God, be merciful to me, a sinner!
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector deals with two types of prayer (18:9-14) or two contrasting ways of relating to God. As we can note, this story is narrated soon after Jesus’ parable on the necessity of prayer (18:1-8), dealing with an unjust judge and a widow, who prays for justice persistently.
Continuing the theme of prayer, the second parable that deals with the prayer of two people in the temple explicitly condemns the self-righteous attitude of the Pharisee and appreciates the fundamental attitude of the tax collector for acknowledging his sinfulness and subsequently, the complete dependence on God’s mercy. The reader of Luke’s gospel is immediately reminded of the previous episode of the Pharisee and the sinful woman (7:36-50), where a similar contrast was shown between the self-righteous attitude of the Pharisee and the overflowing love of the sinful woman, pardoned by the Lord.
Jesus had a different way of teaching. In his teaching, he sought to turn everything upside down! He compared two different men, belonging two different classes, socially and religiously, namely, the most respected religious leader of his time, the Pharisee on the one hand and the most despised member of another group, the tax collector on the other. By identifying the two contrasting characters of Jesus’ time—the Pharisee and the tax collector, Luke, right at the outset, prepares the reader for a reversal that will take place at the end of the story. Not something unusual, in Lucan Gospel, we have several episodes of reversals that illustrate the way God thinks and acts unlike we, humans think and act. Magnificat of Mary (1:46-55) is the best Lucan example of God’s treatment of raising up the lowly: “he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (vv.51-52).
The Pharisee: I-Me-Myself
As verse 9 mentions, this parable is directed to a specific group of people, who trusted themselves and were law-abiding in their own eyes, but looked down upon everyone else in the Jewish society. The Pharisees, the group of the so-called righteous had a few clear and simple religious principles. According to them, the world is divided into good people and sinners. Those who obey the law are good people and sinners are those who fail to obey the law meticulously. As a result, God loves the law-abiding people and rejects the sinners and stays away from them. They do not deserve to be accepted by the holy God. Perhaps, the Pharisee in the parable thought that even God was like him, accepting the good people, who appear to be good from outside and looking down on the sinners.
In the present parable, these two contrasting characters are chosen not to condemn or praise either of the groups they belong to, rather how each relates to God in his own way. In the story, we find the self-aggrandizing prayer of the Pharisee that is fully focused on himself and his good works. This self-proclaimed righteousness first of all, leads him to compare himself to the thieves, rogues, adulterers and even the tax collector standing behind him, who belongs to the despised group of the society. Further, he shamelessly expresses his excessive observance of the law, by boasting about his frequent fasting, which was a common feature of Jewish piety (Lk 2:37) and also tithing. He takes full credit for his model life. Thus, in his entire prayer, he exalts himself before God and claims a very high standard of personal observance beyond the Jewish legal requirements. It is not surprising to the readers that there are already four self-obsessed ‘I’s in his prayer. In contrast, Jesus does not share the Pharisee’s viewpoint that takes pleasure in condemning others. He has already declared them to be “on the inside full of rapacity and wickedness” (Lk 11:39) and here he openly lets his audience know that God prefers the humble and the lowly to the self-righteous people.
The Tax Collector: Not me, but God
The parable presents the tax collector as an example of humility, otherwise considered politically a traitor, ritually unclean and a reprehensible character. However, his humility in the story is briefly indicated by the four details: a) he stood at a great distance; b) he kept his eyes lowered; c) he beat his breast (as a sign of repentance); and d) he cried out for mercy. The distance between the Pharisee and the tax collector is not merely a geographical or physical distance, rather it is an indicative of the great distance in their religious and social status, behavior, attitudes and even the content of their prayers. If one boasts, another cries out for mercy. In addition, the Greek text of Luke has the Pharisee using 29 words in his prayer, while the tax collector speaks only 6 words. Both begin their prayers by addressing to ‘God’ (in Greek text), but one glorifies himself, while another humbles himself. Finally, the judgment belongs to God. The verb ‘justify’ in Greek (dikaio? = to make someone just or to declare someone just or to put someone into a right relationship with God) is used in the perfect passive, indicating that it is God, who does the act of justifying. God considers the tax collector righteous, in spite of his wrong doings. And as a result of justification, which is a free action of God, he is reconciled to God.
The tax collector did not have the good deeds to offer to God, unlike the litany of the Pharisee. Perhaps, he knew that he couldn’t reverse the evil that he had done or to pay back whom he had cheated greatly. He might have realized clearly that he did not meet up to God’s perfect standard and did not deserve to be accepted by the merciful God. In sprite of all this, all that he had was his humble trust in the loving mercy of God. Therefore, he chose to admit his guilt before the merciful God, as he couldn’t expect people to forgive him. He chose to come before God acknowledging his sinfulness and therefore, he went home being justified by God unlike Pharisee, who returned home enclosed in his self-conceit.
Perhaps, if Jesus were to ask at the beginning of his parable to his first hearers, who among these two was closer to God, everyone would have undoubtedly chosen the Pharisee. Also, by Jewish standards, if anyone would not go home from the temple justified, it would only be the tax collector—the traitor, who worked for the oppressive Roman empire collecting taxes from his own people. But that is not so with a parable that deals with the theme of ‘reversal’!
God’s Mercy Justifies
We must consider that the turning point in this provocative parable of Jesus was the sincere prayer of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (v.13). His short prayer consisted of merely six words (in Greek text). But in those six words, he laid his heart bare before God, opening himself to receive his mercy. His prayer was nothing but the recognition of his guilt and an earning for the divine mercy, so that he could receive God’s forgiveness. Keeping up with the theme of God’s mercy, we can certainly understand that Jesus spoke of these two contrasting characters to illustrate that there is no sinner so bad that God’s mercy cannot forgive him and there is no righteous person so good that he can earn his way into God’s kingdom by his works, without divine grace and mercy. Therefore, acknowledging one’s wrongdoing and sinfulness before God is the necessary condtion for the reception of divine mercy.
The parable of Jesus does not condemn all the Pharisees as a group that they by nature are self-righteous, arrogant, proud, dishonest, insincere, superficial, etc. nor does it affirm that all tax collectors are humble and sincere before God. What is important in the story here is that each one receives “in spite of” and not “because of”. The Pharisee returns home unjustified, in spite of his so-called good deeds and not because he is a Pharisee, while the tax collector goes home justified in spite of his sinful past and not because of being a tax collector. Following God’s law for some, is the best way to live, although no one can follow the divine laws perfectly at all times. However, an authentic Christian life requires much more—being right with God. And being right with God does not come from whether we do or don’t do, rather it comes from depending on God’s mercy and surrendering to it.
Naveen Rebello, SVD