9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
What does it mean to be righteous? Does it mean that you are religiously devout and follow all the protocols of the faith to the letter? Or does it involve humble submission to God? These are questions that emerge from this parable. It’s one encounter and one more parable that redefines what God is looking for from us. The characters in the parable stand as far apart as is possible in ancient Jewish culture. The Pharisees were upstanding religious leaders; tax collectors were not only collaborators with the Romans they often robbed from their own people to benefit Rome and themselves. The Pharisees were respected; tax collectors were reviled. It should be noted that both Pharisees and tax collectors tended to be wealthy. We know where the tax collectors got their wealth. It's less clear how a Pharisee got his wealth, though perhaps it was inherited wealth.
Two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum, even if not from different economic ones, come to pray, and their attitude to God and to each other are worlds apart. When we read about the Pharisees as Christians we must always acknowledge the possibility of anti-Jewish sentiment creeping in. The Gospel writers have a tendency to portray them in bad light, and we needn’t embrace that sentiment. At the same time the Pharisee in this story does exhibit the self-righteous tendencies that can afflict many a religious person. And here is the question for us—while we judge on the basis of outward things, God isn’t bound by our judgments or even our criteria. That seems to be the message of this parable.
Self-righteousness isn’t simply a religious sentiment. It emerges in a variety of contexts when we feel morally superior to those who do not follow our lead. We see this in our political stylings. We see this in the myth of American exceptionalism, where in the name of patriotism Americans (and I’m an American) feel superior to other nations, and this can lead us to a place where we are blind to our own faults. We believe that we can do no wrong. The Pharisee in this parable exhibits these tendencies. He looks down the line and compares himself with the tax collector and feels good about his superior morality and spirituality. He can take pride in his fasting and his tithing. He’s not like those “other people,” who are “thieves, rogues, adulterers,” and of course tax collectors. He is righteous and he wears it on his sleeve! Does this describe you? Or me?
In contrast to the Pharisee who is satisfied with his spiritual place, the tax collector seems contrite. He’s self-aware. He understands that he has fallen short of God’s best. He might even look across to the Pharisee and envy his uprightness. He can only wish that he was in the other’s shoes, but he’s not. He knows that despite his wealth, the people around him despise him. Not only that, but he feels as if God has similar feelings toward him. Thus, he comes to the altar in a spirit of repentance. He wants to change things. While God receives the tax collector with grace and mercy, there is the expectation of change.
It is probably helpful to take note of the encounter that will follow in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus will encounter a tax collector, one named Zacchaeus, and Zacchaeus gives evidence of his changed heart. In a reading that will appear a week from now on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost in the year C, Zacchaeus will search out Jesus, and will give evidence of a changed heart (Luke 19:1-10). Of course, that is next week’s reflection!
Before we get to Zacchaeus, we need to address the vision of God with regard to the “righteous” and the “humble.” The Pharisee represents self-satisfied self-righteous moralism. He’s got the religious system down. He knows how to play the game—something many of us have learned over time. But in his air of superiority he forgets who God is. The tax collector on the other hand may not have the same theological pedigree but he seems to better understand God’s nature.
Miguel de la Torre reminds us as well that those who are marginalized, and this tax collector probably made the decision to collude with the Romans because he knew that it was one of the few ways to survive, make decisions that enable survival not morality. We make those kinds of decisions, that may appear unrighteous, but are the result of systems that oppress. So he writes: The salvific message of the gospel that the publicans of the world, the pimps and prostitutes of today, need to hear is that they are precious and are due dignity because they are created in the very image of God. Jesus understood that part of his liberating message was to humble the proud and uplift the lowly” [Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, 2:136]. So the message of today isn’t really about the humble prayer of the tax collector (publican), but the superior airs of the self-righteous religious person.
The question becomes, how do we who are religious and hopefully seek to do what is right, that is achieve righteousness, respond to our neighbors who find themselves marginalized by systems beyond their control. Sometimes elections reveal voices of people who feel unheard, and while we may not like what we hear, there is something important revealed by their cries. In our day there are numerous voices that aren’t getting heard. That may have something to do with the attack on the “elites,” and if I’m honest I live among the elites. The reason populist demagogues get a hearing is that they tap into feelings of abandonment on the part of those with power. So, while I may not like to admit that I live within the world of the elites, due to education and privileges accorded to me due to religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, I can be deaf to the cries of my neighbors. The good news is that God is not deaf.
The difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector is that the tax collector has come to recognize his need for grace. He hasn’t let exceptionalism take hold. He’s ready to receive God’s blessing. Are we? How is this expressed? Could it be in the way in which we treat one another? Could it be that it starts with recognizing our need for God? As Cynthia Hale puts it:
Admission of human weakness and failure is taboo in our culture. It is not cool to admit your mistakes or you need help. This admission gets the attention of God, though, and it is God’s attention and approval that we need and want. [Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, 2:138].
Righteousness isn’t the same as “morality.” That is, it’s not about fulfilling our moral and religious obligations. Righteousness is rooted in justice. It has to do not with right observance, but right relationships that begin with God and spread outward. By recognizing this truth, we put ourselves in a position to be justified.