The Pharisee and the Tax-Collector

The Pharisee and the Tax-Collector

In this short homily for 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Father Hanly helps us understand the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector.

Readings for Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

  • First Reading: Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18
  • Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23
  • Second Reading: Second Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
  • Gospel: Luke 18:9-14

Written Homily

Today’s parable …

You do remember what a “parable” is? An open-ended story that illustrates a moral truth, and Jesus was the best of parable/story tellers.

Today’s parable was delivered to show how people pride themselves on being virtuous, and despise everyone else.

Although the parable is brief, its message strikes home with great power. The power of this famous parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector comes from its never-failing relevance.

It is as relevant in today’s world as it was in the time of Jesus. Our society is still marked by the presence of divisions among us, between those who like to think they are better than others, and at the other end of the scale: the despised ones.

Nowhere in society is this division more marked than among people who lay claim to some form of religion. How unfortunate, how sad, how unnecessary, how foolish.

The story now begins: “Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.”

The portrait of the Pharisee is a caricature of the “good man.” There is nothing in the story that the Pharisee does or says which is wrong. He stands up for prayer, because standing is the proper position among Jewish worshipers when praying in the Temple. He thanks God, and speaks of his life of caring for others.

His only mistake is that he makes a judgment on the tax-collector. “I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous, like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax-collector.”

As bad as it sounds to us, the Pharisee could still be excused for saying these things. Especially when you remember that many of the tax-collectors had sold their souls to the foreign rulers of their own homeland and made lots of money out of the sufferings of their fellow Jews, who were ground under the heel of the Roman invaders.

This Pharisee is a good man, and proud of it. He has managed to do all that God might have asked of him, and even more than what was required of him by the Law of Moses.

And now a few words about the tax-collector.

Scripture tells us that the tax-collector “stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but bowed his head and beating his breast, and prayed: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

The poor tax-collector had no great virtues to lay claim to, no religious success stories to thank God for. All he could do was ask for God’s mercy, admitting in shame that he was a sinful man.

And Jesus said to all the crowd: ‘This one went home justified, not the other; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

And why do you think Jesus chose to praise the tax-collector and not the Pharisee?

Could it be because the tax-collector was honest about himself, and the Pharisee, the poor Pharisee had not yet looked into his own heart?

The truth of the parable lies in the fact that we are all sinners. There is no one who does not need to kneel humbly before God and ask for his love and his mercy.

Ask for God’s forgiveness?

Of course, but remember God has already forgiven us.

He did so on that terrible day when His Son asked it of him from the cross: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

Ask then, but ask for God’s love, his kindness, his mercy, and all will be given us to share with one another.

No real person is like the Pharisee in the story. Who could ever lay claim to all the successes he was laying claim to?

In the parable, the Pharisee bragged about all that HE was doing and all that HE had done.

In such an approach to God, there is no room for a God who comes to fill our emptiness.

“To know our need for God,” is the beginning of wisdom, and to humbly open wide our hearts to him is the beginning of love.

It is only when we recognize our own shallowness and superficiality, our own inner needs and hungers, then and only then, can we open wide our hearts to be filled with the graciousness and the kindly, good gifts of God Himself.

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