Sunday, January 22, 2012


Der Pharisäer und der Zöllner,
oil on cardboard

He spoke also this parable to certain people who were convinced of their own righteousness, and who despised all others. "Two men went up into the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself like this: 'God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far away, wouldn't even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted" [Luke 18:9-14].

I have always loved the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, mainly because I like to think I'm the humble tax collector but really most of the time I'm a terrible, terrible Pharisee. So we get to constantly examine ourselves and at the same time, we do get to evaluate--not judge, but evaluate--others. Christ himself, after all, said, "Beware of false prophets" [Matthew 7:15]. To that end, and in light of my own continuing and egregious self-righteousness, here are just a few instances where we might find our way toward distinguishing between the two stances. I'm sure you can come up with more! 

PHARISEE: Uses conversion, stance on a particular issue, or religious affiliation as a marketing tool.
TAX COLLECTOR:  Brushes hands free of contact with a bribe. Believes work should rise, fall, find its way to the world, and/or glorify God based on its excellence and on its truth. 

PHARISEE: Why can’t everyone act like me?
TAX COLLECTOR: Why can’t even one person--namely, me--act like Christ?

PHARISEE: Crusades.
TAX COLLECTOR: Surrenders.

PHARISEE: Believes in winning.
TAX COLLECTOR: Believes in miracles.

PHARISEE: Trumpets a cause.
TAX COLLECTOR: Lives mystery.

PHARISEE: Instead of conceding that people are capable of having different experiences, is “disappointed,” “puzzled,” and “hurt” because your experience is different than theirs.
TAX COLLECTOR: Doesn’t waste time trying to talk people out of their experiences; is too busy, absorbed, and joyful contemplating own experience.

PHARISEE: Proclaims.

PHARISEE: Insists on having last word.
TAX COLLECTOR: Believes Christ is the Word.

PHARISEE: Mistakes pushiness, blowhardism, and the imposition of unworked-through emotional and sexual wounds on others for courage.
TAX COLLECTOR: Believes courage consists in doing the footwork and leaving the results/fruit (if any) to God.  

PHARISEE: Has an attitude of, It’s hard hard work, spreading the Gospel, but someone has to do it.
TAX COLLECTOR: Has an attitude of, What a gift I’m allowed to do whatever little I do! 

PHARISEE: Mistakes others’ entirely reasonable dislike of aggression for intolerance.
TAX COLLECTOR: Recognizes hideous tendency toward aggression in self and constantly tries to do better.

PHARISEE: Speaks frequently, and insufferably, of willingness to suffer persecution.
TAX COLLECTOR: Quietly suffers actual persecution, poverty, loneliness. Would die rather than draw attention to it.

TAX COLLECTOR: Playful, joyful, has sense of humor, especially about self.

TAX COLLECTOR: Minds own bidnis.

PHARISEE: Threatens.

PHARISEE: Leaves anonymous critical/hate comments on other people’s blogs.
TAX COLLECTOR: Prays for people who leave anonymous critical/hate comments on other people’s blogs.

PHARISEE: Accuses people with a difference of opinion (especially if the differing opinion is toward merciful, expansive, paradoxical, explosively astonishing God) of heresy.
TAX COLLECTOR: Accuses self of hard-heartedness, pride, and, when appropriate, error.

PHARISEE: Continually attacks Catholic "credentials" by dissecting, questioning and twisting the stance of another on a particular point of Church doctrine or dogma.
TAX COLLECTOR: While quietly strictly adhering to Church teachings in own life, and utterly orthodox in belief and practice, sees "credentials" of  a follower of Christ as being purity of heart, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, turning the other cheek, doing to the least of these, humility, and love. Stops just short of despairing of ever acquiring any of them.

TAX COLLECTOR: PHARISEE: Gives thanks not to be like "other" [i.e., substandard] people.
TAX COLLECTOR: Gives thanks.

EL GRECO, circa 1595


  1. Insightful post! As the psalmist says, "a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." This gives me consolation, to know that God is merciful with the bruised reed, and doesn't smash him (or me) to bits!

  2. Yes, insightful post. What I find is so much of both in so many people. Some come across as Pharisees at first, yet alongside proclamation and intolerance, there is also surrender, humour and wilingness to do the dirty jobs. There are admirable qualities like fearlessness, commitment and modesty.

    Perhas I'm just thinking about one or two people I know. Perhaps I don't really know any ranting, hateful, bigotted people. American culture and politics does seem to favour the rise of such people. Here in South Africa religion is not used quite so divisively, is not a rallying point around which people gather. Almost all acknoweledge God, have some sort of faith; how that varies is not much looked into. Other matters take precedence.

