Have you heard the joke about the Englishman, the Scotsman and the Irishman?
An Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman were confessing their secret vices to each other. 'I'm a terrible gambler,' said the Englishman.
'I'm a terrible drinker,' said the Scotsman.
'My vice is much less serious,' said the Irishman, 'I just like to tell tales about my friends.'
We’ve just heard Jesus’s parable about the Pharisee and the tax-collector, as told by Luke (18:9-14)
The story goes like this. A Pharisee and a tax-collector go to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee in his prayer boasts of his piety, while the tax-collector humbles himself before God and pleads for mercy.
At this point I feel I have to defend Pharisees – they have had an unfairly bad press! In part because of this parable, the word Pharisee in modern English has come to mean a self-righteous or hypocritical person. But we also hear of upright Pharisees in the NT, people like Nicodemus, who helped to bury Jesus after the crucifixion, and Gamaliel who defended the Apostles in the Sanhedrin court – and some of the earliest Christians were Pharisees, among them St Paul.
The Pharisees were a small but influential Jewish sect. They separated themselves out from others in their attempt to be as holy as possible - the name Pharisee literally means ‘separated one’. They took their religion seriously. They revered the written word of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, our OT. They did their best to follow the minutiae of the Jewish law in their own lives in order to be justified before God – that is so that God could accept them as being good people. Pharisees in general deserved their popular reputation as good and upright - if perhaps a bit over punctilious and not much fun.
And what about tax-collectors? We must not confuse them with our friends and neighbours who work for the Revenue Commissioners in Nenagh! Tax-collectors in Jesus’s time worked for the Roman occupiers collecting taxes from their neighbours to pay for the colonial administration, for the army and for public works. Unpaid, they kept a proportion of what they collected for themselves in lieu of pay. Many were greedy, out to make a fortune for themselves by extorting from their neighbours, and they were tainted by their association with gentile Romans. They were detested and shunned as bad people, often with good reason. But not always: the apostle Matthew was a tax-collector before Jesus called him, and so was Zacchaeus who climbed a tree to see Jesus in Jericho and welcomed him gladly to his house.
We can see in Jesus’s parable these popular preconceptions about Pharisees and tax-collectors. The Pharisee attends the Temple to pray, he fasts and he tithes – in fact, he tithes more than he has to, and fasts more often than he has to. He more than meets the requirements laid on him by the law. He appears to be a charitable, kind and faithful man. But the tax-collector appears to be no better than he ought to be, a confessed sinner, no doubt quite as bad and despicable as any other tax-collector.
But then Jesus says, ‘I tell you, (the tax-collector) went down to his home justified rather than the (Pharisee)’. His punch-line must have been quite a shock to his audience – it is the opposite of what they would have been expecting! Jesus was an expert communicator – here he has reversed expectations in order to emphasise the point he is making – it’s a bit like that joke about the Englishman, the Scotsman and the Irishman.
The point, says Jesus, is this: ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted’.
This is a parable about the sin of pride and its opposite, the virtue of humility. It has precious little to do with Pharisees or tax-collectors.
The Pharisee in his prayer shows he is puffed up with pride - he ‘trusted in (himself) that (he was) righteous and regarded others with contempt’ - as Luke describes the people Jesus was talking to. I hope some of them understood the point, but I fear many could not, because their pride blinded them.
In contrast, the tax-collector shows humility by acknowledging his misdeeds and seeking forgiveness.
Pride is an ambiguous emotion. I feel proud of many things: proud of my children and grandchildren, how they’ve turned out, how they’re are growing; proud of my community, and pride, sometimes, in my country. Are these prides sinful? I think not. But pride becomes toxic when it is focussed on self. Then it blinds me to the reality of my own human weakness and my dependence on the goodness of others and God’s loving kindness. It makes it hard to relate to God in prayer.
Humility is not a popular virtue in this age. Siren voices tell us self-esteem is all important and that what we desire is what we deserve, ‘because we are worth it’. We confuse humility with feelings of timidity, of self-disgust and being unimportant. But these feelings too are toxic - they blind me to the reality that I am a unique creature made in the image of God, as other people are too - that we are all equally loved, that we can be better than we are, and that when we behave badly we can receive healing forgiveness if we truly repent and change our ways.
True humility is clear-sighted.
It enables us to see ourselves as we really are, good and bad, warts and all, so that we can receive the forgiveness God offers us. Because of this we can respond to God’s loving kindness in prayer and worship. And only then we are ready to play our part in making God’s kingdom a reality.
But humility is not easy. We cannot achieve it without help – pride, a desire to exalt our self, gets in the way. That help can only come from God - from Jesus who assures us he is always with us, and who calls us to repentance.
A good way to open ourselves to Jesus, to ask him to help us overcome pride in our self, is to echo the prayer of the tax-collector in the words of the Jesus Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.