Jesus 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.’
This parable is unique to Luke, and it has the characteristic Lukan strong contrasts: heroes and villains. (Think, for example, of the rich man and Lazarus, the parable of the prodigal son, the woes following the beatitudes....) The Pharisee and the tax-collector stand at opposite ends of the social spectrum.
The Pharisee “stood by himself”: that was the very definition of Pharisee: the name ‘Pharisee’ means ‘separated’: their special practices and attitudes separated them from the common people. Perhaps for that reason his prayer was all about himself. Cyril of Alexandria described him as “standing there bold and broad, lifting up his eyes without a qualm, boastful and bearing witness to himself.” At the beginning his prayer seems to be a thanksgiving psalm; but soon enough we see that it is really about his own accomplishments. He is not slow to put these on show. Cyril remarked: “No one who is in good health ridicules one who is sick for being laid up and bedridden. Rather he is afraid that he himself might perhaps become the victim of similar sufferings.” Another ancient writer said the Pharisee was “drunk on pride in the sweet and lovely sound of his own voice.” Notice that the Pharisee offers no honour to God and makes no request. He is separated not only from others but from God. When there is emphasis on the separate self, life becomes competition: the ‘I’ has to win every race and be ‘better’ than others. That means that it can never afford to relax and be off-guard. How difficult life becomes! It is hardly a life at all, and it certainly is not life-giving to others.
The other spoke directly to God, asking for mercy. There could hardly be a more essential prayer. He did not think of himself as complete, needing nothing. A circle is complete: it marks out a small space and it divides it off; it needs nothing from the outside. The Pharisee was such a circle: he didn’t come out of himself to God – nor of course to the tax-collector in the story. But the tax-collector knew his own incompleteness. He was like a circle with a breach in the circumference. We are at our best when we are open: when we know our need of God and of one another. Then something can flow in and out. Through our woundedness the mercy of God can flow through to the world.
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