To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody 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 up and prayed about himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—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 everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
—Luke 18:9-14, NIV
Because we do not live in New Testament days and because of the number of times that Pharisees are depicted as hypocrites, the words ‘Pharisee’ and ‘hypocrite’ have become synonyms for us. Similarly, in our society, tax collectors are strictly regulated and controlled agents of the government; whoever gets caught for tax evasion in our society generally deserves the penalty. So for us, the depiction of a tax collector as a sinner is somewhat humorous. Unfortunately, this means that this parable has a different impact on us than it did on the original hearers.
In Jesus’ day, Pharisees were highly regarded by the general public as holy and righteous people. The Sadducees belonged to the upper class and the priesthood seemed aloof, but the Pharisees commanded the respect of common people, even if they did cause a lot of grief through their imposition of religious obligations. On the other hand tax collectors really were sinners. Tax collectors worked on a commission basis: they were legally empowered to collect whatever they could get. The difference between what they collected and what they were required to pass on to Rome was their income, so you can see that the Roman taxation system not only encouraged corruption, it was based on it. So anyone who heard this parable when Jesus originally told it would assume, as soon as Jesus named the two main characters, that the Pharisee would be the good guy and the tax collector would be the bad guy. So there is a dramatic twist to this parable that we miss.
The Pharisee’s prayer was a prayer of self-congratulation. Today I doubt that anyone would get caught in a prayer like this; hardly anyone prays, “Thank God I am hot stuff” —but we sometimes do this corporately. I have heard people assert that the world is divided into two camps, Christians and evil people, and how wonderful it is that God favors the Christians, and how the evil people need to be stopped. They say this, even as they read that Jesus would rather redeem the evil people. Any time our worship turns into an aren’t-we-great-folks mutual congratulatory party, or any time we see non-Christians as enemies rather than as potential friends, we follow the spiritual tradition of this Pharisee.
Notice that the Pharisee brags that he fasts twice a week and tithes. There is nothing wrong with tithing and fasting, but there is something wrong with bragging about it. The practice of tithing was continued in the church, at least in our lip service. Christians also continued the ancient Jewish custom of fasting twice a week, except that the fast days were changed to Wednesday and Friday. Western Christians dropped this practice beginning about the 18th century, but Orthodox Christians continue it to this day.
Notice that both the Pharisee and the tax collector pray while they are standing. Jesus says the tax collector would not even look toward heaven, which implies that the Pharisee did. Here again we see the traditional posture of prayer: standing, facing heaven. This is the normal posture of prayer among Jews and Eastern Orthodox Christians today. The western practice of kneeling or sitting for prayer while bowing one’s head is reserved for penitential occasions. Many Orthodox Christians do not sit for prayer in church because they still do not have pews. Pews are a late medieval innovation in the west that have not made their way to all Orthodox churches. By saying that the tax collector couldn’t even look God in the eye, so to speak, Jesus is emphasizing how repentant he was.
Today we are concerned with the bad effects of a negative self-image and the good effects of a positive self-image, so the tax collector’s self-deprecation is out of synch with our age. Well, what do you expect? We live in a godless age! If you live a life apart from God, you will indeed be crippled by any negative assessment of yourself, even if it is accurate, because the only source of power in your life is your optimism and your confidence in your own abilities. Therefore worldly people must strive for a positive self-image, even at the expense of inaccuracy.
However, for those who serve God, an accurate self-image is more important than either a positive or a negative one, because if we esteem ourselves wrongly, it clouds our relationship with God. If we think too highly of ourselves, we delude ourselves into thinking we do not need God or that we are responsible for the blessings in our lives. If we think too lowly of ourselves, then we delude ourselves into thinking that we are too unworthy; a hopeless case that even the Great Physician cannot cure. An accurate self-assessment leads us to acknowledge and deal with our darker nature, and because God accepts us, we can accept ourselves. Our self-appraisal must be accurate and balanced: we are sinful, so we need redemption, but we are not so sinful that we are beyond help. We are good people, which is why Jesus chose us, but we are not so good that He had to choose us.
This is what I say: I am a lovable person, which is why Jesus saved me; but I am a sinful person, which is why I needed Him to save me.
Let us reflect upon our lives and take stock of our spirituality. Let us cultivate what is right and correct what is wrong. Let us take heart in God’s love and learn humility from our errors. In this way, we can learn to rejoice at our salvation.