The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
This week, in his beautiful 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
This is a very famous parable. I think most people, after a while, learn it by heart.
Remember now, a parable is a way Jesus has of teaching a deeper inner truth. And it’s an open-ended little story and you’re supposed to apply it to your own lives and come up with what you feel this parable means to you and, hopefully, when you do that, it’ll change your life.
Anyhow, it’s not a narration. It’s not something that actually took place. It’s Jesus telling the story to all of you, that you might look a little deeper and come up with your own way of understanding it, so that you might understand why Jesus has come at all.
It begins, of course, with Jesus saying:
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.”
When I was very young, about ten or eleven, my mother always used to say to me, “What would you like to be when you grow up?” She was always fishing, you see. And I would try to outwit her, because I never knew what I wanted to be even as a child, never mind what I would be when I grew up. So I would say various things like, “I want to be a baseball player.”
But one day she was kind of very strict about it and she said, “Now, Denis, tell me. What do you want to be when you grow up?”
So very sarcastically I said, “I want to be a garbage man.” Just to test it out on her, you see.
Well, she came back quick as a shot, “You’d better be a good one.”
And that was her philosophy really. She never put in front of me anything except the question, “What would you like to be?” Because she believed that children should, as they grew older, learn to take responsibility for their own lives, you see, and not to try to fit in to what the likes and dislikes might be of the parents.
Anyhow, if you asked a Jewish lady of the time of Jesus, “What would you like your son to be?” she would say, “A Pharisee.”
Because, even though we have these snippets, Jesus can be very critical of the Pharisees, Jesus owed all his preaching to the Pharisees because the Pharisees were kind of like the super Catholics, you know, the super believers. They were a group of men who set out to follow the whole Old Testament, word for word, literally, not only taking it into their hearts, but also putting it all into practice.
And they were highly acceptable and highly admired by the ordinary people of Jesus’ time. And that’s why, for instance, at the cross, the two very important men at the cross — one who takes Jesus in his arms down from the cross, and the one who gives him his grave to lay in at this time — were two Pharisees.
So the mixed feelings we get from this parable, you must remember that the Pharisees, two hundred years before these words were spoken, over six thousand died in the persecution of the enemies who came from the south to destroy their religion, and they laid their lives down nobly.
Why am I saying this? Because you don’t want to take away from here that the Pharisees were people that we can feel superior to. Because nobody believed more, nobody believed stronger, and nobody believed with a firmer foundation of faith through the bleakest and darkest of times, than the Pharisees.
And now we go to our other friend, who used to be called, in my time, the publican. These were the tax collectors. The tax collectors were also Jews. The tax collectors were a little bit like Wall Street brokers. They made money on other people’s money and they could be as vicious sometimes as the modern brokers on Wall Street can be, in terms of making money and making more money maybe than perhaps they were willing to let other people know.
Now the tax collector would be someone who the Romans farmed out taxes to. That means we would take this little area of Happy Valley and say, “In this district,” the head Roman would say, who was the officer, the head Roman would say, “You must get $300,000 of taxes from this group of people that live within the boundaries of this area. And anything you get above that, you can keep.” That’s how they got paid.
Well, they were very vicious and very unwelcomed by the Jewish people, because they felt they were traitors. First, they were working in the hands of the enemy, and the enemy, of course, at that time, was Rome. And the other thing that bothered them was, in paying the extra taxes, if they refused to pay the extra taxes, the tax collectors could bring in the Roman army who would force it out of them with their foot on the neck of these poor people until they got as much as they wanted. So you can imagine.
Now these are the two people that Jesus uses as an example.
It’s amazing and it amazed the people of his day, that the kind of the ones that we think are the heroes of this parable are the tax collectors, and the villains are the Pharisees. Yes?
And Jesus does that deliberately, I think, because he wants us to see deeper. It’s not just one class against another class. He wants you to think, “How could that happen?”
And then he wants you to understand that if you can unravel the mystery of why the hero is the tax collector and why the villain is the Pharisee, you will learn a lot about your own Catholicism and your own habits and the way that you worship.
Briefly, the Pharisees were believers in the Word. Everything that was written down in the Word, they would follow. And they were very strict about it. They followed all the commandments. Everything the Pharisee says that he does, everything he says that he does is true.
He was a greater worshipper, he spent more time in the temple, he prayed more, he did all these things more than any of the ordinary people. He fasted twice a week; the Jewish people in those days only fasted once a year. And he was out to show everyone that he was sort of a total and completely reliable person for the people of Israel to follow in terms of the law.
But the trouble with him was he compared himself to the poor tax collector and in comparing himself when he said, “I am not like one of these,” you see, he lost his credibility in the eyes of Jesus, because Jesus, and God, does not honour tax collectors and are terrible towards… or the opposite, honour the Pharisees and punish the tax collector.
So what is at the root of this story? Two things: one is love and the other one is how dare we judge other people? How dare we say that some people are better than others or “Don’t hang around with this group or this crowd of people.” You have to be… How are we, why are we the ones who judge?
