“One achieves uprightness before God not by one’s activity but by a contrite and humble recognition of one’s own sinfulness.” – J. A. Fitzmeyer
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a story of divine reversal that challenges us to reexamine our value systems and the way we evaluate ourselves and other people. We find in it the two characters’ contrasting interior attitudes, external behaviors and their respective self evaluations.
On the one hand, the Pharisees were known for their strict religious observance. The man in the story is a model of Pharisaic practice. Religiously speaking, he is beyond reproach. Dianne Bergant says that he is perhaps accurate in his self-description and in his negative evaluation of the tax collector.
On the other hand, tax collectors were despised as traitors by the Jewish people for being part of the economic system put in place by the Roman occupiers. They were also considered corrupt for often helping themselves with their tax collections. It is significant to note that the tax collector in the parable does not deny his involvement in such common practices. In fact, his prayer for mercy can be interpreted as an admission of his culpability.
The contrast in the internal disposition of the tax collector and the Pharisee is also very evident in their respective demeanor. The tax collector stands at a distance while the Pharisee may either be standing in front or in the midst of those in the Temple. He does not raise his eyes to heaven while the Pharisee easily does this. He beats his breast while the Pharisee’s arms are highly outstretched to the heaven. His demeanor is that of a repentant sinner while that of the Pharisee shows exaggerated self-confidence and even self-righteousness.
The two characters of the parable, according to Bergant, have described themselves correctly. However, the surprise in the development of the parable is when Jesus’ evaluation turns the story upside down. The Pharisee’s self-assessment is really a self-eulogy. Some commentators say that he is actually praying to himself and not to God. While he may be living an upright life, he takes credit for this and claims superiority over others by comparing himself with the tax collector. He is making himself justified before the Lord. The repentant tax collector, on the other hand, acknowledges that justification comes only from God. He prays that his sins be forgiven and his prayer is answered. The Pharisee does not need God for anything. He is sufficient by himself and so he receives nothing from God.
According to Patricia Datchuck Sanchez, Jesus’ parable, which is directed toward “those who believed in their self-righteousness,” returns the prerogative of judgment to God. By judging himself and others, the Pharisee is not only doing self-eulogy; he is also guilty of some sort of self-idolatry. J. A. Fitzmeyer says that “one achieves uprightness before God not by one’s activity but by a contrite and humble recognition of one’s own sinfulness.” Between the two characters in the story, it is the tax collector who has been given such righteousness before God. Sanchez is definitely correct in saying that “forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption are gifts from God that only the humble will recognize and only the needy will receive.”
as published on October 27, 2013, Parish Bulletin
About Fr. Robert and his reflections