He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
This parable, if we do our homework, puts us in something of a bind. At face value, the parable is written so that we will be drawn to identify with the tax collector due to his demonstration of humility, as opposed to the Pharisee who displays a sense of moral superiority. Be humble like the tax collector, and don’t be haughty like that Pharisee, and you’ll be justified before God. Simple, right?
There are many problems with this traditional interpretation and we should heed caution when we explore texts such as this. Not only can it lead us to commit the same offense that the parable is teaching against, as we thank God that we’re not like that Pharisee, more importantly, it can lead us inadvertently into perpetuating harmful ideas about the Jewish community. On the face of things it is hard for us who have minimal understanding of the cultural milieu in which this was written and so we might not fully understand the distinction between a Pharisee and “all Jews,”. The risk we run is that we fall into old ideas about Jewish people and Judaism as legalistic and out of touch. We need to explore and speak with care so as to avoid harm.
So, as we move forward carefully, what CAN we safely say about what is going on here today? Well, instead of falling into the either/or situation of the tax collector versus the Pharisee, what if we admitted the complexity of all humanity and searched for common ground? Yes, the tax man was a sinner, and yes, the Pharisee is cast as judging him. But what if the righteous acts of the Pharisee were in fact the very acts that eventually benefitted the Tax collector? When we pray “forgive us our sins” we acknowledge how one person’s harmful acts can negatively impact a community. The flipside can also be true—the righteous acts of one person can benefit the community. So I think the take away today is this: try not to judge, welcome those who wish to do the right things, and remember that your good works are for the benefit of both you and the rest of our community.