Now that’s what the Pharisee did, you see. As long as you followed his way then you were the children of God, but if you were like a tax collector then you were a son of Satan.
Now, this is very common in every group of religious people from the beginning of time. Somehow we feel that because we come and we worship and we don’t do… we’re not serial killers or we don’t have these terrible… somehow we’re a little bit better than other people and we are taken more seriously by God.
Now, this is a fatal mistake, because every person born in this world is a child of God, an heir of heaven and one who must be respected, not for what he does but because he is a child of God, an heir of heaven and beloved by the man who dies for us all, Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to save the Pharisees; he came to save all those who would reach out and be saved.
Then why is he so angry? Is he angry because the Pharisee is proud?
No. Jesus’ anger towards the Pharisees is because he feels an ache in his heart.
Everything he teaches is the Pharisaical style, not the Sadducees, not the Herodians, but what the Pharisees taught and the way they taught it. And when the Romans destroyed their city Jerusalem and everything in it, it was the Pharisees who brought back Judaism and a belief in Yahweh single handed.
And this is the key to Jesus. He only gets angry at the people his heart weeps for. “Why you, you who know God and love God and serve God? How can you feel that this is only for you? You should see that it’s for the whole world. There are no longer pockets and boxes.”
The Pharisee tended to be self-satisfied, a self-made man, self this, self that. But everything was the self and Jesus knew that you can only touch God by forgetting the self. And this was undermining their greatness.
Why, Jesus says, does he hold up the money changer, why does he hold him up, the tax collector? He’s not holding him up because he’s a tax collector. He’s holding him up because the man deeply and sincerely knows that he’s betrayed his people. He knows that what he’s doing is cheating. He’s not saying, “Well, everybody does it.” He takes it so seriously that the only thing he can say is, “Have mercy on me. I’m a sinner.”
What are we? We are what God made us; nothing more, nothing less. We are what God made us and he made us with great love and affection. And every human being has that dignity because it comes from God. It doesn’t come from our talents. It doesn’t come from being better off or worse off.
But, as you notice in the first reading, God is biased towards the poor. And why is that? Because the poor have nothing, so they know their need for God, and they know their need for each other, and they know their need is greater than their need for money. For their whole world collapses, but they can get along without money, but they can’t get along without sharing, in community of love, their lives together.
And that is what Jesus is saying. He is saying the tax collector, for all his faults, and we hope he tries something else as a better business, but the tax collector knows his need for forgiveness, he knows his need for reaching out to others, he knows his need — his life, his survival depends upon this.
And this is the key. Because God is on the side of the weak. He’s on the side of the needy. He’s on the side of the humble minded. He’s on the side of the arrogant Pharisee, but he knows that the poor Pharisee, for all his good intentions, is leading people astray.
For they’re going to have their mothers say, when the little boy is asked by a Jewish mother, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” And he’s going to say, “A Pharisee.” And it’s because it’s success, it’s high level, everybody will be proud of him, it’s something to aspire to. He’s not going to say, “I want to be a garbage man.”
Now you can understand, perhaps, just a little inkling that we belong to a religion that believes everyone in the world is a child of God, created by God. Our dignity comes from that. We lay our lives down for those principles, not because of what we are, because we are weak and needy.
And if you don’t believe it, you try living one week without the food that is given to you by others, the clothes that is given to you by others, the thoughts that is given to you by others, the songs that you sing that is given to you by others.
You see the difference? When you say, “That’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine,” and then your world becomes empty and useless. And it is only when you begin to realise that Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor.” He means blessed are those who know their need for God and blessed are those who know their need for each other.
And I’ll end with one little story. And the Philippine girls will have to forgive me for this one. But there was a meeting in St Joseph’s when I was there and they asked me to give a talk after Mass and I went to it. It was a Legion of Mary meeting. About thirty-five girls were there. And they said, “Father, would you give us a talk?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ll give you a talk. What’s the subject?”
And they said, “We’re doing the beatitudes. Blessed are the poor.” “Well,” I said, “This is going to be easy. Now, are you ready?’ They said, “Yes.” I said, “How many of you come from poor families?” They all raised their hand. “How many of you work for families that are much better off than your poor families?” All raised their hand. “How many of you feel that your life is happier than their life, the people you work for?” Every hand went up. Why? Because they knew their need for each other.
And this is true if you look into your own history, when the poor streamed down from China and had absolutely nothing. I asked one of the kids that grew up in that world in Wah Fu Chuen, I said, “What’s the happiest time of your life?” And they said when they were at Wah Fu Chuen with seven people in a kind of a closet living there. And I said, “What made it?” “Gum ching (感情),” relationship between people, relationship that you could count on, relationship that you took seriously, relationship that you would lay your life down for.
And that’s what Jesus does. He lays his life down for us, that we might learn until we lay our lives down for others, we’ll be only touching on the edges of the great love that God has stored for us and pours out for us every moment of our day.
And that’s what makes this a wonderful parable. It’s not what you do for a living. It does come back. If you’re going to be a garbage man, do it with love and then you’ll understand the meaning of this parable.