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The Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C

The Pharisee and the Tax-Collector 


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The 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time for Year C takes us to yet another of the parables of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, and this one is another parable that’s also unique to Luke’s Gospel. It’s the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector; a very well known story of Jesus. So let’s look at it together in Luke 18:9-14, the Gospel for today. It says this:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The first thing I want to highlight here is that Jesus, according to Luke, is giving this parable to those who are proud. So just as the parable of the Persistent Widow was for those who are losing heart in the midst of prayer, this parable is for people who are struggling with—or maybe not struggling with—the sin of pride. And you can see this when Luke says that “he told this parable to those who”: 1) “trusted in themselves that they were righteous”; and 2) “despised others". Those are two essential elements of sinful pride according to the Bible.

It’s very important for us to define this precisely, because in contemporary English usage, when we talk about the word pride, it frequently has either a positive or a neutral value. So someone will talk about being, perhaps, proud to be an American or proud of their country—that actually describes the positive virtue of patriotism. Even more common, we’ll say, “I’m proud of my daughter” or “I’m proud of my son.” What that means is that I take delight in the good accomplishments of someone I love or someone I care about. That’s not what Luke or Jesus is going to refer to, or the New Testament will refer to, when it talks about sinful pride. The essence of sinful pride (as Luke’s describing it here) is self-trust and despising others, or self-righteousness and despising others. So the proud trust in themselves, and at the same time, they look down on other people. So I think the English word we would use for this is the arrogant. If I say someone is arrogant, you know what that means. It’s someone who exalts themselves and despises other people at the same time. And in this context, Jesus is specifically concerned with a kind of spiritual pride—people who trust that they are righteous, whereas other people are wicked.

So He’s telling this parable specifically to those who are self-righteous or arrogant. So that’s the preface that Luke is giving us to who the parable’s aimed at. Alright, second point: the parable revolves around these two figures of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Now as soon as we encounter this parable, we come up against a problem of understanding it or hearing it the way the first Jewish listeners of Jesus would have heard it. And the problem is the result of the fact that for many contemporary readers of the New Testament, most contemporary Gentile readers of the New Testament, our only experience of a Pharisee are in the Gospels where the Pharisees are often depicted as the opponents of Jesus, right?

So the classic example here is Jesus’ famous diatribe against the Pharisees in Matthew 23, where he calls them whitewashed tombs and hypocrites, and a whole list of epithets that are really very harsh. So when we hear the word Pharisee, we tend to give it a negative definition of someone who is a hypocrite or who is self-righteous, for example. But in a first-century Jewish setting, it’s very important to recognize that that was not the connotation that the word Pharisee had. Technically speaking, the definition of Pharisee is “the separated ones”—perushim in Hebrew. But as Josephus, a first-century Jewish writer, tells us, of all the various Jewish sects in the first century AD—the Pharisees, the Saduccees, the Esseens, the Zealots, the different groups—the Pharisees were actually widely respected among the common Jewish people as not just being separated in the sense of being separated from sin, but actually separated for God. They were viewed as very holy and very righteous and actually striving to be faithful to the law. In other words, they were widely respected as saintly or holy.

Let me give you an example of this from Josephus. In his book the Antiquities, book 18, Josephus writes:

[The Pharisees] are, as a matter of fact, extremely influential among the townsfolk; and all prayers and sacred rites of divine worship are performed according to their exposition. This is the great tribute that the inhabitants of the cities, by practicing the highest ideals both in their way of living and in their discourse, have paid to the excellence of the Pharisees.

So notice what Josephus is saying there, that amongst the townsfolk, amongst the common people, the group of Jewish leaders that was respected as living a life of excellence and fidelity to the law were the Pharisees. The reason that’s important to understand is because in the parable, Jesus is setting up a contrast between a Pharisee and a tax collector. Now we’ve talked about tax collectors in other videos—telónés in Greek. If you recall, the tax collectors (within a first century Jewish context) were widely despised by the common people and are frequently grouped by Jesus with sinners—in other words, Jewish people who are publicly and flagrantly violating the law, so that they are seen as in a constant state of grave sin, like someone who would commit adultery publicly (like Herod and his wife) or a prostitute. These would be considered sinners.

So in order to grasp Jesus’ parable rightly, what you need to realize is that from a first century Jewish perspective, in terms of just initial prejudices, the Pharisee would be the good guy and the tax collector would be the bad guy, right? That’s how you would think of them. The Pharisee is the one who is faithful to the law, who is respected for the excellence of his way of life (as Josephus described it), whereas the tax collector is one who is despised for living a life of breaking the commandments, colluding with the Roman empire, fraternizing with the pagan overlords of the Jewish people...and so on and so forth.

