The Pharisee and the Publican — Chris Bowhay

by James Tissot, 1894

The Pharisee and the Publican in this week’s Gospel are two of the most familiar personalities in New Testament parables. We are so used to hearing their story that they run the risk of becoming caricatures in our imagination, like two vaudeville puppets from a Riverboat show: the Villain and the Hero. Enter stage right: The Pharisee, our Villain. (Boos, hissing, and catcalls immediately commence.) We imagine that the actor who portrays him would be some gargantuan, Orson Welles-type figure with frippish finery and well-oiled hair. In our imagination, he swaggers to the front of the Temple—probably pushing a few street-urchins out of the way—and as he checks his reflection in a polished marble pillar, he begins to pray in a loud and pompous voice: “God! I thank Thee that I am not like other men…” (More boos, more hissing from the crowd.) Then, enter stage left: The Publican, our Hero. (The crowd goes wild with applause.)

In contrast to the Pharisee in our minds, the Publican is probably wearing a sensible but slightly worn outfit. We imagine him to enter the Temple unobtrusively, like an Episcopalian who quietly comes to his pew just as the opening hymn begins. He is probably properly contrite, which means he is sorry but not neurotic, as he sincerely recites his simple prayer, “Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” Our hero is forgiven, our villain is condemned, the crowd bursts into cheers, and the curtain lurches to the ground. Though we may like to think of these characters this way, Our Lord did not really portray them like this; Christ understood the realities of human personality too well to resort to vaudeville preaching or shallow caricatures.

When the Pharisee in the story claims to be a righteous man, we have every reason to believe that he is exactly that. Jesus paints a picture of a man who is an outstanding, upright, pillar of his community. When he says, “I thank thee that I am not an extortioner,” he means that does not use manipulation to get what he wants. When he says, “I am not unjust,” he means that he evaluates people and their needs accurately and fairly. When he says, “I am not an adulterer,” he means that he is a family man, a good husband, father, and provider. His religious life is impeccable. He fasts twice a week (most of us do not even fast once a year), and he gives tithes of all his possessions; his salary (his gross salary, not his net), his property, his livestock, gifts he receives, everything. Any sensible church or community would be impressed by such a man and would love to have him as a member, a vestryman, or even as a priest.

Compare him with the publican, which in 1st century Palestine was another word for “tax collector.” A tax collector in that time and place was by definition an unscrupulous crook. Tax collectors bought franchises from the Roman government to collect money from their neighbors. They made their living by charging more than the Romans asked for; their extortions were backed by the local Roman legal and military establishment who ran Judea as a police state. The closest equivalent today would be a “bagman” for the Mafia. As a dishonest, manipulative traitor to his people, the Publican is not an attractive person to be around.

The fact that we unconsciously identify with him means that we, too, are not always pleasant to be around. Sin is another word for self-centered self-absorption. We all operate out of self-centeredness. We all are self-preoccupied. We all need a Redeemer to heal the wounds we inflict upon others and ourselves through our selfishness. We all know from personal experience that when we lie, gossip, steal, or do anything else that is morally sub-par we are not enjoyable company. When we do these things, we become darker, we become less than who we were created to be, we become more craven and shallow and difficult to love. Selfish people are not pleasant to be around, and the Publican is one of these unpleasant, unattractive people.

Therefore, contrary to the vaudevillian image of this scene we might carry in our heads, the Pharisee is by all appearances a very good man and the Publican is a mess. Why, then, does Jesus conclude this parable with harsh judgment of the Pharisee and warm approval of the Publican? Remember how He introduces the parable: “Jesus spoke this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” The Pharisee is judged because his righteousness is devoid of compassion or love for others. In spite of all the good things he does, he is so shocked—shocked!—at others’ moral failings that he turns away from them, he cuts them off from himself, and he despises them. This self-righteous self-separation is the worst sin of all. Sins of the intellect, and especially sins of the spirit, bypass and surpass carnal sins because they originate from the heart of Hell. To the Pharisee, who is blind to his self-justification, sin is something other people do. To him, sin is a dividing line not between himself and God, but between himself and others. He looks at others whose sins are more obvious than his; he thinks that, relatively speaking, he is righteous; and he concludes that not only does he not need to ask for forgiveness, but that he has nothing in common with those who do. He is upright, but because he is without compassion he is hollow.

