The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, or, There but by the Grace of God go I !
We have all heard it. We have all said it. But like, “God helps those who help themselves,” is it Biblical?
I don’t think so. As the Chicago Daily News’ Mike Royko famously used to say, “I may be wrong, but I doubt it!”
The Pharisee is a best understood as a Doctor of the Law, the “Law” being Torah, the first five books of the Bible: Genesis-Deuteronomy. Today he might be a professor of Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament, or a church Canon Lawyer, or a Divinity School Theologian of some kind. At the time of Jesus in this little parable, if you had questions regarding the living of Torah, or what the Hindus might call living your dharma, you would go to your local Pharisee for a consultation. Despite the negative and adversarial ways in which New Testament scripture tends to portray them, these were good, respected citizens dedicated to the study and practice of Israelite religion.
Tax Collectors, on the other hand, were considered, and indeed were, collaborators with the much hated functionaries of the ironically termed Pax Romana – a “pax” or peace enforced by repeated acts of brutality on behalf of the Roman military against the citizens of any and all regions Rome had conquered in the name of Caesar – whichever one that may be – aka “Caesar is God.” Tax collectors in the Pax Romana were local citizens tasked with getting money out of their fellow local citizens by any means – a certain amount for Rome to feed its endless appetites for commodities and to sustain the shock troops that kept the local populace under control, and any amount the tax collector wanted to keep for oneself. The basic problem is that tax collectors were the man next door whose money collecting system fed the troops who meted out brutality daily against your other neighbors – crucifixion being the primary means of “teaching the locals as lesson.” In modern day terms, he is the equivalent of a Nazi collaborator, a Pol Pot collaborator, or any other collaborator you might want to put in as a placeholder, keeping in mind this is not a “chosen profession,” but one placed on his shoulders which, should he refuse to do it, probably meant instant crucifixion on the side of the road as a reminder to one and all that this is what happens to those who do not please Caesar.
So, you have the tax collector, painted by Jesus with heart-wrenching pathos, truly sorry that he has to be the means by which Rome makes his fellow citizens suffer on a day-to-day basis, begging God for mercy – mercy, which Kurt Vonnegut once said in a Palm Sunday Sermon, is the one good idea we have been given so far; and the Pharisee, who is proclaiming the first century ce equivalent of, “There but by the grace of God go I.”
Which one best exemplifies what Biblical religion has in mind?
Never missing the teachable moment, Jesus shocks his first century listeners by holding up as an example to one and all the man whom everyone despised – the tax collector. He is the kind of person Torah sets out to make each and every one of us – a humble servant of the Lord who recognizes his own failures and asks to be forgiven. Note, he does not justify what he is doing, he does not defend it, he acknowledges and bewails (great word!) his shortcomings and begs for the one good idea we have been given so far, mercy.
The rest we can figure out. Except perhaps the heart of the lesson: to come away thinking ill of the Pharisee is to participate in just the kind of thinking he represents in the parable – there but by the grace of God go I. It’s a trap. Neatly set, and we willingly and eagerly spring it on ourselves nearly every time. For you see, God wants us to be merciful just as God promises to be merciful. We are to be merciful to the tax collector AND the Pharisee. Hard work, to be sure, but it is necessary work if we are ever to experience personally and collectively the emerging Kingdom of God that Jesus is sent to promote. No one ever said loving our enemies would be easy.
I remember one day serving in a soup kitchen in Baltimore many years ago. About a hundred or so homeless and nearly homeless people passing through the serving line one at a time, each stopping to say thank you, each looking tired but glad to have one hot meal on that day. A colleague of mine, The Reverend William Rich, turned to me and said, “There by the grace of God am I.” I hope and pray that I will never forget that moment.
So there you have it. God helps those who help others. There by the grace of God am I.
Be merciful. It’s the one good idea we have been given so far!