Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Luke 18:9-14

Jesus is telling us in todays Gospel that we should be like the tax collector, and not like the pharisee. This might for us not be that much of a shock. Civil servants are defiantly not seen as sinners, and we are used to read in the Gospels that the pharisees are the ‘bad ones’ in the time of Jesus. Jesus is often told to associates with tax collectors, and even has an apostle who used to be a tax collector.
However in Jesus; time it was a shock! 

Tax collectors worked for the Roman Empire, and as such were seen as people who worked for the occupying forces. As we can read in many passages in the Gospels people counter tax collectors as sinner and Jesus is often rebuked for seeking association with them. It was well known that tax collectors had a set amount of revenue they had to bring in, and any surplus they kept themselves. They often charged people more then was due, and as such became very wealthy over the backs of others. The Pharisee, after his list of in-virtues behaviour of the rest of mankind, sees the tax collector as even worse.
So why does Jesus here advertise the idea that we should be as, what was considered, a public sinner? Well, this cuts to the core of the reality which comes with the revelation of Jesus. In Jesus’ time, but also in our time, religion was often considered as an institution. While Israel was the chosen people of God, who knew the Lord as a personal God, over the years this relationship had transformed not into a deeper communion and friendship with God, but had developed to be a formal religion, consisting mainly in the keeping laws and precepts without much real conversion of heart and love of God. As such the Pharisee in the Gospel considered himself righteous, as he was keeping all these regulations to a T. 

The Jewish Law makes us aware of what is sinful and not, but sin itself does not have the root in the keeping of regulations and prescripts. Sin has foremost to do with the profound relation of a person with God, and is ultimately unmasked as humanities rejection of God and the opposition to Him. Sin separates us from God’s love, not by a rejection of God himself, but by OUR rejection of His love. What is fundamental in love is communion, and the opposite of communion is being centred on the self. As we can read in Genesis, Adam and Eve rejected God’s command by eating from the three of knowledge of Good and Evil. It was then that they broke the communion with Him. The result was that suddenly they became aware of themselves, not as a positive thing as a result of knowing good and evil, but by starting to center attention on themselves, and strikingly, accuse each other of the wrong done, as we can see the pharisee does.

The more we separate ourselves from God, the more we become centred on ourselves. The father we are from God, and the more centred on ourselves, the less we see how we are falling short by the measure of pure love. But on top of that, the more we fall away from the love of God, the more we start to see ourselves as the measure of the universe. We start to look at everything around us by the worth we attribute to ourselves.

And this is the move Jesus is addressing here when telling the parable about the pharisee and the tax collector. The pharisee is confident before God, he is telling God what to think at best, but probably more likely was talking to himself as the Gospel said. He was standing by himself, moving upfront. The temple was a public place, and he would have many eyes upon him, and that is where he showed off how good he was. But was his thanks to God a real thanks? Or was it a display of splendour of himself? It is this that Jesus warns us about elsewhere in the Gospel, not to parade your virtues before others, but instead seek the confines of ones room and pray in secret. That is much more in line with the tax collector, who stood back, possibly even in the court of the gentiles. Whereas the pharisee made an appearance, the publican made a request for Gods mercy.

He that humbles himself shall be exalted. The power of God's grace can bring good out of evil; the tax collector possibly had been a great sinner, and out of the greatness of his sin was brought the greatness of his repentance. See, on the contrary, the power of Satan's malice in bringing evil out of good. It was good that the pharisee was no extortioner, nor unjust; but the devil made him proud of this, with pride being the reason of the fall of Satan himself, and made the pharisee get absorbed with himself and this led to his ruin. It was not because he necessarily did anything wrong, leaving out the fact he was judging the tax collector, but the fact that he had no relationship with God, and no perception of the reality of the loving relationship God is calling us to.

Like the man we encountered a few weeks ago in the Gospel, the rich man, who didn’t notice Lazarus laying at the gate. Lazarus was taken up to heaven, while the rich man found himself in hell. That rich man was not by any means said to be a bad man either, but he didn’t have the love in him to notice his neighbour who was in need. As such he was a sinner, as he was divorced from the love of God and found himself after his death in the same situation in hell.

Our faith is supposed to be real. Our faith is not a faith of rules and regulations, it is a faith of action and communion. God is calling us into communion with him, he WANTS to share His divine life with us. Living as a Christian who is just following a set of regulations is like living as the Pharisee. At the end of the day it is only good for outward appearance, but not much good for the inner development of the soul. The tax collector who realised that he is falling short however sought out God, he came to the temple. God is always waiting for us, here in the church, especially in the sacrament of confession. The tax collector opened his heart to God, and allows God to give him the strength and grace to grow little by little towards the eternal destiny for which we are all made.

(Saint Saviour's Dublin, 27-10-2013)

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