Today’s Gospel concludes a diptych on prayer begun last Sunday in the familiar Lukan pattern that juxtaposes a story in which a woman is a central character with another that has a male protagonist. It also provides a bridge to next Sunday, when another tax collector is praised.
The beginning of the parable seems harsh: Jesus speaks to people who were convinced of their own righteous state before God and despised everyone else. (Since the previous parable spoke of God’s chosen ones, this rebuke may have been directed at Christian disciples.) Contemporary Christians, however, hear this parable with a strong bias against the Pharisee. The Pharisees, one of many Jewish reform movements in the first century, were lay, not priestly and sought to find God’s presence in all the daily routines of life. It is not surprising that a Pharisee goes to the Temple to pray, and even his prayer is not as self-serving as it seems. The original hearers would not have been instantly critical. His prayer is twofold: a prayer of thanksgiving (eucharisto- ) to God for preservation from sin and an account of his fidelity in observing the prescribed fast and in giving tithes. Even the converted Pharisee Paul can boast of his piety and observance of the law and contrast them to others (Phil. 3:4-6), and in one of the psalms from Qumran we hear, I praise you, O Lord, that you have not allowed my lot to fall among the worthless community (Hodayot 7:34). To thank God for election and to speak of one’s devotion do not of themselves make a prayer hypocritical or self-congratulatory.
What is surprising is the presence of the tax collector. These are not the publicans mentioned in the classical sources, that is, powerful people who gained the contract to collect taxes and engaged in massive exploitationto such a degree that Julius Caesar suppressed the institution. They are rather petty bureaucrats, who collected taxes for the ruling Romans or Herodian kings. They were disliked as agents of oppressive regimes, probably did engage in shady transactions and also were thought to be unclean because they had frequent contact with Gentiles at forbidden times. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus betrays a penchant for associating with them, so much so that before he is ever called Lord and Christ, his title seems to have been glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Lk. 5:34).
The defect of the Pharisee is not that he gives thanks for what God has done for him (protecting him from evildoers), but in his prideful disdain for other people. He contrasts himself to a rash of unsavory peoplethe greedy, dishonest, adulterersbut saves the tax collector for the end. His very position of prayer betrays his pride. He steps apart from the crowd, as if God could not notice him wherever he is. The tax collector simply stands at a distance and will not even raise his eyes to heaven. His bodily gesture is itself a prayer before he pleads, O God be merciful to me a sinner! He goes home made just in God’s eyes. The justice of God accepts the unjust and the ungodly and is harsh on the dutiful and the respectable. The parable summons us to a prayer of love and trust in God’s mercy and frees us from the need to tell God who is a sinner and who not.