It’s not a long story, and so he paints the scene in broad comic strokes, or so it might appear from the opening lines. He’s taken a couple of common stereotypes and set them against each other – so far, so satirical – but he uses them to hit us with a twist ending. This story doesn’t end how it should. But hey, no spoilers just yet.
The first character is a Pharisee. Best known for being the main antagonists in Jesus’s day-to-day ministry, they were one of the four main branches of Jewish thought at the time (the others being Sadducees, Zealots and Essenes). But here’s the thing – despite their reputation, they weren’t bad guys. In fact, they were considered to be the popular party, men of the people as opposed to the ruling classes. We need to remember this to appreciate the real power of this story, because we’re so used to Pharisees only being remembered as villains. But they took religion out to the public, giving everyone the chance to participate in the sanctification of Israel rather than leaving it to the priesthood and involving themselves in debates over the best way to implement their beliefs in day-to-day life. It’s probably this decentralised, populist approach that meant they were the group that survived the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, ultimately evolving into the Rabbinic Judaism we know today.
So it’s interesting that the gospels draw attention to their more negative qualities, although in this case there doesn’t seem to be too much wrong with what the Pharisee says: “‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’”
Fair enough, right? He’s not a robber, or an evildoer, or an adulterer. He fulfils his religious duties. Okay, he might sound a little pleased with himself, but there are worse people in the world. For instance, the guy standing next to him. Here’s the thing – the Pharisee may have come across as pompous and self-righteous, but next to him is a tax collector. If the Pharisees are being painted as comedy vicars, the audience would have been expecting the knives to really come out now. Tax collectors were despised – given local franchises by the Romans, they would not only ensure that the Empire got its cut, but would also take extra for themselves. It was a system that encouraged poverty, and as a result tax collectors weren’t just seen as a necessary evil, they were hated. Jesus encounters a few of them throughout the gospels and each time the encounter leaves people angry.
So there are a lot of ways a contrast between a pompous priest and a moral invertebrate can go. Most of them would involve putting the boot into the tax collector – after all, righteous indignation demands it. Make fun of the religious authorities, sure, but at least they weren’t stealing bread out of the mouths of children. If this parable was looking like satire, the punchline has to involve ripping the tax collector a new one. Otherwise you have to give the kicking to someone who’s trying to preserve Judaism in the face of oppression and compromise, and that just wouldn’t be fair.
And yet guess what happens?
The tax collector, who’d you’d expect to be praying whilst counting his money, only to be dispatched by a well-aimed lightning bolt actually turns out to be well aware of what people think about him. “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Wow. The tax collector is repentant? That’s enough of a twist in itself, but then Jesus really puts the boot in: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This story isn’t about nice guys verses bad guys. It’s about attitude. Look again at what the Pharisee says – “I thank you that I am not like other people.” In other words, there’s something intrinsic about the righteousness of the Pharisee. It’s built in – God made him better than everyone else. And so, if you’re fundamentally better than those around you, why shouldn’t you indulge in a little judgmentalism – after all, they’re not as good as you.
Of course, he’s wrong – we all fall short of the glory – but again, maybe the problem here isn’t sin. Maybe it’s memory, because the Pharisee forgot that he was a sinner and the tax collector didn’t. And therefore the tax collector had the self-awareness to throw himself on God’s mercy, while the Pharisee doesn’t seem aware that this is even necessary. And there’s his problem – his hypocrisy. That’s why Jesus goes after him so hard, because he’s always been more concerned over attitudes that keep people from God rather than outright sins – after all, it’s easier to deal with blatant sinning that people feel moved to repent over than it is to deal with an attitude that makes you think you don’t have anything to be sorry over in the first place.
I guess that makes it a parable for today, right?