The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Thirtieth Sunday of the Year. Sir 35:12-14, 16-18; Ps 34:2-3, 17-19, 23; 2 Tm 4:6-8, 16-18; Lk 18:9-14

The contrast of the Pharisee and the tax collector in today’s Gospel is a crucial lesson about the astonishing nature of salvation. Partly because of Christianity, words like ‘Pharisee’ and ‘tax collector’ have lost some of their original power and the impact of Jesus’ message risks being lost. In today’s homily I want to try to recover some of the meaning of this Gospel as I believe that it is especially urgent for our own salvation today.

The first thing to recognize is that the Pharisees of Jesus’ time were not evil people in any conventional sense of the word; the word ‘Pharisee’ originally meant someone who was separated for a life of purity. In the cauldron of the Roman-Hellenistic world of the first century the Pharisees would have been regarded as exemplary in morals, publicly responsible and religiously virtuous. By contrast, the ‘tax collectors’ were not public servants, like members of the Internal Revenue Service today. ‘Tax collectors’ were more like state sponsored extortionists. The Romans were very pragmatic. They did not care how tax revenues were collected as long as the money arrived. The tax collectors often extorted more money than necessary and kept the balance. As a result they were despised as dishonest, traitors to their people and wholly devoid of religious virtue.

With this background, when Jesus says that the tax collector went home justified but the Pharisee did not, it would have been astonishing for his listeners. But what exactly did the Pharisee do wrong? Was he wrong to acknowledge his virtues, saying he was not greedy, dishonest, adulterous, and so on? We might think so but this cannot be right. After all, St. Paul in today’s second reading also acknowledges his virtues, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” Does the Pharisee fail to acknowledge God as the source of his virtues, as St Paul does when he says, “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength?” This might also seem plausible but, again, it cannot be right. The Pharisee in the Gospel does acknowledge God as the source of the good things he does. His prayer begins, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity.” So the Pharisee does not sin by acknowledging what is good in his life, and he does not fail to thank God. So what is the problem?

I think that the real problem is the Pharisee does not really know God, and the clearest indication of this is that he measures his success by the failures of others, “I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity … even like this tax collector.” By contrast, although St. Paul acknowledges he has sometimes been deserted by the rest of humanity, he regards such exclusivity as a tragedy. St. Paul prays for those who have fallen away and wants everyone to receive the crown of righteousness. This is very different from the Pharisee, who does not pray for the tax collector and rejoices in exclusivity. The Pharisee thinks that the love of God is like a lesser good, like a chocolate cake which diminishes when it is shared. However, Love is not like this. Love increases when it is shared, and the happiness of the saints is made greater by more saints, not fewer saints. The Pharisee does not see this, and so does not really know Love, which means he does not really know God. This is why Jesus introduces the words of the Pharisee as follows, “The Pharisee … spoke this prayer to himself, O God, I thank you.” The words ‘to himself’ implies that he is really worshipping himself; he has become his own ‘god’.

If this is what the Pharisee does wrong, what does the tax collector do right? The Gospel says that he has humility, in particular the humility to confess his sin. He is right to do so, because he is a sinner and because he knows that God’s Love extends even to sinners. Today's responsorial psalm says that no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in the Lord, and the first reading tells us that the Lord hears the cry of the weak, the oppressed and the orphan. But who is weaker and more oppressed than the soul trapped in sin? Who is more orphaned than a lost child of God? God hears the cry of the repentant sinner, and so the tax collector went home justified.

How then does this lesson apply to us? I think one of the most important lessons is that we imitate what the tax collector does and go to Confession. My greatest spiritual concern for Catholics today is that very few go to Confession. Many come to Mass and many receive Communion, although, of course, no one should ever receive Communion in a state of grave sin. However, the awesome sacrament of Confession is neglected. If we are afraid to go, today’s Gospel should be an encouragement and consolation for us. God loves the repentant sinners, even the most despicable sinners. Indeed, he rejoices in the repentant sinner, not the virtuous and unrepentant Pharisee. The Gospel says that the tax collector went home justified, right with God, and the spiritual sense of going ‘home’ in Scripture often signifies entering heaven. Wouldn’t we all want to do the same?

May God inspire us to make use of the Sacrament of Confession regularly and bring us all safely to his heavenly kingdom.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, 28th October 2007

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