Year C: Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Luke 18: 9-14

He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

A couple of thoughts for private reflection:

People pray according to how they think and from where they are. The question is; how do we pray from where we are and also from the right posture or “right relationship” to God?

How we pray, think and act determines our relationship to God and neighbor

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is your reaction to today’s parable? Does your reaction teach you anything about yourself? If so, what?
  2. If we read this parable and then think to ourselves “thank God I’m not like the Pharisee” doesn’t that mean we are making the exact same comparison the Pharisee is making to the tax collector? In what areas of life are you “self-righteous” in your thinking?
  3. In what ways does this parable expand your ideas about being blind to your own sinfulness, detachment from neighbor and need for God’s mercy?
  4. How does your humility before God take shape in your relationship with others?

Biblical Context

Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ

Each time we meet the Pharisees in the Gospels, we are tempted to paint them with a broad brush, assuming they are hypocrites, enemies of Jesus and masters of the picky detail. In reality, their way of life and their teaching were probably closer to Jesus’ own than almost any other group of the time. (One would hope that the disciples were a little closer to Jesus’ example, but even they blew it with competition, seeking honor and avoiding the hard things.) The Pharisees were a religious group striving to be holy, something like religious communities or lay ecclesial movements today. In any community like that, the members’ ardent desire to become better can get detoured into exclusivity. Their love of understanding the law can degenerate into legalism and their willingness to be public about their commitment can become ostentation. Unfortunately, once one is on that path, the tendency to go downhill is hard to stop.

The Pharisee in this parable has made great progress in his descent. The worst part of it is that he doesn’t have a clue about how low he’s sunk. In fact, he defines himself against external standards. First, he reminds God that he’s not like the rest of humanity, those people who violate the covenant by wanting more than their share, by evading the truth or by sexual impurity. He sounds a bit like the rich man Jesus will soon meet who fulfilled all the commandments. In essence, he’s explaining to God that there’s nothing wrong with him. Just in case God couldn’t see it clearly enough, he points to the tax collector, and by implication invites a divine appraisal of how different they are. Finally, as if giving evidence in a trial, he offers Exhibits A and B: He fasts and tithes.

The tax collector is so different from the Pharisee that he doesn’t even consider comparing himself to him — or to anyone else. He knows himself and acknowledges who he is. He simply stands before God admitting that he is a sinner. But he does have a request: “Be merciful to me.” This is not the “mercy” of which Mary sings (Luke 1:46-55). This is not the same as God’s compassion or understanding of weakness. When the tax collector asks God to be merciful (Greek hilaskomai), he’s using a word that can be translated “atone” or “conciliate.” This is the audacious request that God be the atoner, healing the breach created by sin. The person who asks for this has nothing to offer but the distance he has created between himself and God. He stands as a powerless, humble beggar who has no right, no claim on what he requests except for God’s reputation as a boundless lover.

Jesus says that this man went home “justified.” To say he was justified means that he was in right relationship with God. The Pharisee was expounding on his righteousness, relying on his works and what he saw as his worth relative to sinners. His prayer was little more than a progress report: his multi-starred transcript for the degree Bachelor of Science in Self-Aggrandizement.

The tax collector had only his humility and trust in God. In the end, that counted for everything. He was in right relationship with God because he wanted and needed God to be God. He couldn’t save himself and he knew better than to try. Francisan Fr. Richard Rohr could well be describing the tax collector’s stance when he says, “To finally surrender ourselves to healing we have to have three spaces opened up within us — and all at the same time: our opinionated head, our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body” (Breathing Under Water, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2011).

The example of the tax collector is there for all of us, especially the “religious ones” with our self-congratulatory attitudes. Perhaps if we can learn to say the words with the tax collector, we can begin to pick up on his graced mindset as well. Let us pray: O God, be merciful to me a sinner.

Humble Prayer

Elizabeth A. Elliott

The director of a high school retreat I attended as a student asked participants to write down three things we admired in other people. We’d look around the room and try to find qualities in each other that we admired.

Then she asked us to write three things that bothered us about others. In high school, where cliques are involved, that part was easier.

After we shared our likes and dislikes, the director told us those things that we dislike in others are reflections of things we dislike in ourselves. Yikes. It’s easy to see what bothers us in others, but not as much in ourselves.

In today’s Gospel story, we hear about two men praying side by side. One prayer comes from a person with a humble heart seeking God’s mercy. The other comes from a person who thinks he has done everything right. The Pharisee thanks God that he is not like other sinners, such as the tax collector standing beside him. The Pharisee feels righteous, perhaps even superior; he cannot see himself in the one whom he appears to disdain. The tax collector presents a contrast — he knows his sin, is repentant and prays from that posture.

In the first reading today, we hear: “The one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens.” The Canticle of Mary tells us that God lifts up the lowly and sends the rich away empty. The Pharisee chooses to bring his pride to prayer. The tax collector brings his humility. The Pharisee is not rewarded in this scripture for his righteousness, but the tax collector is lifted up. How can we serve God willingly so that our petitions can reach the heavens?

Watching the nightly news, perhaps we can’t help but think like the Pharisee. Thank God we are not like the sinners we see on news reports. It seems so easy to look down on others, to be glad we are not like them. We can look from the safety of our homes and say: Thank goodness we aren’t the ones shooting innocent people, igniting riots, destroying and burning homes. Yet perhaps we do need to set a fire in our hearts so we can seek God’s mercy, especially in this year of mercy.

How do you measure humility? Humility can be a tricky thing. Sometimes we tend to be overly humble and self-denigrating. We can act completely opposite of the Pharisee, who believed himself to be righteous, and put ourselves down to the point that we can’t see how blessed we are. We need to find a balance. If in our humility we can see how we have been living wrongly and pray for mercy, we can align ourselves with the tax collectors of our day.

Does our interior disposition match the exterior example of our religious observance? The Pharisee was very straightforward in his religious observances, following every law, but his interior disposition didn’t match. God hears the prayers we express in solitude as much as those we speak out loud, in public. But knowing we need to pray in solitude, like the tax collector, can help us draw closer to God.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2631), asking forgiveness is the prerequisite for Eucharistic liturgy and personal prayer. We all need to seek the mercy of God. How do we become righteous and blameless in God’s sight as we seek God’s loving mercy?

This question is as important as asking: Who are the tax collectors of our time who can teach us how to pray?