Robert Farrar Capon
“The Pharisee and the Tax Collector”
Let me lay out for you the story, Jesus’ parable, of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus says, “Two men went up to the temple to pray. One of them was a Pharisee. The other was a tax collector.”
You must remember that a tax collector was a crook. He was a person who was a Jew but he worked for the Roman government. He had a franchise, an area in which he was entitled to collect taxes. He was told by the Romans what he owed them. Anything else he made over and above that was his to pocket. The tax collectors were despised as turncoats and so on. So Jesus has set you up. He has sent in the Pharisee who was one of the most respectable people in Judaism of his time and He has sent into the temple with him this tax collector who is a mafia-style enforcer, who is a bad apple.
The Pharisee stands by himself and he prays and he says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people. I am not a thief. I am not a rogue. I am not an adulterer. I am certainly not like this tax collector over here. I fast twice a week. I give away a tenth of my income.”
That is his speech. He goes on interminably like that. Then the tax collector says (he won’t look up to the heaven; he looks at his shoe tips), “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
Then Jesus says, “I tell you this man (the tax collector) went to his house justified rather than the other for all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
That is the story. Like all of Jesus’ parables, it should carry a warning which is “this will be hazardous to all your previous opinions about how religion works and how God works.” Jesus’ parables are designed to outrage the hearers and to shock and to show how God has stood almost all of our values on their heads.
What this parable is about is not, as it seems to say at the end, the virtue of humility. The Pharisee’s problem is not that he is showing off. It is that he really believes that his stack of good deeds is enough to save the world. And he believes it is enough if only everyone else would do what he does — that is enough to save the whole world.
What God really says in Christ is that human goodness isn’t good enough to do this trick. Human goodness cannot reconcile the world. Basically if the world could have been reconciled by good advice from God, to which human goodness would respond, the world’s problems would have been solved ten minutes after Moses got down to the bottom of the mountain with the commandments. Everyone would have read the commandments and said, “Oh, yes, of course,” and the problem would have been over. The trouble with the commandments is the commandments are fine, but no one has ever paid much attention to them.
The law, the commandments, are efforts at morality, humility, spirituality and, above all, are efforts at religion, are efforts at trying to do something that will get us right with God. All don’t work. Therefore God, as Jesus speaks of Him, doesn’t risk trying to save the world by human good behavior. The Pharisee’s mistake, therefore, is not that he is saying something that it is just proud or a little bit arrogant, but that what he is saying is dead wrong. His goodness is irrelevant to the problem that he is talking about. Therefore, God says that the tax collector who simply looks at his shoe tips and says, “I’m no good,” is justified. Now, why?
The point is that this parable is about death and resurrection. It is not about morality, spirituality or anything else. It is about the fact that both the Pharisee and the Publican (the tax collector), are dead ducks. The Pharisee is a very high class kind of dead duck, but they are both dead as far as being able to reconcile with God is concerned. The point about all of this is that the reconciliation God has in mind for them is totally dependent on their death.
Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to teach the teachable; He did not come to improve the improvable; He did not come to reform the reformable. None of those things works. Jesus taught His disciples for three years. They never caught on to very much at all. God has been teaching the world for a millennia. The world hasn’t done anything much about it. The tragedies go on. The lies go on. The nonsense goes on. The twaddle goes on. All the things that are wrong with the world go on. They are not amenable to talk. They are only amenable to action and, therefore, Jesus came to raise the dead — meaning by deadness, you in your deadness, the Pharisee in his deadness and the tax collector in his deadness.
Now you ask yourself a question. Do you like that parable? Of course, you don’t like it. The point is that it violates every sense you and I have about the fact that we really are basically doing fairly well. If only other people were as nice and considerate and as wonderful as we are, the world would be a better place to live in and God says, “No. That will not work.” It can’t be done that way. It can’t be done by people who think they are winners. It can only be done by people who are willing to admit they are losers and then who are willing to trust God in the death of their losing to do it for them, to deliver them the gift of a reconciliation with God.
Again, I ask you the question. Do you like that? Once again the answer is no you don’t like that because here is this terrible tax collector who is really a monstrous character and probably rubs salt in everybody’s wounds. He drives around in a stretch limo with a case of Chivas Regal in the back of the trunk and several very expensive call girls with him at all times. He has just been skimming the cream off his neighbor’s milk money. The point is that the Pharisee is no less dead than that dreadful character.
So I want you to turn the parable around a little bit. Just imagine what it is like to see how the Pharisee is so wrong. Imagine God sitting in the temple at a golden card table in a golden chair and in come these two characters. The Pharisee comes across the temple and God is very busy. He is creating the universe out of nothing. He is holding the stars in their courses. He is reconciling all the generals in the Pentagon and the street walkers in Times Square and the drug addicts asleep in doorways. He is making the hair on my head grow, slowly at this point. He is doing all these things and He is very busy.
Up comes this character, this Pharisee, and he whips out a pack of cards and he does a couple of one-handed cuts and an accordion shuffle and bridges them and fans them out for God and says, “Pick a card. I want to play cards with you.”
