S+L logo

Who is in the right? A reflection on the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Julian Paparella

October 24, 2019
Detail of The Pharisee and the Publican by James Tissot
Who is in the right? (Click here to listen!)
Sunday, October 27, 2019 - Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
The Gospel for this Sunday presents us with a striking parable: the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisees were a very influential group of Jews in Jesus' day: they were the powerful, ritualistic, and rigid class that wanted to keep themselves pure. Tax collectors on the other hand were despised because they were Jews who cooperated with the Romans that occupied Israel and they often took more money than they were supposed to and simply pocketed it. Jesus speaks to the crowd gathered around him and paints the scene of these two contrasting men who find themselves praying in the temple at the same time: the righteous Pharisee and the repentant tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).
The Pharisee exclaims 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 give a tenth of all my income to the Temple." Meanwhile the humble tax collector stands back in the shadows, beats his breast looking downcast and prays to God, "O God, have mercy on me a sinner." Jesus tells us that the tax collector went home in the right, while the Pharisee did not. He adds, "Whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted."
This parable points us to humility in a deep and radical way. Jesus shows us the sad reality of living with an inflated image of ourselves to the point of despising others. This is so contrary to our call as Christians to love our neighbour. Pride puffs us up whereas love lifts us up. Pride pushes us away from others and pushes them down, putting them at a distance; love unites us and helps us see ourselves and others as we truly are. Pride blinds us and hardens our hearts, making us despise what is weak in ourselves and in others. Love welcomes what is weak and embraces it.
So often the Church and Christians have been criticized for being judgmental. Sadly, this has often been the case with dire consequences. In reality, it is not possible to be judgmental and Christian: when we are judgmental we are simply not being Christian.
One of the best descriptions of Christianity I've heard comes from the preacher D.T. Niles: "Christianity," he said, "is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread." Every human being is a beggar: we are wounded, we are imperfect, we are not self-sufficient, we are not all-powerful, we make mistakes. We are hungry and we need bread. A Christian is someone who knows where the bread is. But finding bread doesn't give us anything to boast about. We remain beggars; our hunger remains. It is simply that we realize how much we need bread and where to go to find it. We are not meant to keep this all to ourselves and hoard the bread we find. The good things that God gives us in life are not just for ourselves: He wants us to spread and share them with others. We are called to point others to the bread that truly satisfies so they, too, can taste its goodness and be filled.
Jesus is the bread that satisfies all of us. He is the one who came to seek not the healthy or the righteous but the sick, the sinner, and the lost. The only thing that prevents him from finding, forgiving, and healing us is our refusal to believe that we need to be found, forgiven, and healed. Let us go to him often to taste his goodness and share that goodness with all those around us.

Julian Paparella has contributed to Salt + Light Media since 2012. He served as an intern for many summers and currently studies theology at the Institut Catholique de Paris.