So I just want to set the stage there, because otherwise you’re not going to feel the force of the parable, because as always—or almost always—there’s a twist here involved. Jesus does something unexpected. If you were a first century Jewish listener and you hear a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector, your initial expectation is that the Pharisee would be a righteous follower of the law, and that the tax collector would be a public violator of the law...and Jesus flips that on its head in this parable, when He says, “Two men went up into the temple to pray”—one’s a Pharisee and the other is a tax collector. And you’re thinking, okay, I know how this is going to go. The Pharisee is going to be good and the tax collector’s going to be bad. Errr, wrong. That’s not it. Here’s the twist—it comes out the other way.

The Pharisee, Jesus says, stood and prayed, “God, I thank thee I’m not like other people who are extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” You can hear the loathing in his voice. You can hear the kind of arrogance as he sets himself up over against this tax collector. Why is he so righteous? Well, he fasts twice a week. He pays tithes on, not just on some of his products and produce and money, but all of it. Whereas the tax collector, Jesus says, staring far off, wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Now here’s the key twist. When Jesus says, “I tell you this man”—meaning the tax collector— “went down to his house justified rather than the other,” that’s where he flips expectations on their head. Whoa, whoa, whoa….wait. The tax collector’s justified, whereas the Pharisee isn’t? Why? Well, Jesus gives us the answer in the nimshal of the parable, the upshot. “Everyone who exalts himself is humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Okay, so what’s going on here? Essentially, what Jesus is doing is He’s telling a story about two different kinds of prayer in order to illustrate what happens when we are spiritually prideful and what happens when we are spiritually humble. And you can see that there’s a remarkable kind of contrast between the Pharisee’s prayer and the tax collector’s prayer. So I’ve kind of broken these down into a few key points—so just walk with me through it together.

On one hand, the Pharisee is close. Notice, he’s in the temple, and it’s implied that he’s standing right there in the outer court where Israelite men were able to go and pray to God. So he’s not afraid to get close to God’s presence, whereas the tax collector—by contrast—is far away. He’s standing at the rear. Notice it says he’s far off. This would probably be in the rear of the outer court of the temple. So this is like the difference between the people who sit in the front pew in church and then the people who sit in the back row — although I think in a previous video I mentioned that we sit on the front row. But we do that so that my kids can pay attention, so hopefully it’s not a result of spiritual pride. In any case, notice, the context is that they’re in the temple, and there’s already kind of a difference between them of locale. The Pharisee’s close, the tax collector’s far off.

Second, the Pharisee is proud because he sees himself as already righteous, whereas the tax collector is humble, beating his breast, which is a standard Jewish sign of repentance from sin. The idea of beating the breast is “I’m guilty for doing what I’ve done. I’m guilty for breaking the law. I’ve sinned against the Lord.” Number three, whereas the Pharisee judges others, notice, where’s his focus? It’s on all the other people. Look at these extortioners and these unjust people, adulterers. Look at this tax collector.” He’s focused on other people. By contrast, what does the tax collector focus on in his prayer? Himself. What does he say? “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He’s not paying attention to others. He’s focused on his own sinfulness, his own need of mercy, his own need of redemption.

Fourth, and this is really, really fascinating. It has to do with the essence of the prayer. Although the Revised Standard Version says that the Pharisee stood and prayed with himself, the literal Greek here is actually pros heauton. So it’s literally “he prayed to himself,” whereas the tax collector prays to God. Now we can do a whole video just on that. There is so much so much profundity here in what Jesus is saying, because think about it, if the Pharisee is praying to himself, then who is his god? Well, himself, which is the essence of pride—the sin of pride. Because what the sin of pride is, it’s a disordered self-love in which a person sets themselves up in the place of God. And that’s what’s going on with the Pharisee’s prayer. He’s talking to himself, because in essence, he’s made himself into his own god. Whereas the virtue of humility, by contrast—which you see in the tax collector—is recognizing that God is God and I am not, recognizing my nothingness, my loneliness. Humble comes from the word for dirt, recognizing that I’m dust in the wind. I’m weak, I’m small, I’m a creature; I’m not the creator.

So it’s just very powerful because if you’ve ever paid attention to your own prayer, your own interior life, whenever you’re praying, maybe—whatever it is—maybe you’re at Mass. Where is your focus? Are you like the tax collector and focused on God and on your own sinfulness? Or are you like the Pharisee, focused on everyone around you, focused on, you know, whatever they’re wearing or whatever they may have done—you might know people in the congregation. What are they doing here? What right do they have to be here? Are you focused on them and talking to yourself? Praying to yourself? Or are you focused on God? 

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