We read so much about the Pharisees in the New Testament that it is easy to forget that during Jesus’ ministry they were not the only nor even the most powerful Jewish sect. Scholars tell us that they have such a prominent place in the New Testament because the Pharisees were the only organized group of Jews that survived the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. They were in effect our only Jewish competition. The Pharisees were serious and thoughtful people with noble aspirations. They sought to bind everything they did in the day to God. Perhaps then a more important reason the Pharisees are mentioned so often in the New Testament is that Jesus, the gospel writers, and Paul saw them not only as competition but as a warning. The corruption of the best is the worst and Christians who also sought to give their entire lives to God could fall into the same trap.
The stage is carefully set. The parable is addressed to those who were convinced of their own righteousness. Righteousness means being in a good relationship with God. We may feel and indeed be in a good relationship with God, so Luke immediately puts some tension in the story “and despised everyone else”. Could that be me?
The word Pharisee means separated ones. The original impulse was most likely anti-colonial. They wished to distance themselves from foreign corruption. However, by the time of Jesus they saw all who did not take their rigorous interpretation of the Law as beneath them. Thus, the Pharisee in today’s parable thanks God not for his grace much less forgiveness but for not being like others. Indeed, like the older son in the parable of the loving father with the prodigal son, he accuses other people of sins he could not possibly have known they committed. A very revealing sign indeed. He then lists the acts of piety that he performed, fasting on Mondays and Thursdays, and giving more to the temple than was strictly required. We have no reason to doubt his sincerity or truthfulness, but as Luke has already shown us that despite his noble actions, he is not a noble man, and we follow him at our peril.
He has defined himself not in relation to God but to an “other.” Indeed, to “the” other. The tendency to construct an “other” to whom we can attribute all that is bad and wrong with the world and hurtful to us is very dangerous. In our age, this is mostly racial, but the Pharisees lived before there was any real concept of race. Their other was those who did not share their view of living the law. The desire to find a scapegoat is universal and creative. One can always be manufactured with very little effort. The clearest sign is that “the” other is simultaneously both super and sub human.
Before we condemn the Pharisees, let us look at contemporary America as we approach the elections. We are so polarized that there seem to be only two options. We are expected not only to choose one but to hate those who have chosen the other. Although even the most superficial reading and understanding of Catholic Social Teaching would make this binary choice impossible it would be naive to believe that this division and separation are not found in the Church. I fear that many of us go to the voting box not as Christians but as Pharisees. Several surveys have indicated that the desire to frustrate the desires and plans of one’s opponents is a greater motivation for voting than accomplishing one’s own positive goals.
Now to the tax collector. Like Zaccheus who will meet in next week’s Gospel; he has sold out to the colonizers and now is having second thoughts. Luke is acutely aware that money, position, and power are the strongest chains and the most difficult to break. The tax collector is trapped, isolated from God and neighbor and knows only God’s mercy can help him.
Mercy for the ancient Jews is different from our understanding. For us, mercy usually is something that a dominant person may or may not offer a subordinate. Our idea of mercy can easily maintain man-made distinctions and reinforce the power of the other.
The word for mercy for the Jews comes from womb. Mercy is womb love. It aims to bring people together so intimately that the best analogy is sharing the same womb.
There is no “other” with mercy, there are no boundaries. There is no room for the pharisaical instinct, the particular temptation of good people to take hold. The tax collector is asking for all the boundaries between himself, God, and neighbors to be removed. He does not know how this is possible but knows that he cannot do it himself, only God can.
He is perhaps not a very good man. His journey will be long and difficult, but he has begun from a solid starting point, the mercy of God. We can easily see why Jesus says that he has left justified. He has a relationship with God, tenuous but nonetheless real.
The Pharisee is not justified. God still loves him but without a knowledge of his sinfulness, his relationship is based on an illusion. Once we define ourselves by a relationship other than with God, we make that person or group God, and blind to our chains we are more trapped than the tax collector.
If there are spiritual decedents of the tax collector in this church today, welcome and I remind you that the first step is Confession. You will be amazed at how good you will feel afterward. To those of us here who have a touch of the pharisee, and I include myself first and foremost, the only remedy is community. We are made righteous not by not creating an “other” to hate but by finding brothers and sisters to love.