The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector ranks with the Good Shepherd parable as the one where we feel confident that we have got the message. Its message, at least its primary message, is delivered unambiguously in the closing sentence, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled and. whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” It is pure, clear Jesus-speak and we all accept it. What is not so transparent is the other message or messages which, as in so many parables, may be lurking inside the story and which may have determined the choice of characters who set the scene.
Pride comes in many forms, there is even a good sort of pride, but all of us know people who boast inordinately of their achievements, sporting, academic or both; of their breeding, their wealth, their charity, their lovely garden or their successful grandchildren. That’s standard – a part of life.
What Jesus is doing in this story is contrasting unfavourably the more detestable man whose boast is his observance of religious law against the man who was not just humble, in the sense of being un-boastful, he was an actual, though sorrowful, sinner; a man who habitually defied the rule book of his religion and may not even have had the realistic option of changing his way of life. It is a scenario with which most of us will be familiar within our own families or circle of friends in that minefield of uneasy consciences, the out-fall of marital breakdown and the establishment of new relationships and responsibilities from which it would be hard, if not impossible, or even wrong, to get disentangled.
Am I, you may be wondering, about to say that the rule book is of little significance so long as you have a loving, contrite and humble heart? Decidedly not. If we did not believe that the Church has a function in promoting good order, godliness, justice and peace in this world, none of us would have reason read privately or to hear publicly, God’s Word read and preached upon. But even the most conservative Christians will acknowledge that Jesus, in his time, was radical and unfettered in his judgement of established authority, frequently supporting it in principle but fiercely critical of its ruthless application. “Woe to you who lay burdens on others which you will not lift yourselves.” What he cannot abide, as we see in this story, is to have the poor, the unfortunate and the inadequate classified dismissively as sinners through circumstances which may, in large part, not be their fault.
Then as now our terminology is bad. We use that catch-all word “sin” to cover both cruel and callous evil and also the technical infringements of regulations about which the Pharisee was so self-righteous. He may have fasted twice a week and paid his tithes, but where was his compassion towards those less fortunate than himself? Where was his compassion for the tax-collector?
The practical outcome of all this is not easy to resolve. The Pharisee was, of course, right to obey the letter of the law and had the good fortune to live in circumstances in which he could easily do so. Likewise, we all know of people who have been particularly attracted to the Catholic Church by the clarity of its rules and regulations and the firmness of its moral prohibitions. But a priest has only to spend time talking to his parishioners to be reminded that life is not so simple for everyone, not even for the most devout.
In Jesus’s time, to be a public servant or tax gatherer for the Romans was tantamount to collaborating with the occupying powers. What is more, they made their money by extortion or receiving bribes and were classified by the law-abiding as irredeemable sinners along with the prostitutes. Yet Jesus says this man went home justified, at rights with God and that the Pharisee did not. As in so many instances, such as his famous dictum that the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath, our Gospel message is reminding us that we are all weak; that the Church is to be the Church for Sinners and that we must not allow faceless legislators to curtail our freedom to do what is right and helpful for those who are in trouble. In God’s Church, law and compassion are to go hand in hand and the experience of the ages has been that we need a framework of ideals and guidelines and even clear rules to help us do this.