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The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector

Gospel Reading: Lk 18:1-8
Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’

But 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.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Reflection
HOLINESS IS IN SOLIDARITY, NOT IN SEPARATION
The Pharisees in Jesus’ time were lay people known for their zeal for the Torah or the Law of Moses. They were respected by the people and were called Rabbi, “Teacher” (literally the “great one”). Their name derives from the Hebrew perusim or “separated ones.” They saw themselves on a different level from ordinary people who did not know the Law, whom they would even dismiss as accursed (see Jn 7:47). They separated themselves even more from tax collectors and sinners. This separation is seen in the sharp contrast between the two men praying in the Temple: a Pharisee and a tax collector. The difference is both physical and social. Setting himself apart, the Pharisee points out his lack of sin and his good works (fasting and giving tithes). In both works, he goes beyond the normal requirements of the Law. While the normal gesture of prayer is to cast the eyes downward, the Pharisee takes his position closer to the sanctuary. The tax collector, meanwhile, stands off at a distance. He beats his breast, a traditional Middle Eastern gesture of women, and is used by men only in the most extreme anguish. He has nothing to boast of; he has only his sins for which to ask mercy from the Lord. In the sight of men, there is no question about the righteousness of the Pharisee or about the miserable state of the tax collector. But it is different in the eyes of Jesus who sees with the eyes of God. For the Lord, holiness does not lie in separation, but in solidarity. The Pharisee is certainly not inventing his virtues, but he places himself above the rest, separating himself from them.

He thanks God that he is not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – much less like the miserable tax collector. He is so full of himself – he addresses his prayer to himself, not to God. He goes home without God’s grace because he does not ask for it. The tax collector, on the other hand, is “justified” or restored to God’s friendship through forgiveness. Jesus, though without sin, lined up with people in the River Jordan to receive the baptism of repentance in the hands of John the Baptist. He blends into the grey mass of sinners. He establishes communion with them. He descends into the “inferno” of humanity so that he may bring humanity with him when he rises out of it.

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SOURCE: “366 Days with the Lord,” ST PAULS, 7708 St. Paul Rd., SAV, Makati City (Phils.); Tel.: 895-9701; Fax 895-7328; E-mail: publishing@stpauls.ph; Website: http://www.stpauls.ph.

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