by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“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.’”   Luke 18: 9-14

I want to suggest that the cleverness of this parable is that it draws us into identifying with the tax collector while, in actual fact, we are probably more like the Pharisee. There is some wisdom in the aphorism “All comparisons are odious!”, especially when we slip into comparing ourselves with others. The big difference between the prayers of the two men who had come to the temple to pray was that in his prayer the Pharisee measured himself against the performance of people around him (‘I am not like the rest of men’), while the tax collector looked only at his own life.

Surely, it comes as no surprise to us that we find ourselves quick to identify with the tax-collector. After all, we squirm whenever we hear anyone trumpeting a list of his or her donations to charitable organisations or their extensive involvement in volunteering activities. What’s more, centuries of conditioning have left Christians in no doubt about the reputation they are expected to attribute to Pharisees. Despite the error inherent in the label ”Pharisee”, we take Pharisees to be self-opinionated, self-righteous, hypocritical legalists intent on finding fault with almost everything Jesus said and did. They prided themselves as self-appointed guardians of religious law and practice. At the same time, history attests that many Pharisees did what was expected of them, with integrity, and respect for those around them.

Throughout history, peoples and groups have had their names universally tarnished because of the actions of a few of their members. Nigerians, for example, have been labelled as belligerent, Jews as usurers, Moonies as brain-washers, Real Estate agents as swindlers and so on. The labels simply reveal the prejudices of those who attribute them. Tax-collectors in the time of Jesus had a reputation for being extortionists and collaborators with the Romans. Yet, today’s parable presents the tax-collector’s prayer as much more to our spiritual liking than the prayer of the Pharisee. The tax-collector, recognising his sinful history and acknowledging that God’s graciousness is beyond his ability to earn it, throws himself at the mercy of God. The Pharisee, in contrast, lists his good deeds as adding up to a curriculum vitae that is bound to earn God’s approval.

We have all grown up in cultures that have taught us that competition is a worthy pursuit. We compete in scholastic exams and sporting activities with fellow students throughout our school and academic lives, working to achieve better results than our peers. That overflows into our religious activities in such a way that we can delude ourselves into thinking that we earn God’s approval by our good deeds. Rather than thinking that we earn God’s love through the good we do, we would do well to remind ourselves that the good things we do are a result of God’s empowering us to do them. The genius of today’s parable is that it impels us to look into the mirror, and to acknowledge that we see in ourselves a greater resemblance to the Pharisee than to the tax-collector.

While we don’t brag about our achievements and hard-won qualifications, we list them and our published papers in our CVs and have our university degrees and professional qualifications displayed on our office walls and business cards. We provide evidence of how we are apparently better than others. What we so easily forget is that all our achievements and successes are attributable to the blessings we have received from God.

What inspires and encourages us about the way in which the tax-collector presented himself to God was his honesty in acknowledging his weakness and his complete dependence on God’s gracious mercy.

The assertion Paul makes in today’s reading from his second Letter to Timothy reinforces the gospel message of the need for us all, when we pray, to come into the presence of God with openness, honesty and humility. Like the tax collector in his self-assessment, Paul gives a self-evaluation to Timothy that has no hint of comparing himself with others. Using a metaphor from athletics, he asserts: “I have done my best in the race, I have run the full distance, and I have kept the faith. And now there is waiting for me the prize of victory.”  (2 Timothy 4: 7-8).   His honesty is echoed by top-rank athletes who can look at their performances relative to their nearing or exceeding their own personal best. They make no comparison with those against whom they have been competing.

In this context it is important that, whenever we engage in self-evaluation, we don’t ignore our truth. Let’s not deny that we may well be intelligent, creative, talented, generous in sharing out time and talent, faithful, loyal and honest. There is nothing admirable about cultivating the disease of low self-esteem. The debilitating habit of always wanting to run ourselves down is a mockery of the truthful stance of the tax-collector before God. The practice of perpetually belittling or underestimating ourselves becomes an obstacle to ever coming to appreciate that we are loved by others, even by God. That does not mean we are perfect. We all carry human flaws and frailty. But having been created in the image of the God who loved us into life, we must accept that, like God, all of us are good, creative, loving and free when we are at our best. Sure, we need to acknowledge to ourselves and others that there are times when we are sinful, but such acknowledgement is meant to lead us to put our hope and trust in God, who not only respects and treasures us, but trusts us to be instruments of peace, compassion and mercy for others.