Luke 18: 9-14: The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
When Dominican Sisters or Brothers make profession – take their first or final vows – they are asked during the ceremony “What do you desire?” the response is, “The mercy of God and yours”. I have to admit that at my time of vow-taking, this response meant very little to me. It has taken many years for me to appreciate the depth of its meaning.
In today’s Gospel reading the Pharisee is portrayed as self-righteous and proud. Perhaps, like me at my profession, he is a young man who has still to learn life’s lessons of what mercy is all about?
The depth of meaning in the word ‘mercy’ is close to words such as compassion, steadfast love, goodness, fidelity, loving kindness. An example of its use in the psalms is in Psalm 51, often used at services of reconciliation: “Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness, in your compassion blot out my offence”.
Jesus tells this parable to ‘some people who prided themselves on being righteous and despised everyone else’. Its message is clear. The Pharisee prides himself on his accomplishments – he is not grasping or unjust, he keeps all the rules, he pays tithes on his possessions. He seems to be a very good citizen. But – here is the nub of the story that Jesus wants to highlight – he despises others.
In contrast, the tax collector is portrayed as a man who realises his need for mercy and trusts that the God of steadfast love and fidelity will hear his prayer. In many ways our sympathy is with him. Perhaps he reminds us of other people we know – neighbours – friends – people in public life – who model for us a life of service grounded in humility.
However, the parable has a wider focus than simply person-to-person. As we see from news reports from around the globe, all sorts of evils stem from people or groups who ‘despise others’. While this can affect relations between persons – one despising the other, thinking that they are superior to the other- disdain for others can have a very detrimental effect globally, leading to evils such as racism, sexism, trafficking, bigotry in all its forms. The history of colonisation attests in no small way to the attitudes of disdain of the colonisers, while, even in the past century we have seen how it has led to ethnic cleansing, pogroms, wars.
Perhaps the challenge of this gospel is for me to ask myself, “Which is more dominant in me, the attitude of the Pharisee or that of the tax collector?”
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner”
Veronica Mc Cabe, OP