdain for those we’re sure have fallen short of us? “Thank you, God, that I am not like this atheist.” Don’t we sometimes even think this way in the pew? We’re never as explicit as the Pharisee, but how sure are we that we’re not muttering the same things somewhere in the back of our minds?
The disturbing thing is that, when we fall into these patterns of thinking, Jesus’ parable tells us that we aren’t even communing with God anymore. When we are so preoccupied with ourselves, our prayers ― what we thought were dialogues with God ― become fruitless monologues with ourselves. We become so concerned with distinguishing ourselves from others that our vision cannot escape the horizon of our own vanity and, yes, we begin to worship ourselves.
The only correct response when one looks at their soul is that of the tax collector: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” When we look at ourselves, there is nothing else to do but to reach out to God for mercy. If you make a case for yourself ― either by presenting a résumé of your righteousness or by comparing yourself to others ― then you’re not even speaking with God anymore; you’ve recentered the conversation entirely around yourself. Indeed, it is “the one who humbles himself who will be exalted.” It is the one who recognizes that there is nothing to do but ask for God’s help who will be exalted. It is this one who “will go home justified.”
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