In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells a story about two characters well-known to his listeners. The Pharisee is a man true to the religious norms of his time; he’s following all of the rules and is quite proud of himself. All the people listening to Jesus’ story would have agreed with the Pharisee that he should be commended for being a good man.
Similarly, the tax collector is rightfully despised for being a traitor and thief. Tax collectors must have had a lonely existence since, having betrayed their own people, they would have been publicly shunned. Their Roman masters would have similarly disdained such men regardless of their usefulness for tax collecting activities. In truth, the tax collector has made bad choices, and he knows it.
Jesus could not have offered a parable that superficially presented two of the most opposite socially situated persons in his culture. And he draws a conclusion that any reflective listener knows is true: the socially reviled man is justified in approaching God, while the Pharisee is not.
It seems to me that Jesus is a genius at making distinctions. He is able to cut through what only appears to be true so as to reveal the core of what is real. What is real in God’s view is the disposition of each of the men. The Pharisee approaches God with a sense that somehow he is owed something for following the rules. The tax collector acknowledges his moral failures, and approaches God with the humility of someone who knows he doesn’t deserve God’s love. Yet he longs to experience that divine love and forgiveness down deep in his heart.
How do you approach Jesus? What is your demeanor and attitude toward other people and the choices they make, even when they’re poor choices?
—Fr. Jim Prehn, S.J. is Vocation Director for the Chicago-Detroit Province of the Society of Jesus. Learn more about the Jesuits at www.thinkjesuits.org