Gospel according to Luke (18:9-14)
JESUS addressed this parable to those who were convince 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 thanks you that I am not like the rest of humanity-greedy, dishonest, adulterous-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 whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Parables are not only pious stories that intend to make a single point. Rather, they are wisdom-tales that are meant to provoke us, to confront or even accuse us, in the same way that the prophet Nathan’s parable brought King David face to face with his guilt (cf. 2 Sm 12:1-9). Jesus did not mean to portray the characters of his parables as stereotypes of protagonists and villains, although often enough they are read and preached about as such.
Instead, the various personages featured in the parables are held up to us like mirrors into which we can peer and see aspects of ourselves. Thus, we do not end up finger-pointing at anyone, as we may be tempted to do when we read about the character of the Pharisee.
Instead, seeing our own weaknesses portrayed by the characters, we are drawn to bow our heads, beat our breasts, and with the tax collector, raise to God a prayer from the heart “O God, be merciful to me, a starter!”
Luke’s presentation of the intended hearers of Jesus (v. 9) has shaped the most common and popular reading of this parable. The Pharisee is seen as fitting the description of “those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” What feelings does the character of the Pharisee evoke in us? Does he remind us of real-life people? Once we begin judging the Pharisee and the way he degrades the tax collector, and once we begin associating his behavior with real-life people whom we know, then we ourselves are caught in the trap—we have acted exactly like the Pharisee. And if we are honest enough, we will recognize that the same dark tendencies to judge and belittle others lurk within us.
Situating the parables in their first-century context can greatly enhance our understanding of them and steer us clear of the prejudices that have colored their reading and interpretation in the course of history.
Parables often turn upside down the expectations of their original hearers, and this is true for this Sunday’s parable. If we today are not shocked by the portrayal of the characters, it is because we have been conditioned to see Pharisees as hypocrites, and we know almost nothing about the sentiments of first-century Jews toward tax collectors. For us, the tax collector is the protagonist and the Pharisee the villain. But in the parable’s original context, Pharisees were respected teachers who tried to lead the people to covenant-faithfulness. Instead, tax collectors were collaborators of the Roman oppressors and were despised as traitors by fellow Jews. In reversing the expectations of his hearers, Jesus implicitly invited them, and invites us now, to go beyond appearance, to search the depths of things, and to connect with one’s interior, in order to live authentically. We do not have to take the side of one character and oppose the other. We can draw precious lessons by looking deeply into both characters. The Pharisee overlooks the fundamental truth that God alone can bestow on a person the status of righteousness. And God does not need a litany of qualifications, for God looks at the heart and judges. Thus, one’s confidence must rest in God alone. As to the tax collector, his contrition is no doubt authentic. But it leaves us with one nagging question: if his occupation becomes the number one occasion of sin for him, would contrition suffice in living an authentic Gospel life?
– Sr. Bernardita Dianzon, FSP