Lectionary Text: Luke 18:9-14
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a familiar story to many. Here is this self-obsessed Pharisee placing himself in a prominent position in front of the crowd and praying a self-righteous prayer – in effect gloating over that other player in Jesus’ story, the wretched tax collector. And yes, the tax collector is a miserable specimen, in all probability a man with a reputation for dishonesty and by virtue of his occupation, one identified as a collaborator with the hated Romans. As if that wasn’t enough, as a handler of money and an agent of a Gentile Empire the tax collector was also ritually unclean. The tax collector in the parable must have experienced a similar feeling of becoming a social pariah. As Luke reports the story, the tax collector is clearly only too aware of his own shortcomings and believes he can only pray for mercy. And of course each time we encounter this story we all think we can relate to Jesus’ conclusion. Of course the tax collector was the one who finds justification before God with his act of humble and even desperate contrition, whereas the Pharisee for all his pompous obedience to the law has somehow failed.
Our preference to associate with humility – well at least in theory(!) – certainly lines us up with one of the key features of Christ’s teaching. St. Augustine once wrote, “Should you ask me what is the first thing in religion, I would reply, “The first, the second, and third thing therein is humility.” “He goes on to say that without humility, all the other virtues are mere pretense.
Yet I wonder if the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is always totally understood? The central theme of the story raises the question about which of the two is justified by faith, yet in terms of standard theology, at first glance surely the Pharisee has travelled a good way down the path of faith. He obviously believes in the law, and the customs of his contemporary Church. He follows the main injunctions to the letter, not only giving a tithe, but tithing all his possessions. Isn’t this going the second mile, which is the sort of thing for which Jesus would normally show approval? So what is amiss?
For me the Pharisee only does what is all too common today and misunderstands what faith is supposed to be about. Faith we should remind ourselves is not so much about belief but about being faithful to the spirit of the belief, and more particularly to the extent we live the things we say we trust. Greek word for faith (Pistis) comes from the Greek Goddess of the same name. Pistis (Πίστις) was the personification of good faith, trust and reliability. Claiming belief or making a deliberate outward show of faith is simply not enough to make one seem to have these characteristics, and perhaps before we take too much comfort in our status as Church members or Christians , we should remind ourselves that many convicted criminals including a good number on death row in US prisons classify themselves as Christian.
By Rev. Dr. R. Wayne Calhoun, Sr.