The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Fr. Scott A. Haynes
Two men went up into the temple to pray: the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee standing, prayed thus with himself: O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican. I fast twice in a week: I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes towards heaven; but struck his breast, saying: O God, be merciful to me a sinner. I say to you, this man went down into his house justified rather than the other: because every one that exalteth himself, shall be humbled: and he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted.
There is a journey we all have to make, a pilgrimage we are all called to undertake, and that is the journey from pride to humility. In the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14), the statement of the Pharisee in this Gospel shows that he is in need of such a spiritual journey. His point of departure is, “I thank you God that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and especially that I am not like this tax-collector here” (Luke 18:11), but his destination needs to be that of the tax-collector, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” (Luke 18:13)
It was easy for the Pharisee to fall into the temptation of thinking he was better because he really was a good man. He fasted twice a week whereas Jewish law asked to fast only once a year. He paid tithes, giving away 10% of all his income, whereas Jewish law required one to tithe 10% of grain and firstborn of the flock. He was a really good man but he lacked compassion for others because he had not experienced problems himself. He did not have a cross to carry and so he did not have sensitivity to others who were suffering. Nothing helps to mature us like suffering does. He had never fallen in life so he was proud. Pride comes before a fall. And often a fall is what it takes for someone to lose their pride and realize that they are human the same as everybody else. When it comes to sin and grace we are all on the same playing field, none of us deserves or earns heaven, it is a gift from God to us won by Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. This is shown by a funeral custom of the former Austrian royal family.
In Vienna in Austria there is a church in which the former ruling family in Austria, the Hapsburgs, are buried. When royal funerals used to arrive the mourners knocked at the door of the church to be allowed in. A priest inside would ask ‘Who is it that desires admission here?’ A guard would call out, ‘His apostolic majesty, the emperor’. The priest would answer, ‘I don’t know him’. They would knock a second time, and again the priest would ask who was there. The funeral guard outside would announce, ‘The highest emperor’. A second time the priest would say, ‘I don’t know him’. A third time they would knock on the door and the priest would ask ‘Who is it?’ The third time the answer would be, ‘A poor sinner, your brother.’
The progression in the questions and answers of the former Austrian royal family show a progression to humility, a progression to the stance of the tax-collector in Jesus’ parable today. There is some of the pride of the Pharisee and some of the humility of the tax-collector in each of us. Each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is called by Jesus in today’s Gospel to make that journey from pride to humility. In a sense, the Pharisee thought he was God but there is only room in any person’s life for one God, so if you’re God, God in heaven loses out. That’s why in the parable the humble tax collector who asked God for mercy went home at rights with God and the proud Pharisee did not. If we are not sensitive to other people we are not very sensitive to God either. The Pharisee was not sensitive to the tax-collector and was not sensitive to God. The tax-collector was sensitive to his own failings and weakness and was also sensitive to God. Sensitivity to other people and sensitivity to God nearly always to hand in hand.
“The proud cannot bring themselves to hold out empty hands to God, they insist on offering virtues, good works, self denials, anything in order not to have nothing. They want to be beautiful for him from their own resources, whereas we are beautiful only because God looks on us and makes us beautiful. God cannot give himself to us unless our hands are empty to receive him. The deepest reason why so few of us are saints is because we will not let God love us.”
The royal Hapsburg family in Austria were allowed into the church for burial when they admitted that their deceased was a poor sinner. We are all called to make the journey from saying like the Pharisee, “I thank you God that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and especially that I am not like this tax-collector here” (Luke 18:11) to arrive at the point where we can say like the tax-collector, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” (Luke 18:13) If we experience suffering or a cross in life it is easier for us to make that journey from pride to humility. “God be merciful to me a sinner.”