The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector feels like an absurd joke.
“A Pharisee and a Tax Collector walk into the Temple…”
But I’m afraid our ears don’t quite hear it that way. Centuries of anti-Jewish exegesis taints our ability to hear the words of Jesus. The challenge is that many in our congregations think they know who the Pharisees are. They’re the hypocrites, we say. They’re the arrogant self-righteous Jews, we imagine. For those of us who grew up in the church, we hear Pharisee and we think they are the bad Jews, the ones who had it out for Jesus. They can’t be trusted. For many of us, we only read the title of the passage – The Pharisee and the Tax Collector – and we already start to cast away, demean, and label the Pharisee.
Of course, the irony in all of this is that our treatment of the Pharisee creates in us an air of self-righteous superiority. We essentially become the very thing Jesus warns against. We trust ourselves that we are right(eous) and begin to show others contempt.
And if we were to take a step back from the narrow hermeneutics of a passage and exegete our own relationships in light of this story, we could see where our righteousness actually hinders the Gospel from being visible. The problem, of course, is confusing our own righteousness with God’s. When these two are confused, we fall into ideological camps. Ideologies work through antagonisms; they need an ‘other’ to work against, to hate, to dehumanize. Thank God we are not like those liberals/conservatives over there. Or, those foreigners despise our American values, steal our jobs, and want to harm us. In this way, our enemies are neatly constructed within a vacuum of our own thinking. We begin to believe that we are not only different but better. We begin to carry around an air of superiority. We have sufficiently separated ourselves from them (dialogically for sure, but most often geographically), and have adequately raised ourselves up, affirming our own righteousness. And once one creates separation from the ‘other’ (ideological/ethnic/racial/economic ‘others’) and establishes a superior relationship between the two, dehumanization becomes a natural consequence. We lose sight that they too are made in the Image of God.
Luke tells us from the outset that Jesus’ parable is meant to guard against this very process of superiority, exclusion, and dehumanization (vs. 9). Jesus is working against an inherent prejudice against tax collectors. First century Jews are on the side of the Pharisees. The Pharisees come from good stock. They care about the future of God’s people. They are working at preserving Jewish identity as it bumps against Roman and Hellenistic impulses. Or, as Dr. David Busic has said, they are the holiness people of the first century.
And we know about tax collectors. They robbed people, skimmed off the top for themselves, and were in cahoots with the Roman empire. At best, they were just thieves, and at worst they were thieves and traitors.
Through heavy irony, this story is meant to shock Jesus’ listeners. No one would assume that a tax collector would receive approval over/against a Pharisee. In this parable, Jesus flips the script. He opens the disciples eyes in thinking that God’s mercy covers a multitude of sins for those who approach humbly. The problem with self-righteous superiority is that it excludes humility. One cannot be self-righteous and humble at the same time. But the parable works on another level, as Amy-Jill Levine notes:
By forcing readers to see something positive about the tax collector it insists that even those who work for the enemy may still be part of the congregation, that even those who exploit members of their own community deserve consideration; perhaps they, like Zaccheus, are doing the best they can while trapped in an impossible situation. In other words, the parable forces hearers to walk in the shoes of the criminal or the ostracized. (The Misunderstood Jew, 40).
I have been overwhelmed this week with a deep sadness. We as a country and a people seem to be defined more by our political allegiances than our call to be a holy people. This week I have watched on social media and throughout the news and in our neighborhood as people have lashed out against supporters of the other candidate. Friends are no longer talking to each other, those who have prayed for one another in the same church are now separating themselves. We are being shaped more by the callousness of this election than by the grace and holiness of our Lord. And it is making us into a callous people.
One of my favorite Christian peacemakers, John Paul Lederach, says this, “In settings in which polarization has deepened, all of us tend to highlight the immoral maliciousness on ‘their’ side. We are equally slow to notice anything but the good intentions, clear justification, and ‘righteousness’ of our side” (Reconcile, 75). In other words, we have become the Pharisees in the story. We, the holiness people of the 21st century, have become self-righteous and blinded to the way of Christ in the midst of our community.
Fortunately, when it comes to Pharisees and Tax Collectors, Jesus gives us a pretty good example of how to move forward. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus continues to recline with tax collectors, and he continues to debate with the Pharisees (debate fits right in line with Jewish interpretation of Scripture and doesn’t necessarily connote any malcontent). In other words, Jesus refuses to stop talking with both parties. Jesus never withdraws from conflict, rather conflict becomes a spiritual place for renewal. It’s when we stop talking to one another that we lose an essential practice of what it means to work out our salvation.
A Pharisee and a Tax Collector walk into the temple…Jesus tells an absurd joke but let’s hope the joke isn’t at our expense.