The Prayers of Pharisees and Tax Collectors

On the Readings for Sunday, October 27, 2013

• Ex 17:8-13
• Ps 121:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
• 2 Tm 3:14-4:2
• Lk 18:1-8

“But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? “

That direct and challenging question concluded last week’s Gospel reading, the parable of the widow and the unrighteous judge. It is worth repeating here, first, because it is a question for each of us to contemplate on a regular basis and, secondly, because today’s Gospel reading is both an explanation of the question and an exhortation to authentic faith.

Having asked the question, Jesus then told a parable specifically addressed “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” There is, in other words, a false righteousness and a true righteousness. The former is a product of our own making, based in the belief that we can make the rules and then fulfill them perfectly on our own. This usually involves external actions, especially those deeds that draw positive attention to ourselves, for our own sake.

This, of course, is what the Pharisee does in going up to the temple and taking “up his position”, that is, a position of prominence. However, we should be careful to not simply write off the Pharisee as an arrogant hypocrite; we should be mindful that his fasting and tithing required real and substantial effort. In fact, as biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias notes, “To its first hearers the parable must have seemed shocking and inconceivable”, precisely because the Pharisee’s prayer was the sort of prayer a Pharisee—a defender and interpreter of the Law—would be expected to utter. It was the norm, and as such Jesus’ criticism of it was likely startling to many of his listeners.

As is the case in many parables, Jesus purposefully created a strong contrast between two very different groups or individuals. His point was not to say that all Pharisees were alike. The portrayal of the Pharisees in the Gospels is far more nuanced and varied than is often admitted: Nicodemus came to visit Jesus in secret (Jn. 3:1-5) and other Pharisees were clearly interested in learning from Jesus (cf. Lk. 7:36-50; 14:1-6). We are used to hearing of how hypocritical and disingenuous were the Pharisees, but that perception was hardly widespread in first century Judaism.

In a related way, it would have been rather strange to hear of a repentant, humbled tax collector, for tax collectors were widely reviled for being corrupt, greedy, and ruthless men who put allegiance to the Roman empire ahead of any other concern. Yet the tax collector “stood off at a distance” and would not even raise his eyes to heaven, a sign of his clear recognition of sin and unworthiness before God. “You see him abstaining from all boldness to speech,” observed St. Cyril of Alexandria, “He seems devoid of the right to speak and beaten down by the scorn of conscience. … You also see that he accuses his own depravity by his external manner.”

The tax collector’s prayer, it appears, was silent; he knew he was deadly ill with mortal sin and in desperate need of a divine physician. He was, without a doubt, the very thing the Pharisee believed him to be: greedy and dishonest and everything else. But rather than mention, like the Pharisee, what he has done, the tax collector simply begs for mercy while stating directly who and what he is—a sinner. Perhaps he was familiar with the great Psalm of David, which states, “My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit; God, do not spurn a broken, humbled heart” (Psa. 51:19).

Authentic righteousness and holiness are gifts. “The sinner is justified,” taught St. Thomas Aquinas, “by God moving him to righteousness…” Humility is necessary, for humility is the recognition of who we are in the light of God’s holiness. “Never place yourself above anyone,” warned St. Basil the Great, “not even great sinners. Humility often saves a sinner who has committed many terrible transgressions.” God is the God of all, but he is the Savior of the humble and contrite.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the October 24, 2010, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.