Father Joseph V. Corpora, CSC, ’76, ’83M.Div. | April 23, 2019
Every year on the third Saturday of Lent, we hear the Gospel of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We know the parable well.
The Pharisee enters the temple, takes up his position in the front of the temple and prays, “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 enters the temple, takes up his position at the back of the temple and prays, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
It seems at first that this parable is about the pride of the Pharisee and the humility of the tax collector. Listeners try to figure out which one they are, and are doomed — because if you figure out which one you are, there’s some pride in the discovery, no matter the outcome.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is not about pride and humility. Rather, the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee reinforces one of the central themes of the parables of Jesus — the end of the social landscape in favor of a new map of the kingdom of God.
The Pharisee was considered an insider and a member of the religious elite, and he only did what the temple rules at the time required for someone of his standing. In fact, the social context of the temple as we now know it from historical documents would depict him as the ideal, pious Pharisee! His conduct, prayers and speech are typical of his role.
The same social rules determining the proper conduct of the Pharisee, of one belonging to the sacred precincts of the temple as an insider, also determine the place, the stance and the prayer of the tax collector. He belongs to the group outside the bounds of the temple. He stands apart because he knows that, as an outsider, this is his place. The position that he took was not a manifestation of his humility, but simply of his awareness of his proper place as a sinner and not as a Pharisee.
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