Jesus addressed this parable
to those who were convinced of their own righteousness
and despised everyone else.
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity B
greedy, dishonest, adulterous B or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week,
and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
* * * * * * *
We should not think the Pharisee in the gospel story to be a liar. He truly was a decent man who sought to live according to the Law of Moses. The Pharisees were men who sought to live their religion seriously. They were exemplars of obedience to the Law. On the other and, we should not think that the tax collector was anything other than what he was accusing himself of being—a sinner. For all we know, he probably had an entire string of real nasty sins which had filled him with such guilt and remorse that he couldn’t help but accuse himself.
What was wrong with the Pharisee then? And why did Jesus seem to praise the tax collector? The problem with the Pharisee was not that he was good and obedient to God’s Law, but that he saw the source and foundation for his righteousness in his very own acts. His goodness, he believed was something that came from his very self. He failed to realize that it was God, and not himself, who is the author of all goodness and righteousness.
On the other hand, the tax collector, believing his sinfulness to be coming from his very own self, could only look to God to become the source of his salvation and forgiveness. He had nothing to be proud of. He really was sinful, he really stood beyond the pale of what was religiously acceptable. He knew that he only had his cry of mercy to hold onto. But this, for Jesus, was more than enough.
The tax collector got it right, God is the sole source of all goodness and righteousness, and before him we are all sinners. Whereas he got it right, the Pharisee erred, believing himself to be the source and origin of his own holiness. Which of the two are we?