"A pope and a pimp went into St. Peter's to Pray." That's the way scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan, conveys the shock that must have been felt by Jesus' audience when he opened this morning's gospel parable by even joining the words "Pharisee" and "tax collector" in the same sentence. It's like putting "pope" and "pimp" together. It jars the ear. And why would a pimp be praying at all?
Nevertheless, Jesus begins: "A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the Temple to pray." Customarily homilists use this parable to reinforce conventional wisdom about pride and humility. The Pharisee was proud, they say. The tax collector was humble. Be like the tax collector.
I however think there's something much more challenging and fundamental going on in this parable. The focus of Jesus' story is not pride vs. humility. It's about rejecting the Pharisee's conventional morality. The parable even calls us to scrap conventional wisdom about pride and humility.
More positively, the story is a summons to enter God's Kingdom by identifying with the poor and despised. It also explains why the conventionally good simply cannot enter the Kingdom of God.
Let me explain.
Think in terms of popes and pimps. Popes are generally respected people. They're religious leaders. Wherever they go, crowds flock around them just to get a glimpse, a blessing, or possibly even a smile or touch.
Pharisees in Jesus's time enjoyed similar respect with the common people. Pharisees were religious teachers and textbook examples of conventional morality. They usually did what the one in today's gospel said he did. They kept the law. The Pharisee in today's reading was probably right; chances are he wasn't like most people.
Generally Pharisees, were not greedy, dishonest, or adulterers. Or as their exemplar in Luke put it, he was not like the tax collector alongside him in the Temple. Pharisees gave tithes on all they possessed -- to help with Temple upkeep.
On the other hand, tax collectors in Jesus' day were notorious crooks. Like pimps, they were usually despised. Tax collectors were typically dishonest and greedy. They were adulterers too. They took advantage of their power by extorting widows unable to pay in money into paying in kind.
In other words, the Pharisee's prayer was correct on all counts.
But, we might ask, what about the tax collector's prayer: "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner?" A beautiful prayer, no?
Don't be so quick to say "yes."
Notice that this tax collector doesn't repent. He doesn't say, like the tax collector Zacchaeus in Luke's very next chapter, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much (LK 19:8). There is no sign of repentance or of willingness to change his profession on the part of this particular crook.
And yet Jesus concludes his parable by saying: "I tell you, the latter (i.e. the tax collector) went home justified, not the former. . ." Why?
I think the rest of today's liturgy of the word supplies an answer.