    I like the way you describe the Collector. The Pharisee in us would like to exclude, but if Christ really is looking for purity of heart, compassion, humility, peace-making, love, then lots of people will be first - confused people, damaged people, lacking-in-confidence people,creative geniuses gone awry, all those odd people we don't understand, - and others I haven't thought of! - while people like me ... well. Sometimes I worry about people like me.

  3. Bravissima, HK! Thou speakest the truth.

  4. Jesus' big beef with the Pharisees was that they refused to acknowledge their own sinfulness but insisted they were already righteous. The tax collector was made righteous (which is what "justified" means) because he recognized his own sinfulness in God's presence and believed that God would forgive him. I'm not sure there is any other distinction to be made between them.

  5. Thanks,folks--Jane, yes! We are a mixture of both, and at varying times, on different issues...what's funny is that as soon as I start thinking someone else is a Pharisee, I'm in danger of starting to become a Pharisee myself...

  6. O God, be merciful to me, a sinner -- so much contained in that simple prayer.

  7. The only one I disagree with is Proclaims vs Wonders...we are called to both :) Did you mean if the former wasn't done in the proper spirit?

  8. PHARISEE: Speaks frequently, and insufferably, of willingness to suffer persecution.
    TAX COLLECTOR: Quietly suffers actual persecution, poverty, loneliness. Would die rather than draw attention to it.
    most fascinating and hardest one for me...longing for confession...
    just lovely...

  9. Oh Confession is just the thing! I have started to go almost every week--MANY epiphanies. Terrible terrible pride! But the value, the beauty, the preciousness, the wonder and mystery of Confession have got to be the subject of an upcoming post...thanks, Stana...

  10. I have a special place for this parable of Jesus. Another parable that I find resonates with me is the one concerning the fellow who said "Hell no, I won't go" and then eventualy went ahead to work in the field, and the one who said "sure, be right there" and blew the promise off.

    I haven't written to you before, but I often think of you as my sister - the one who Dad liked to hold up as all that - while I just malingered along without even making an effort to amount to anything. Forgive me,and believe me when i say I reverence the real angst and fragility of one who is so much like me after all. I wonder if the tax collector didn't quite dislike the pharisee in his apparent righteousness and welcome Jesus' admonition. I wonder if he didn't teeter on a slippery slope before remembering his need to love even his enemies. After 40 years in the wilderness of drug abuse and alcoholism, with its preemptive self-protective judgmentallism, I am awfully glad Jesus led me to the path to the field, and I consider it a blessing to have encountered you, walking with me. God bless.

  11. Speaking of Phariseeism, here's something by Jody Bottum that I found interesting:

    There’s another reason that younger evangelicals like Tebow have elevated an ethical verse with Micah 6:8, and it has to do with their terror of the charge of hypocrisy. An irony — aargghh — dwells here, too, for the Bible is what taught Western Civilization the great complaint against hypocrisy, from Ezekiel 33:31 (“they hear what you say but they will not do it; for with their lips they show much love, but their heart is set on their gain”) to Matthew 23:23–24 (“You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel”). But the narrative of attack upon Christians in our time is fundamentally a story of hypocrisy; reporters know, in fact, almost no other way to tell morality tales. Only with an almost pharisaical adherence to ethical standards — another irony, in a Protestantism that thought it was breaking away from Catholic law to a belief in salvation by faith alone — can evangelicals today combat the always looming accusation that any lapse will reveal them as hypocrites. And combat it, they must, for even if they hold the firmest of theological views of salvation by faith alone, the great barrier they experience in those to whom they preach is the narrative of believers as frauds: every Christian either a hypocrite already revealed or a hypocrite waiting to happen.

  12. Heather--I breathlessly await your upcoming post on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I mean, I can't wait. This sacrament: what a gift to the mystical body of Christ!

    John W. White
    Purcellville, VA

  13. Or in the Eastern tradition of Catholicism, "I, first among sinners..." This has always struck me in a profound way (perhaps because it is so true!).

  14. "I, first among sinners"--love it! Satisfies the competitive urge AND the call to humility in one fell swoop! Though seriously, SO true...
    thanks, Jim--and to all of you...

    John W., don't totally hold your breath as these things usu. take awhile to percolate, though I do hope to include a something about a recent experience in Wed.'s post...

    Susan, yes, that is another primo parable that I always mean to reflect on more deeply: the guy who says I won't and then does, as vastly preferable to the guy who says I will and then doesn't...

    More and more, I'm thinking the Pharisee and the Tax Collector are two parts of our psyches....

  15. I love this post, especially the very subtle Flannery O'Connor reference.

  16. Good eye! Bidnis indeed comes from my hero Flannery...

  17. Great post. I know I have such strong Pharisee tendencies. I am slowly waking up and seeing this, and working on changing my attitude, but still have far to go.

    I got a copy of Shirt of Flame for Christmas! I am enjoying it very much.


  18. My husband is a Pharisee, I a tax collector. God help us!


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