The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Do you isolate yourself from sinners or dive headlong into the dirty and broken world and love the people you encounter? The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector and the surrounding context helps us to understand who God befriends and who will stand justified before God.
While reading the parables recently, I have found it remarkable how the Gospel writers have bracketed Jesus' parables with additional stories in order to strengthen the meaning. This parable is knitted into the context of humility. We must be humble to approach God. If we read this parable thinking that we must come before God in a state of holiness, rather than in a state of sin, we receive an entirely different message.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘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.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“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.”
But if we read with a humble, sinner's heart, we will learn the true teaching and be able to apply it to our lives. This passage and all the words surrounding it point to humility as this special character trait that God desires in us—not holiness. Just after the parable, Jesus calls us his "little children." He explains that the person of child-like faith may enter the presence of God. This is because a child needs a father. The adult, however, no longer needs a father or a mother. The exalted and false-righteous have become 'spiritual adults', in no need of the Father. In fact, Jesus states emphatically, "Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."
Likewise, in the story preceding this parable we learn of a widow who is relentless in her faith. She was a humble beggar. She begged for mercy, just like we do to God. Begging is a sure sign of humility. The false-righteous are above those sort of acts. They have too much pride to beg on their knees before God, but they will put on a show if they have to.
Not only was the Pharisee in this parable not begging, he was also acting if he was above everyone else for he "stood by himself." Compare his stance to how the tax collector "stood at a distance" with eyes at the ground. The tax collector isolated himself, not because he thought he was exceptional, but because he knew that he was not worthy of being in the presence of God.
The Pharisee, on the other hand, thought that he had to isolate himself from sinners, in order to be free of sin. But by doing so, he isolated himself from the people of God and from God himself. A few months ago, Pope Francis urged priests to be shepherds who "smell like their sheep." We must all do the same: be among the people of God in all our brokenness and sin.
How many Christians today choose 'righteous' friends rather than sinners. Are we afraid to befriend God's beloved children who are lost in the fallen world? Are we afraid that we may become sinners as well? Well, we are all sinners. The false-righteous just think they are pious. So, modern Christians will say, "I am a sinner," but in the next breath, we will talk behind the back of someone saying, "How could she do that?" We make ourselves clean looking and clean smiling, but as Jesus said, we are white-washed tombs with deadmen's bones inside.
But in this parable, as is the case with so many more, God had compassion for the one who was lowly of spirit and in deep humility. And this sinner "went home justified before God."