The Pharisees have a bad reputation. A sympathetic portrayal includes an assessment of their goals, one of which was the survival of Israel. Although Roman authorities respected local customs, they also worked to subvert the cultures of their subject peoples. Pharisees, and indeed many other Jews, responded to Roman attempts at assimilation with ostentatious displays of fidelity to Israel’s traditions. In this environment, laws regarding diet, Sabbath observance and worship became tools of resistance and even survival. Many Pharisees probably paid a price for their fidelity by being closed out of lucrative positions of power.
Jesus addressed this parable to those convinced of their own righteousness.
When did someone else’s right word or action change your life?
Do you know someone on the verge of a change for the better? Can you help by your words or actions?
The Romans relied on local collaborators to assist them with their rule. The Romans offered significant rewards to any who supported them, especially as tax collectors and auxiliary troops. Economic opportunities were few, and the potential for poverty and debt slavery was great; many who served the empire had no love for Rome but only wanted to protect and feed their own families. Luke often hints at the instability of Roman rule. He mentions—always obliquely—multiple rebellions (Lk 23:18-25, Acts 5:33-39). He shows tax collectors and soldiers flocking to John the Baptist (Lk 3:12-14). He recounts the fascination that Herod Antipas, a Roman puppet, felt for Jesus (Lk 9:9; 23:8-10) and he describes in detail Jesus’ popularity among tax collectors (Lk 5:27-31; 7:29-34; 15:2-4; 19:1-7). In Luke’s telling, many of the most loathed collaborators were ready to hear a different message and even take up a different life. They only needed a nudge in the right direction, which Jesus was able to provide.
A Pharisee could have provided this nudge. Although their fidelity to God had a political aspect, it was also deeply spiritual. Their practice looks like an early version of what Jews even today call tikkun olam (“repairing the world”). Every act of righteousness heals some of the damage that sin has inflicted on creation. Righteous acts, moreover, gave examples for others to follow. Goodness inspires goodness.
The Pharisee in this Sunday’s Gospel reading was not following this vision. God had granted Israel the covenant and law so that righteousness would prevail among all humans. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable betrayed that plan. He used the tools of the covenant—his own faith, his good works, even his prayer—to separate himself from a fellow Israelite. Given the history of Pharisees and tax collectors, it is easy to understand his motivation, but his need for self-righteousness caused him to miss something important. The repentant tax collector was on the verge of a change of heart; all he needed was a nudge in the right direction.
The trap into which the Pharisee fell waits for Christians even today. In his preaching, Christ has given us tools to repair the world. Too often, however, Christians have used his Gospel to divide humanity further. In this Gospel passage, Christ calls us to greater humility and greater awareness. Disciples who can humble their egos and see with Christ’s eyes will find unlimited opportunities to repair the world through acts of forgiveness, generosity and loving service. Can you help by your words or actions?