The Pharisee and the tax-collector

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector” (NRSV, Luke 18:10).

The Pharisees were a religious party dedicated to maintaining the Jewish Law and the Jewish way of life, of which the Law was the spiritual basis.  They were the successors of a resistance movement which 200 years before Our Lord’s time had heroically and successfully opposed an attempt by the King of Syria to stamp out the ancestral religion of the Jews and with it their identity and survival as a nation.

In order to safeguard the integrity of the Law, and prevent it from being whittled away, it was hedged about with elaborate rules covering its application to almost every conceivable aspect of daily life.  These rules were being constantly added to in order to deal with changing circumstances and new situations.

The Pharisees were distinguished by their punctilious observance of these ritual rules, and thus formed a religious élite, which was closed to the mass of the people because the latter lacked the specialised knowledge or indeed the time required.  Many of the Pharisees were good and devout, but the system tended to produce men whose religion was reduced to a ritual rule of thumb.

The Pharisee in the parable was no doubt speaking the truth when he claimed to be neither an extortioner nor unjust nor an adulterer.  He kept the Jewish Law and, like St Paul, who was also a Pharisee, was blameless in his personal life.

It was perfectly true that in these and other praiseworthy ways he was not like other men.  In addition he fasted, as did only the strict Jews, twice a week – on Mondays and Thursdays.  He religiously paid a tenth of his income to the Jewish Church, and his contributions to charity were probably considerable.

And yet for all that Our Lord condemned him because of his attitude to God and his attitude to himself.  When he came into the temple to pray, after a brief acknowledgement of God he proceeded to turn his attention to himself.  His thanksgiving – “I thank you that I am not like other people” – was a form of boasting in which he congratulated God on having so worthy an associate.  He would not recognise that the standard he had reached was ultimately due to God, the source of all goodness.  Very different was St Paul’s attitude, “…by the grace of God I am what I am…” (NRSV, 1 Corinthians 15:10).

But the Pharisee, being unaware of his dependence on God, felt able to address him with a sense of complete independence.  The same assessment of himself was also reflected in his attitude to his fellow men.  In his opinion the great mass of the people who did not belong to the Pharisees were beneath contempt – “I thank you that I am not like other people….or even like this tax-collector” (NRSV, Luke 18:11).

And yet it was this tax-collector whom Our Lord contrasted with the Pharisee to the latter’s disadvantage.  Tax-collectors were Jews who collected from their own countrymen the taxes imposed by the Roman occupying power or by King Herod Antipas whom the Romans had appointed.  They were traditionally unpatriotic, collaborators and corrupt.

This tax-collector in the parable has a vastly different attitude from that of the Pharisee.  He is under no illusions as to the state of his soul in God’s sight.  He has no account of virtues and services rendered to parade before his Maker, nor does he seek to excuse his faults by quoting the example of other disreputable persons like himself.

His standard consists, not in comparing himself with others, but in his personal relationship with God, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (NRSV, Luke 18:13).  That attitude is reflected in his whole approach to the all-holy God.  He comes into the Temple in a true spirit of prayer, his eyes on the ground as a sincere expression of his unworthiness even to be in the presence of the Almighty.  He has been brought there by his heartfelt need of God – unlike the Pharisee who was only conscious of his value to God.

The Pharisee has counterparts today: those who compare themselves, not with
God of whom they feel they can be independent, but with other people – and never, so they believe, to their own disadvantage.  They are satisfied with the standard they have reached and with themselves for having reached it.

Unfortunately, such an attitude can be evident in Churchgoers as well as non-Churchgoers.  It was no accident that Our Lord, in choosing one of the two leading characters in the parable, selected the Pharisee who was, in modern terms, a very regular Churchgoer.  

And the temptation to act and be as that man was, is with us still.  Most of us like to think well of ourselves, and, as in the case of the Pharisee, one can always induce a comfortable glow by choosing as one’s standard of measurement one’s neighbour instead of Our Lord; for example, there is a very narrow dividing line between criticising someone else for their failure to go to various church services and congratulating oneself for going.

And if we indignantly object that we are not like the Pharisee, it is well to reflect that in saying so we are being exactly like him: “I thank you that I am not like other people ….or even like this Pharisee”.

It is easy and not unpleasant to have one eye open to our virtues and the other closed to our faults.  This parable puts us right – one eye on our faults and both eyes on God.

For the Christian religion is a personal relationship with God in which there is no place for preening oneself on being a good or useful member of the Church.  One may be both, but it is not for oneself to pay any attention to that, nor to look to others to do so.  The only self-regard that is required of us is self-examination.

We are familiar with the words, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed”.  We can also truthfully say, “Lord, I am not worthy that I should come under thy roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed”.

For although it is true that God has need of us in one direction or another, it is equally true that however well we meet his need, we confer no favour on him.  As Our Blessed Lord himself put it, “…when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’ ” (RSV, Luke 17:10).

No, our attitude has to be that of the tax-collector.  He was desperately conscious of his own unworthiness to enjoy any relationship with God.  And at the same time he was filled with an aching need for that relationship.  It was that sense of unworthiness and that aching need which together made him acceptable to God.  And it is only so that we in our turn can be acceptable to him also.