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
"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.
Look at those readings again. They're all about God's partiality towards the poor, oppressed, orphans, widows and the lowly -- those who need God's special protection, because the culture at large tends to write them off or ignore them. Typically, they're the ones conventionality classifies as deviant. The Jewish morality of Jesus time called them all "unclean."
However all of them -- even the worst -- were especially deal to Jesus' heart. And this not because they were "virtuous," but simply because of their social location. Elsewhere, Jesus specifically includes tax collectors (and prostitutes) in that group. In MT 21: 38-42, he tells the Pharisees, "Prostitutes and tax collectors will enter God's Kingdom before you religious professionals."
More specifically, in this morning's first reading, Sirach says that the poor, oppressed, orphans, widows and the lowly are the ones Yahweh fittingly pays attention to. That same theme appears in the refrain we all sang together in today's responsorial psalm, "The Lord hears the cry of the poor."
As a result, those who simply belong to that category -- the poor and oppressed -- are "justified" in virtue of their social (non) status. The word "justified" means "made just" -- or fit to enter God's Kingdom where justice is the order of the day.
Similarly justified are the non-poor who imitate Sirach's "God of Justice" by conscious identification with those considered "sinners" by the prevailing culture. Those who humble themselves in that way are like Sirach's "God of justice" who hears the cry of the oppressed, the wail of the orphan, the prayer of the lowly. Or (again) as our responsorial psalm put it today: "The Lord hears the cry of the poor."
But why would a good person like the Pharisee be excluded from God's Kingdom? Does God somehow bar his entry? I don't think so. God's Kingdom is for everyone.
Rather it was because men like the Pharisee in the temple don't really want to enter that place of GREAT REVERSAL, where the first are last, the rich are poor, the poor are rich, and where (as I said) prostitutes and tax collectors are rewarded.
The Pharisee excludes himself! In fact, the temple's holy people wanted nothing to do with the people they considered "unclean." In other words, it was impossible for Pharisees and the Temple Establishment to conceive of a Kingdom open to the unclean. And even if there was such a Kingdom, these purists didn't want to be there.
Let's put that in terms we can understand in our culture.
Usually rich white people don't want to live next door to poor people or in the same neighborhood with black people -- especially if those in question aren't rich like them.
Imagine God's Kingdom in terms of the ghetto. Rich white people don't want to be there.
But ironically, according to this morning's readings -- according to Jesus -- the "undesirables" who live there are the ones to whom the Kingdom of God belongs. They are the favorites of the God who Sirach says is "not unduly partial to the weak." Rather God is fittingly partial to them as the Sirach reading itself and the rest of today's liturgy of the word make perfectly clear!
This means that any separation from God's chosen poor amounts to excluding oneself from the Kingdom white Christians spend so much time obsessing about.
So today's readings are much more radical than usually understood. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector -- of the pope and the pimp in St. Peter's -- is not an affirmation of conventional morality. It rejects such ethnocentric hypocrisy! Jesus' parable is not even about approving conventional wisdom concerning pride and humility.
As always with Jesus' teachings, it is about the Kingdom of God -- about those who belong and those who exclude themselves.
In practice, this realization suggests for starters that:
" It's no badge of honor to subscribe to conventional morality or conventional wisdom.
" Christians are called to be counter-cultural -- more in solidarity with those we associate with pimps than with popes.
" For "Americans" this means discounting middle class morality and (white) "family values" as criteria of faith.
" According to Jesus, by itself such conformity actually excludes one from participation in God's promised future.
" Instead authentic faith means living a life of solidarity with the poor -- making their issues our own.
" Hence Christians should be in the forefront of movements on behalf of the poor.
" For example, rather than joining "devout Catholics" like Paul Ryan in leading crusades to cut back food stamp programs, we should be applying pressure to expand them.
" The same holds true for public housing, Medicaid, Social Security, and voting rights.
Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian and former Roman Catholic priest. Recently retired, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky for 36 years where he directed Berea's Peace and Social Justice Studies Program.Mike blogs at