The irony of a well-known sinner becoming closer to God than a religious figure who lives a religious life and obeys the law, is the point of the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector. Two different moral figures in the Temple praying at the same time. The Pharisee’s monologue (we can hardly call it a prayer) was long and self-indulgent. “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity –greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” The tax collector’s prayer was short and did not extol his moral efforts one iota, he merely lamented, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus concludes the parable by saying; “I tell you the latter went home justified, not the former.”
By all accounts, the Pharisee, at least empirically speaking, should be the righteous one. He acts in a way which is in complete harmony with the dictates of the law. For the Jewish people, the covenant between God was kept or broken by Mosaic law. If the law was broken, so too was the covenant. Our fictional Pharisee kept all the laws and yet was chastised by Jesus as one who is not justified.
What Jesus is teaching us through the parabolic story is there is a new covenant being ushered in by Jesus himself. It is no longer about the strict adherence to the old laws but a new consciousness about the coming of the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ. It is a new kingdom and covenant which acknowledges the law as secondary only to relationship with God.
Jesus uses the Pharisee to make the point clear. The religious man in not conversation with God, rather he almost lectures to God about his virtuous life. Pope Benedict XVI so beautiful explains this in his book, Jesus of Nazareth. Benedict writes, “The Pharisee does not really look at God at all, but only himself; he does not really need God, because he does everything right by himself. He has no real relation to God, who is ultimately superfluous—what he does himself is enough.” The Pharisee’s thinks he is the source of his own righteous by obeying the law alone. God becomes a spectator as the Pharisee rattles on about his goodness. So often in modern life do people believe they can become righteous without God. I’m sure you have heard the phrase, “I’m spiritual but not religious”. The modern quip infers the person alone can be totally good and justified by his own standard of goodness, and not God’s. Our parable hits right to the heart of this kind of thinking– there can be no righteous without God.
In contrast, the tax collector acknowledges the source of all good lies in God alone, and he pleads with God for mercy. His cry for is an expo facto admittance there is an another, and the other is God from whom all mercy flows. His conversation with God manifests the tax collector’s true self, as a sinner in need of mercy and not a pompous and arrogant fool whom thinks he can do without it. The tax collector’s plea for mercy draws himself and all sinners who seek mercy, closer to the Kingdom of God than the Pharisee could ever have hoped for. All because the tax collector is in conversation with God who accepts him with all his faults and contrition.
Benedict describes the tax collectors’ relationship with God beautifully. “He has looked toward God, and in the process his eyes have been opened to himself. So he knows that he needs God and that he lives by God’s goodness, which he cannot force God to give him and which he cannot procure for himself. He knows that he needs mercy and so he will learn from God’s mercy to be merciful himself, thereby to become like God”.
Quite an irony, the sinner becomes more like God than does the one who obeys the law and thinks he is saved. The Kingdom of God and our closeness to it is all about being in conversation and in relationship with God. It is only then can we pray, “O God be merciful to me, a sinner.”