The parable in the gospel for Sunday October 23rd seems straightforward. Despite that, parables are subtle and deserve close attention.
In the parable, a Pharisee judged himself to be righteous before God, though he held others in contempt. At the same time a taxpayer of low esteem begged forgiveness. Jesus said the tax collector was justified, while the Pharisee would be humbled. Here is the gospel in its entirety.
He (Jesus) also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”
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!” 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.’
The Pharisee in this parable had paid attention to guidance on fasting and tithing, and apparently the commandments on honesty, sobriety and morality … I am not like them: thieves, rogues, adulterers... and had complied with them. On the face of it, his observance of the law was good, (maybe not his contempt for others). Jesus did not criticize him for fasting or tithing.
On the other hand, tax collectors worked on “commission”. They kept a portion of the taxes they collected and were notorious for being dishonest, probably for taking more than they were entitled to and for skimming more off the top. We get a sense of standard tax collecting practice earlier in Luke’s gospel when tax-collectors came to (John to) be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ (Luke 3:12-13)
Jesus wasn’t condemning fasting and tithing nor was he endorsing standard tax collecting practice.
The point of the parable appears to be how the different persons related to God. The external rules were guides, not guarantees, of justification. Tithing and fasting expressed an appreciative relationship with God for the benefits of wealth and food. Giving a portion of one’s wealth to the synagogue and going without a meal or two were meant as ritual expressions of an internal state of gratitude, not as an adornment. (Think of the difference between wearing a cross as a piece of jewelry and wearing a cross as a sign of faith.)
The Pharisee saw his status before God as a result of his own actions. His prayer was about what he had done. It was self-aggrandizing. The Pharisee assumed that he could save himself by his own actions.
This parable’s message was that one’s orientation towards God was more important than ritual practices. The tax collector’s self-examination, acknowledging his sins and begging forgiveness were a truer sign of right relationship with God than the arrogance and self-satisfaction of the Pharisee. The tax collector also recognized that he depended on God for his salvation.
The parable also invites an examination of our own relationships to our rituals. Fasting, tithing, or attending Sunday services can be a mere formality if we do not prepare ourselves to enter into these activities humbly and thankfully. We are beyond the days when ‘Sunday best’ referred to how we dressed. (For years, my father had us shine our shoes on Saturday evening.) There was an element of performance in going to church. We may be better off for having done away with the self-consciousness of attendance, especially if we have turned our attention to greater internal preparation.
Beyond that, the parable asks us to consider our connection to God honestly. It asks us to reflect on our motives and to examine our daily activities to ensure they align with our understanding of God’s will.
In one of this morning’s other readings, Paul, in his letter to Timothy wrote with confidence, As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.(2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18) He was sure of his relationship to God and of his righteousness. At first glance, his self-assurance seems to be closer to the spirit of the Pharisee.
Paul’s confidence in this passage may seem out of step with the gospel’s message, except that Paul wrote it from a Roman prison near the end of his life. He had travelled all over the Mediterranean, been beaten, shipwrecked, driven from towns and held prisoner for the sake of the gospel. His situation was dire. Most people finding themselves facing death might have wondered what they had done to offend God. Or doubted God’s justice. Instead, Paul celebrated his situation as a sign of having endured. His message to Timothy was to remain faithful. He led by example.