Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Pharisee and the tax collector

Several weeks' ago, I was on Fountain Square in Cincinnati on a beautiful Saturday morning.  A man came up to me and asked for money for coffee.  He was African-American, middle age, thin, and had a small beard.  I reached into my pocket and pulled out my wallet to give him several dollars.  Then, I discovered that I didn't have anything less than a 20.  I quickly debated with myself what I should do.  I didn't want to turn him down at this point.  So, I gave him a twenty and told him to buy some food to go with his coffee.  I felt good about giving him the 20 and seeing his obvious surprise and happiness.  But, I suspect that he didn't use the money to buy food.

This incident came to mind when I read today's Gospel.  The Pharisee in the Gospel had his act together.  He does more than his religious obligation requires. He observes the evils of the world around him and gives thanks to God that he is not part of it, like “the rest of humanity, greedy dishonest, adulterous….”  What’s more he thanks God for his good behavior and his upright life. Why, he even exceeds the religious demands of first century Judaism!  His prayer sounds right.  But, we know there is a problem because Jesus is obviously telling this parable with a critical eye towards the Pharisee.

The Pharisee isn’t praying with his community. He is by himself praying prayers in the first person singular. He says: " I am not… I fast… I pay tithes.”  He is not praying for his community or those in need. He is detached from anyone else. He isn't crediting God for his life, since the prayer is focused on himself, not God. God really doesn’t seem to play any part in his life.

The tax collector would have been despised by his community. After all, tax collectors were Jewish men who made a very comfortable living, raising taxes from the Jews for the Romans.  He is not the subject of his prayer, God is. God is doing the work and he is a recipient of God’s mercy.  He says:  “Oh God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He is not focusing on his actions, good or bad, he’s trusting in God’s mercy.

Jesus extols the tax collector’s humility: he knows himself and doesn't pretend to be anything other than himself. He relies on God to do for him what he can’t do for himself,   He can’t claim mercy based on his merits. But he asks for it and trusts that God will give it to him.

Jesus’ listeners would have been surprised by this parable. They would have held the Pharisee in high regard. But the parable shows us our proper relationship before God, based on God's merciful gift of forgiveness, and not the merits of our actions.
The parable is a caution for all of us, especially those who consider themselves to be religious people. We have to be awake to our own spiritual poverty.  Since Jesus kept company with sinners, he would expect us, as his disciples, to do the same.   The love of God which we profess can turn into self-love. We can look upon the gifts we have from God as rewards for our behavior. Like the Pharisee, our prayer can easily become a boast. When the Pharisee prayed in the  Temple that day, his relationship with God wasn't growing. But the tax collector left changed by God’s grace from his prayer.

Jesus addresses the parable to “those who were convinced of their own righteousness.”  We don’t like people who are “self righteous” -- like the Pharisee.   In the second reading, Paul credits his righteousness not to his work, but to his faith in Jesus. That faith is a gift from God which makes him “righteous” , not self-righteous. In the parable,  the tax collector turns out to be righteous, or just, in God’s eyes. He is in right relations with God.

Getting back to my encounter with the beggar on Fountain Square.  I really don't know him so I can't say whether he would be considered righteous or not.  But, as a beggar asking for money for coffee on a Saturday morning, I expect that he probably isn't proud or arrogant.  In fact, he might be more trusting in God that I am.  He might even have given thanks to God for this twenty that this guy on the square happened to drop on him.  I wonder when I look at a beggar, if I can truly say "there but for the grace of God, go I."  I wonder if I might be considered righteous or self-righteous in the eyes of God.   Today, I would encourage all of us to analyze our relationships with others, especially the poor, to determine whether Jesus might find us to be humble like the tax collector or self-righteous like the Pharisee.  

1 comment:

  1. so long as the money went for food and coffee. Would you buy a beer for an alcoholic? I hardly ever give out money to strangers, but I have been known to buy them breakfast and actually eat with them. You hear some heartwarming stories. Others have refused my offer.