The Publican, on the other hand, in spite of all the wrong he does, makes a full acknowledgment of his self-centeredness and his need for God’s help. The Publican knows himself well enough to know his failures and weaknesses, and so he knows his need for God. Because he knows these things about himself, he is free to know that everyone has this need. His awareness about his failings and God’s love ties him more closely to every other penitent sinner, helping him to have compassion on others the way he accepts compassion from God. True repentance always leads to greater compassion, and we know from St. Peter that compassion, which is love, covers a multitude of sins (I Peter 4:8).” Human righteousness is not enough to bring us into reconciliation with God. Instead, our acceptance of God’s love for all of us is what brings us into reconciliation with Him and with others, because it is our acceptance of our common need for the love, mercy, and forgiveness that God offers all of us through Christ’s death on the Cross.

A few weeks ago, as my family and I returned from our time in London, we passed through New Hampshire where I performed a wedding for the daughter of some family friends. The wedding was in a beautiful outdoor chapel on an island in Squam Lake near the town of Holderness, which meant that everyone needed to ride boats to and from the ceremony. When the service was over, I caught a ride back to shore with Tim, a longtime friend of the bride’s family who had lived on the lake since childhood.

As we chatted, I noticed that Tim was missing two fingers on his right hand: his fourth finger and his thumb. Tim explained that he lost his fourth finger when he was seven years old while he and his brother played with an old-fashioned lawn mower. I will spare you the details, but after the accident the hospital was too far away to save his finger. Five years later, Tim was playing with a small, Revolutionary War-era cannon in the family barn. He had emptied several shotgun shells-worth of gunpowder into the chamber, and when he packed the intended projectile into the muzzle he carelessly left his thumb over the vent that held the fuse. The full force of the explosion blasted through the vent and ripped off his thumb. Once again, the hospital was too far away to reattach it. I asked Tim whether he was ever bitter about his injuries. Tim told me that sometimes, in his youth, he did become angry about what had happened to him—angry with himself for being so foolish and angry with his community for not being able to help him. But then Tim told me that when he become an adult he joined the Shriners, a Masonic organization, because he had learned about the Shriner’s hospitals, which care for children who have suffered terrible burns and other injuries.

Through his work with the Shriner’s, Tim found fellowship with other men who care for those who need care. In this fellowship, and in their support of children who suffered like him, Tim told me he found greater peace than he otherwise would have known. Tim’s suffering, due both to his own childish mistakes and to his community’s inability to help, led Tim to a compassion that bound him more closely to others than he would have found had he not been injured in the first place. Like the foolish, wounded but contrite Publican, and unlike the self-righteous, self-reliant Pharisee, Tim found that compassion for other imperfect, fallen, suffering souls brings us lasting peace more than anything else.

In an age of moral disintegration, in which every day brings fresh tales of shocking scandal, it is easy to say, like the Pharisee “I thank thee, O God, for not making me like other men.” But God does not judge on a bell curve. We are all penitents; we all fail to keep God’s commandments in one way or another, either by failing to love God with all our heart or by failing to love our neighbor as ourselves. We all need His loving compassion for us and we all need to show His loving compassion towards others. Modern culture makes it easy for the “relatively righteous” to stand out from the crowd. But if righteousness is not crowned with compassion, that righteousness is as hollow as the Pharisee’s empty prayer. Virtue without love is ashes. Humble contrition returns us to God’s righteousness while ensuring that we do not despise other children of God who, like us, lose their way. We are not called to be God’s hollow puppets, who appear on the outside to be good but have nothing inside. Instead we are called to be God’s lovers, who pour out love to others as God poured Himself out for us, in Christ Jesus our Lord.