Oh, Jesus. Sometimes you say the darndest things.
It’s another one of those tricky parables, a simple story on the surface, but with a deeper, more powerful question to wonder about. We’re still travelling with Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and he’s been teaching important lessons with these short, pithy parables. Here’s one about a pharisee and a tax-collector who both come to pray at the same time.
Good for them, you might think, because, when last we left Jesus in Luke, he was talking about the importance of being persistent in prayer. And, just like before, the author of Luke sets up this story by telling you what it’s about: “He [Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Luke 18:9).
It goes like this. A pharisee (a leader in the temple) and a tax-collector go to the temple to pray. The pharisee gets right in there and shares a prayer of thanksgiving, thankful that he’s not like others who are bad - you know, those people - and especially like the tax-collector he sees nearby. Not only does he pray, he fasts and he tithes, just like he’s supposed to. The tax-collector stays back and, from a distance, seems contrite and prays for mercy because he’s a sinner.
Jesus wraps it up with pointing out it’s the tax-collector who’s made right with God. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled,” says Jesus, “but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Right. Simple enough. Be like the tax-collector. Sure.
Besides, we read the bible, we know pharisees are bad, right? And Jesus often hangs out with tax-collectors, so they must be good. In fact, reading ahead, he’s about to meet Zacchaeus, a chief tax-collector, and go to his house for dinner. Good old Jesus, hanging out with the “wrong” crowd. Thank goodness it wasn’t one of those pharisees. Hate to be one of those people.
Yes. It’s a trap.
Simple story, but it’s a parable and here’s some things to consider. Pharisees aren’t all bad. Many, in fact, were trying to live as scripture told them. Jesus often has run-ins with them and critiques them particularly harshly, but maybe Jesus expects more of those with a privileged life, particularly the privilege of knowing the scriptures and the law as pharisees should. Pharisees simply aren’t inherently bad. Our view of them is skewed by their role in the bible as a foil for Jesus.
This one, in particular, might seem particularly braggy, but there’s nothing to suggest that he’s wrong about his assessment of himself. Maybe he’s just struggling, like that Mac Davis classic: “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.”
Tax-collectors, on the other hand, were despised for good reason: they were sell-outs who collected for the Roman occupation, often enriching themselves in the process by over-taxing the poor. It should be easy for him to see what’s wrong with this picture.
But, put our preconceived ideas to work with Jesus’ punchline and we’re falling into the trap that we all have to struggle with: not only do want to be like the tax-collector, we want to be thankful that we’re not like that pharisee. Humility isn’t a contest and it’s lost the moment it becomes one.
It’s not their roles or even their outward behaviour we need to wrestle with here. It’s their honesty and their awareness of their own self. The one who is right with God is the one who speaks sincerely from the heart, the one who knows who they truly are, beyond their behaviour, the one who knows they are a child of God and asks for mercy, believing God’s grace will help them be better. Not better than others, just a better me.
The pharisee may be honest about what he does and how he lives. He could be sincere in his thanks to God. Where he lost his way was in seeing all that as making him better than his neighbour, as a way to set himself apart from others, rather than bring him to the love and care of others.