Wow, I am so thankful I’m not anything like that Pharisee! No, wait…. Oh, crap.
You know, the biggest problem with humility is that, unlike all the other virtuous qualities we humans can aspire to and even develop, as soon as we achieve any level of success at it–and show even the tiniest bit of pride in doing so–we’re automatically sent back to square one. Once again, life can be so unfair.
The more I read, study, and meditate on Jesus’ parables the more I’m struck by his propensity for “gotcha!” moments. Here in this one there’s two characters, two guys who couldn’t be more different. No doubt they lived in mutually exclusive worlds.
Tax collectors were hated by all the Jews because they (1) not only consorted with the Roman occupiers by striking deals to collect Caesar’s despised taxes, but (2) they made a living by extracting a little something extra for their time and effort. There was no way to pay your taxes directly to the Romans [I guess we should be grateful here in the USA for the IRS; here’s an interesting article on today’s “private tax collectors”] , so what the Jewish tax collectors were doing, in essence, was charging interest on the principal. Jewish law was quite explicit about that: usury was a sin, and it was absolutely forbidden to charge a fellow Jew interest on a debt of any kind. (Interestingly, Jewish law permitted Jews to charge interest on everybody else, but that’s another story for another day.)
At least it’s obvious that the tax collector back in the far corner of the temple courtyard knew enough of what he was doing to recognize his need for forgiveness. The story doesn’t tell us if he, like another tax collector named Zacchaeus (who by the way is the focus of next week’s Gospel lection), was so overcome by remorse that he eventually made it up to all the taxpayers he’d cheated over the years. But he at least “knew his place.”
The Pharisee knew “his place,” too. It’s not hard to imagine him as a good, solid citizen who was respected within society for his religious knowledge and practices. He’d probably make a good neighbor. If he were to borrow something from you, you could be confident it would be returned. Furthermore, he knew he was a “good guy.” He liked having people look up to him, and he was grateful to God for all his many blessings. And I am pretty certain he attributed his good fortune to his obvious relationship with God. Sort of a “Prosperity Gospel” for first-century Judea.
“I thank God that I am not like other men,” he loudly proclaimed. And he wasn’t like other men; in particular, he wasn’t anything like that tax collector way back in the shadowy corner.
Yet which guy does Jesus commend?
Hey, what’s wrong with flaunting a little of what you have, especially if it helps maintain your place in society, to remind your neighbors how lucky they are to know you?
Some of Jesus’ parables and stories and interactions are a little difficult to transport over twenty centuries so that they make any kind of sense in our day. But not this one. And that’s what makes it uncomfortable for all us good, church-going, respectable, law-abiding citizens.
How often do we hear prayers in church include words something along the lines of “Thank you, God, for all our many blessings!” I’ve done it. Admit it: you’ve done it, as well. So does that make us all Pharisees? Well, yes it does.
What is our place in God’s kingdom? We’re all sinners in need of redemption. We simply can’t make it to “heaven” or “goodness” on our own. That’s why God’s only Begotten–God’s own self–came to earth as Jesus and, by the power of God, defeated the principalities and powers of this world to become the first resurrected being, the initial foretaste of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
Because that is so, we too have the hope and promise of being called forth someday to resurrected life. And it starts with the recognition that we are sinners in need of a merciful God.