T HE OPENING LINE OF THE PARABLE of the Pharisee and the tax collector sounds like a joke. (“A priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a bar….”) “A Pharisee and a tax collector walk into the temple….” That may have been the way Jesus intended, but we’ve lost that sense of this parable over the years. Our ears don’t hear it that way.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector contrasts two characters. They’re polar opposites. The way we’ve learned about these people is this:
● The Pharisees are hypocrites. They’re arrogant, self-righteous Jews. They are the bad Jews. They have it out for Jesus. They can’t be trusted.
● And we know about tax collectors. They rob people, skim off the top for themselves, and are in cahoots with the Roman empire. At best, they are thieves, and at worst they are thieves and traitors.
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THE PHARISEE IS SMUG and confident; the outsider is anxious and insecure. The saint parades to the temple; the sinner “stands at a distance” — a sign of his spiritual alienation. The righteous man stands up; the sinful man looks down. Shockingly, the Pharisee prays loudly “about himself”; the tax collector barely prays at all. The Pharisee puffs out his chest in pride; the publican beats his breast in sorrow.
While we’ve been conditioned to think badly of the Pharisees, first-century Jews are on the side of the Pharisees. The Pharisees come from good stock. They care about the future of God’s people. They are working at preserving Jewish identity as it bumps against Roman and Greek impulses.
For many of us, we only read the title of the passage — “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector” — and we are ready to chose sides. Given those options, we’ll take the tax collector as the lesser of two evils.
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WHEN WE EXAMINE our own relationships in light of this story, we want to cast ourselves in the role of the sinner. “Forgive me. Have mercy on me.”
Humility. The problem is that we live comfortably as the righteous man, the Pharisee. Our prayers are “Thank you, Lord. I’m not like those other people.” Thank God we are not like those liberals/conservatives over there. Or, those foreigners who despise our American values, steal our jobs, and want to harm us. Thank God, I’m not stupid like those Trump supporters or those “crooked Hillary” voters.
Like the Pharisee, we begin to believe that we are not only different but better. We carry around an air of superiority. We separate ourselves from them. We raise ourselves up. We affirm our own righteousness. And once we create separation from the “other,” from them; once we have unfriended them on Facebook, once we have stopped hanging out with them, once we have cut them off we establish a superior relationship. We lose sight that they, too, are made in the image of God.
We are prone to self-righteous presumption. We too easily think of ourselves as “being on the right side” of history, of politics, of social policy. When we make such assumptions, we become like those to whom this parable is addressed, those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.”
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THE PHARISEE MADE two tragic mistakes in his religious life, one about himself, and one about other people. First, he “looked down on everybody else.” Contempt for others lurks in our hearts, bubbling up easily and frequently. We imagine that in putting others down we validate ourselves, or that at least we will compare favorably.
The flip side putting down others is justification of yourself. This is the Pharisee’s second mistake. The Pharisee thanks God that he is “not like other people” — a thief, an evildoer, an adulterer, an alien.
When it comes to Pharisees and tax collectors, Jesus gives us a pretty good example of how to move forward. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus reclines with tax collectors, and he debates with the Pharisees. In other words, Jesus refuses to stop talking with both parties. Jesus never withdraws from conflict; rather conflict becomes a spiritual place for renewal. It’s when we stop talking to one another that we lose an essential practice of what it means to work out our salvation.
A Pharisee and a tax collector walk into the temple…. Jesus tells an absurd joke, but let’s pray the joke is not on us.
— Keith Cardwell