October 23 2016
A Pharisee and a tax collector are in the temple. The setting of this parable is itself important. The temple is the special place of God’s presence. In the temple, all human pretension is gone; it is a place where the dignity of God surpasses all human symbols of status. The crucial mindset of any person is that compared with God, human dignity is insignificant. In acknowledging this fact, I am not saying that human dignity is insignificant; in fact, it is priceless because God, the one with infinite dignity, makes human dignity worthy of his Son. The Pharisee starts out by giving thanks, which is very good. Yet, in his prayer he ceases praising God and praises himself. The Pharisee sees his own good behavior and his success in following the law as something that makes him worthy of God and therefore, more worthy than others. In this, the Pharisee makes a serious mistake, he gives himself a higher dignity rather than recognizing that his dignity comes solely from God. In fact, by his prayer to himself, he practically puts himself on the same level as God. His prayer also contains a comparison of himself to others, who he judges as unworthy. The tax collector is a sinner, probably the worst of sinners. He takes money from his own people and hands it over to the hated Roman Empire while making a nice living for himself. He is a traitor of the worst sort. He too, comes to the temple. He stays far away from the Holy of Holies, he keeps his eyes lowered, he beats his breast (which is an ancient action showing a repentance for bad choices, for choosing sin) and he asks for mercy. This sinner walks away justified. The word justified means that he is right with God. Notice that he doesn’t say that he will change his ways. The tax collector knows he is a sinner and doesn’t know how to get out of it. My friends, this parable is very important for us to understand. On the one hand, we want to avoid the error of the Pharisee. However, that is not enough; the mindset of the tax collector is the example to follow. The tax collector is very simple in his prayer. He acknowledges that his actions have made him unworthy. He knows that he has no claim on God, yet his sorrow and shame do not prevent him from recognizing who God is. He calls out for mercy, not because he deserves it; he calls out trusting in God’s goodness. How often do we do that? It is very easy to let the shame of sin turn into despair. When that happens, our lives become disjointed. The remedy for this is to take the example of the tax collector and make it our own. In doing so, we learn to have gratitude, which is a response of love, for what we have received and know that we do not deserve. Gratitude then becomes our way of life and prevents us from falling into the pride of the Pharisee.
Father Ken Harder