Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”—Luke 18:9-14
In this parable, Jesus has concocted two fictional characters to make a point.
Jesus does this all the time. Most of the people he talked about – the stern judge, the persistent widow, the foolish virgins, the virtuous Samaritan, the wastrel son – never really lived. They are made up out of whole cloth. They never drew breath.
But Jesus is not playing fast and loose with the ninth commandment. He’s not lying. All of the dramatis personae in his parables seem so real they draw our attention to real persons we have known.
This particular Pharisee is pure caprice, but every one in the crowd thought they knew him: an arrogant, holier-than-thou, condescending, supercilious egoist of the worst kind.
The self-deprecating tax collector is also a familiar type: no less an egoist, perhaps, but a man who calls constant attention to himself through self-denunciation and exaggerated humility.
That’s not exactly the point Jesus is making in this story, but, (if I, too, may be permitted to make up characters) it’s tempting to imagine both of these men with their therapists.
“Your high self-esteem is good,” one therapist tells the Pharisee. “You have an important job and people look to you for guidance. You couldn’t carry the burden of responsibility without a fair amount of self-confidence. It’s good that you conscientiously avoid weaker persons lest their bad behavior drag you down, and it is also well that you set high personal goals such as fasting and tithing and keep an inventory of your success in reaching them.”
The tax collector’s therapist, however, is not pleased with his client’s self-scorn. “Get a hold of your self, man! You’ve got to see the good in yourself. Your constant self-denigration only intensifies your depression. Breast beating is not the path to contentment, unless your goal is purple pecs.”
This aside, it’s more likely Jesus is using these two vivid characters to make this point: God doesn’t care how high you are in the political, social, or ecclesiastical hierarchy, how pious you are, how smart you are, how humble you are, or even how bad you are. God loves us all the same, Pharisees and tax collectors alike.
There is a famous Baptist story, told with many variations but essentially accurate, that took place in Calvary Baptist Church in Washington in 1910. Dr. Samuel Harrison Greene, pastor of the church from 1880 to 1920, had issued his weekly altar call for church membership. As he looked up, Dr. Greene saw two men coming forward: a Chinese immigrant who worked in a local laundry, and Charles Evans Hughes, former New York governor and newly appointed associate justice of the Supreme Court.
According to one version of the story, Greene walked up to Hughes first and extended his hand. Hughes pointed to the other man and said, “Begin at that end of the line. At the base of the cross, the ground is level.”
Other versions of the story have Greene welcoming both men with the words, “At the foot of the cross the ground is even,” and still other versions say Hughes had just been named Secretary of State in 1921 when the incident took place. But that would have been six months after Greene died in 1920.
These are all good stories; take your pick. They, and the story of the praying Pharisee and tax collector, are making the same point. All God’s creatures are equal, and God loves us all the same.
Jesus made it clear in other stories that God also has a special love for poor people.
But it’s a bit sad to note that – despite the number of times Jesus stressed God’s special love for the poor, the humble, and the despised – Jesus’ words have been largely ignored over the past two-thousand years.
More often than not, it is the boasting Pharisee, not the penitent tax collector, who has been the icon of our admiration.
Church history has been populated with saints and sinners, and it is the sinners who star in salacious cable mini-series. My spouse and I, in our academic scrutiny of the deleterious effects of sex, power, and class on society, have studied cable interpretations of Henry VIII and other scandalous Tudors, watched two separately produced series on the Borgias, and most recently examined the brutal and erotic struggles of Lancasters and Yorks in the series, The White Queen.
If these series fall short of accurate history, it’s primarily because they leave out so much of the rape, torture, and bludgeoning that really happened. They are generally accurate to the extent they portray the arrogant self-righteousness of kings, queens, and medieval popes who justified themselves to God as God’s holy instruments.
Nor does it come as a surprise that Tudors and Borgias get the starring roles on cable, not Amma Syncletica of Alexandria or Saint Isidora the Simple.
We may actually chuckle that Henry VIII’s notion of divine right led to six marriages and overlook the execution orders he signed (according to Hollinshed) for 72,000 people. Very few of us remember him as the monster he was but think of him as an amatory, overweight chap with unusually high self-esteem.
It takes a lot of misguided imagination to interpret the words of Jesus as guidelines for ruthless monarchs to rule by divine right, or to bless class and caste systems in which most of the world’s resources are owned and controlled by a handful of aristocrats.
Few of us may actually believe Jesus endorses this horrible geopolitical imbalance, but if we disapprove, we don’t show it by the television shows we watch. We wept when relief with the Granthams, who we might otherwise regard as social parasites, got to stay in Downton Abby. And we have created in our media consumption a growing caste of superior humans who have accumulated more worshippers than Jesus did when he walked the earth (and sometimes millions of tweeps).
What is it that draws minions to the feet of the Kardashians, Miley Cyrus, or Justin Bieber? Not that these are bad people, mind you, and of course God loves the as much as you and me. But God has not lifted them above you and me.
If you have a red-letter bible, you’ll note that this passage in Luke is a droplet in a long river of red ink. Jesus has been preaching for several chapters, and his words are suitably highlighted in holy crimson. Earlier, Luke reported that large crowds were following Jesus as he “went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way through Jerusalem.” (Luke 13:22). Sometimes Luke makes it clear Jesus is speaking to crowds; at other times he is speaking to his disciples.
Whoever the audience is, one can be sure it is full of people who lived their lives in a harsh, hierarchical system where most people were powerless and subject to stern authorities. Whether they were vassals of Rome, Herod, the high priests, or richer merchants, they would have spent their lives submitting to people who believed they were God’s gift to privilege.
And chances are, most of the people within the sound of Jesus’ voice would have heard their betters bloviating about their betterness, which they would have taken for granted.
Jesus’ audience would have instantly recognized the Pharisee in Jesus’ story, and they would have been astonished that Jesus was dismissing the braggart as a hypocrite. He was chipping away at a fundamental keystone of society: the notion that the rich and powerful are entitled to their blessings and to the power they wield over the rest of society.
Jesus’ message was as radical then as it is today:
God loves all God’s creatures.
Whether they are rich or poor, powerful or powerless, admired or despised, God loves them equally.
Not only that: God is bored to tears by self-righteous braggarts of any stripe who thank God for making them virtuous.
It’s not that God does not love the Pharisee who praises himself before God.
But the words of the sinning tax collector, begging God’s mercy, are so much sweeter in God’s ears.
And locked within these words is a hidden message about God’s reign that Jesus is proclaiming:
God loves you no matter who you are, and all God asks in return is that you love God with all your mind and all your heart and all your strength.
And that you love your neighbor – whether your neighbor is a bragging Pharisee or a humble tax collector – as you love yourself.