God folds the deck back up and He says, “Don’t play me.”
So the Pharisee says, “No, no. I’ve been very lucky lately. Let’s play Black Jack.”
He deals God a king and an ace and God pushes the card away and says, “Look, I don’t want to take your money. You can’t play with me. The odds are always on the house here and besides, no matter how full you think your deck is, you haven’t got a full deck and you can never win playing this game of cards with me. So why don’t you just be like that fellow over there who is looking at his shoes and the two of you go over and have a free drink and enjoy yourselves because you can be home free here if you will only stop this nonsense of trying to sell me, trying to win over me, trying to get an arm up on me, to do something to me to prove that you are okay. I don’t care that you are not okay. I will raise you from the death of your lack of okayness. I will raise you up. Just trust me. That fellow over there, all he said was he was no good. He threw himself in trust on me. He’s home free because all the dead are home free in my working of the universe, in my reconciliation of the world. All you have to do is recognize that death is the key to your salvation.”
Now you ask yourself the question, do you like that version of the parable? Again, you still don’t like it. I’ll prove you don’t like it. Suppose the tax collector goes home justified. All right. You want me to bring him back a week later. So, I’ll bring him back. The first trip back, the first week after this original experience, will bring him back with no changes in his life. Same stretch limo, same girls in the back, same expensive scotch and he comes in and he goes through the same routine. He looks at his feet and says, “God, be merciful to me. I am no good.”
What will God say to him? Well, in the way Jesus told the parable, God will say the same thing this week He said the week before. He will say, “This man goes home justified because he admits he is dead.”
He didn’t tell him the first week, “You are justified but don’t do it again.” He said, “I have raised you from your death. You trust that. All right. Go in peace.”
The second week with no changes, the same thing. Do you like that version of the story? No. You don’t like that. The rat is getting away with murder. So I will do something else. I’ll give you a second version. Bring him back yet the third week for another trip to the temple, but this week bring him back with some change in his life. That is what you are itching for me to say, I think, that you want me to say something that he really needs or change his way, mend his ways at least a little. All right.
So we bring him back the third week. We’ll bring him back. He is not driving a stretch limo. He is driving a Hyundai. He only has one girl in the car with him and he is drinking cheaper scotch and giving the difference to the Heart Fund.
Why would God listen to that list of two-bit improvements when He wouldn’t listen to the Pharisee’s list of really respectable virtues, a really solid citizen? The thing you have to ask yourself is, “Why are you itching to send the Publican, the tax collector, back with the Pharisee’s speech in his pocket?”
The answer is we fear salvation that is so cheap that it saves everyone in his or her death. Death. Death of sin, death of disaster, dead of grief. That is where God works. God works in the losers of the world. He works in all of us. What it means, the reason we fear it so much, is that it means in the long run that death is catholic. Death is universal. Death gets us all, and if death is the only ticket anyone needs into the reconciliation in Jesus and if everybody has that ticket, then God has no taste. God is vulgar. God is indiscriminate. God is immoral. He lets in Hitler because He forgives Hitler’s sins. He does, in Jesus. He lets in my brother-in-law. He lets in me. He lets in you. All we have to do is believe it, not earn it.
We have a God, in Jesus’ proclamation, a God who couldn’t get a union card in the God union, who couldn’t make it because we have set up the rules for God. A God has to be a punisher; a God has to be a judge; a God has to be a respectable God. He has to do all the things that enforce morality, and God doesn’t. On the cross, in Jesus, He drops dead to the whole subject of sin and shuts up about the whole subject of condemnation. It is over. As St. Paul says in the beginning of the 8th Chapter of Romans: “There is, therefore, now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Therefore, this parable is about death and it is about the resurrection from the dead. The point is that death is all of the resurrection that we can know now. The most important thing is that we believe in Jesus. The dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and they will live.
I don’t believe in resurrection. I don’t believe in eternal life. I don’t believe in life after death. I don’t believe in the hereafter. Those are all opinions. I simply trust Jesus that He will deliver to me as He rose from the dead, He will raise me. Whatever that means, however it works, I trust Him because in His death is my reconciliation and in my reconciliation is my joy in Him.
Robert Farrar Capon
Icon of The Publican and the Pharisee
I find myself, like the words of the children’s song, trying to decide at what point of the anatomy to be settle. Do we stand these days on the shoulders of giants or do we dodge the descending feet of giants? Some of the choices I would like are not mine to choose.
Life has passed many choices by and other options I reject so I am left with the choice to face my life as it is or to defect in place. In middle age stamina is the name of the game. Trying harder is not always possiible and working smarter not readily available.
Here my thology must inform my place. To borrow an metaphor from Robert Farrar Capon When I lose grip on my life as I often do my grip is encloese in the grip of Jesus and that is enough. knowing that I am indeed losing my grip I am oddly comforted by that fact. Praise be to God.
A Chill in the Lost Leg — Victor Safonkin
We are like dwarfs on the shoulder of giants, so that we can wee more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.
Bernard of Chartres — French philosopher. fl. 1100
quoted in John of Salisbury. The Metalogican (1153)