What could be more obvious than the meaning of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector? We are presented with a good example and a bad example, and the message comes through loud and clear: Don't be proud; be humble, especially when you pray. That's true enough. But a closer look at the setting shows that most of us, while we get the main point, miss part of the parable's punch because we imagine the setting incorrectly.
Given our North American contemporary experience, it is all too easy to imagine two men praying (“making a visit”) in something like an empty church, the Pharisee standing proudly up in front and the tax collector humbly hidden in the shadows in the rear. But that is not the picture at all. When Jesus says that two men went up to the temple to pray, he wants people to picture the Jerusalem Temple, where “to go up to pray” refers not to making a private devotional visit but joining the gathered community in the afternoon atonement sacrifice.
Each man relates to the community worship in a different way. The Pharisee, a member of a group highly respected by most of the community, stands apart from the crowd. The phrase translated “to himself” stands in the Greek between the words for “standing" and "praying”; it makes more sense to relate it to the standing rather than the praying, because praying in this culture was something one did out loud. Thus we are to picture the Pharisee proudly standing apart from the common crowd but not so much apart that some of them couldn't overhear his words.
He begins well enough (“God, I thank you. … ”) but his “prayer” soon degenerates into a proud boast that he is not like other people—thieves, rogues, adulterers “or even like this tax collector.” Then he itemizes his pious performances. Whereas the Torah required fasting one day a year, he fasts twice a week (not uncommon among the pious, but conspicuously beyond the requirements of the Law). And, whereas the Law dictates the tithing of agricultural products, he gives a tenth of all his income. In themselves these practices are commendable, but this Pharisee advertises them, to bolster his pride and to set himself apart from others.
The tax collector, on the other hand, stands apart not in pride but in humility. He beats his breast, and prays simply, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The word for “have mercy” here is not the usual one, the eleeson we used to recite at the beginning of Mass, but a rare word, appearing only here in the Gospels, hilastheti, related to words for atonement. Luke's original readers would have caught the resonance. Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector is fully involved in the Temple liturgy. He is praying, in effect, “Let the atonement work for me, a sinner.”
Jesus' concluding words, “I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former,” underscore the context of covenant community. For “justified” means being in right relationship with God, faithful to the covenant relationships. This illuminates the introduction to the story, where Luke says pointedly that Jesus addressed this parable to those “who trusted in themselves” (KJV, NRSV, NASB, Rheims) that they were righteous (or justified). In other words, the target of the story is those who foolishly thought their righteousness was based on their own action rather than the grace of God. They placed their faith more in themselves than in God, thereby undermining the foundation of their covenant connections with God and the community.
Our attention to the setting and language of the parable does not change its obvious point, the one stated plainly at the end: “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” But the setting and language put us in touch with precisely what humbling oneself entails: it is finding one's place in the covenant community, acknowledging one's need for a right relationship that comes only from divine forgiveness. Our own actions do not initiate that covenant relationship. Rather, it is that covenant relationship that calls us to behavior that reflects and acts out our fidelity to those relationships with God and our fellow human beings.Question for meditation: is there anything about my own religious practice that could be called self-justification?