Pharisee or Tax Collector: Which are You?

Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time 

Sir 35:12-14, 16-18
Ps 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23
2 Tm 4:6-8, 16-18
Lk 18:9-14

By Marc Massery

Are you a Pharisee? Or are you a tax collector?

In the Gospel reading this Sunday, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who go to the Temple to pray. Their prayers are different, to say the least. 

Pharisee
Scripture says, “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’” (Lk 18:11-12). 

The Pharisee seems to begin his prayer in the right way by thanking God. But he doesn’t stop there. He thanks God that he’s not like humanity or the tax collector nearby, who are great sinners. In other words, the Pharisee’s prayer of thanksgiving is more of an accusation of others than a sincere appreciation for what God has given him. 

After drawing out the negative aspects of those around him, he doesn’t say anything about his own sinfulness. Instead, he goes on to point out the things he’s done right: fasting and tithing. By listing his achievements against the sinfulness of others, he justifies himself before God. Finally, his prayer ends without any acknowledgement of the Lord’s mercy or goodness. 

Tax Collector
The parable continues. Jesus goes on to describe the tax collector. Scripture says, “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’” (Lk 18:13). 

The tax collector’s demeaner reveals that he doesn’t think he’s worthy to approach the almighty God. Yet he prays anyway. His prayer is significantly shorter than the Pharisee’s. He doesn’t accuse anyone else of sin, nor does he point out his own good deeds. He doesn’t twist his prayer into an exaltation of himself. Instead, he acknowledges the simple truth: that he’s a sinner in need of God’s mercy. 

Amazing Grace
Before the parable, Scripture says Jesus is directing this story to “those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else” (Lk 18:9). This implies a connection between knowledge of self and love of God and neighbor, and reveals why most of the Pharisees in Jesus' time were so corrupt. The Pharisee’s wickedness all comes down to his refusal to acknowledge his own sinfulness. Blind to his own wrongdoing, he only sees the sins of others while he jumps at the chance point out the good things he’s done. As a result of his self-deception, the Pharisee has only love in his heart for himself, not for God or for neighbor. This is why Jesus says that the Pharisee “spoke this prayer to himself.” He wasn’t really praying to God. 

As St. Faustina says in her Diary, “How can one be pleasing to God when one is inflated with pride and self-love under the pretense of striving for God’s glory, while in fact one is seeking one’s own glory?” (1139). 

Of course, we pray that we’re like the tax collector: sinners who know we are sinners, unashamed to accept the hand-out of amazing grace. As we learn to acknowledge our own sinfulness and reflect on the love and mercy of God, we can grow to realize just how much He loves us and just how merciful He really is. The more we rely on the Lord and allow His love and mercy to shape our lives, the more our hearts will be open to loving one another, even if they’re more like a Pharisee than a tax collector. 

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