Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness
and despised everyone else.
"Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
'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.'
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
In the midst of Lent, when the emphasis is on repentance and change, it strikes me that the parable is maddeningly silent about any change in the tax collector. The Pharisee, Jesus is quick to point out, is externally a paragon of religious virtue, and we’re more than happy to pounce on the fact that he gets his comeuppance because he is—and this is at least one of the points of the tale—so convinced of his own righteousness.
But what about that tax collector? No doubt he understands in his deepest self that he isn’t righteous at all—indeed, another point of the tale. But it’s also probable that he went about his daily business in a very ordinary way, not wringing his hands about the sin he was committing—just doing his job. It is not in his public life that the reality of the man and his anguish over his sins resides—it is in the private one, the one who sneaks into the back of the Temple and does not even raise his eyes to God. Not only does he know what he ought to do, he’s painfully aware that he doesn’t do it. Hence his mournful prayer: be merciful to me, a sinner.
When the two men go home, it’s the tax collector who is justified. But the parable doesn’t say that all of a sudden, he repented of his evil ways, paid back all he had stolen and started to live an upright life. The parable is silent—and keeps us in the moment—the man went home that day justified and still a tax collector. So is the extravagant, prodigal grace of our God.
It got me to thinking about the vilification that is heaped these days on public figures who have parted ways with the thinking of the Church, figures like Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sibelius. These are folks with a great deal of political power who call themselves Catholic but whose public lives and works are often visibly, stridently and agonizingly contrary to the teachings of Holy Mother Church.
It gets frustrating for the average, trying-to-be-faithful Catholic in the pew to see these figures misstate Church teaching again and again and again. It has become almost physically painful to hear them dissemble on the beginnings of life and the virtues of contraception and abortion. And get more than a few like-minded, pro-life folks of any stripe together and pretty soon, the conversation is going to turn to a discussion of how awful it is that these people are permitted to hold themselves out as Catholic and why, oh why haven’t the Bishops done anything about it?
Fair enough. Public scandal—and that’s what the witness of nominal Catholics who support abortion is—deserves public correction. There probably is a place for a Bishop making a clear and public example of some of these thorns-in-the-side.
But I was struck in a recent conversation by a statement a friend made: These people are unrepentant in their sin. They deserve to be publicly chastised and excommunicated, for the sake of the faithful. I’ll leave that decision to the wisdom of the Bishops—but it strikes me that there’s a little bit of the Pharisee in that comment, a bit of equating sin with sinner. A bit of Thank you God that I am not as other men.
I think of some of the sins that I struggle with on a daily basis, ones that best me every time I encounter them, the ones I go back to the confessional again and again, saying I’m sorry, only to turn around and do them over and over yet again, returning again in defeat for another round of grace. They are not so notorious as publicly opposing the Church in her teaching on life, nor perhaps so serious as the obstinate, post-baptismal refusal to accept church teaching—but sins they are, even so. And they separate me from God, perhaps not as greatly but just as surely, as any other.
That tax collector may well have gone back to tax collecting the next day, a slave to that sin as I am a slave to mine, anguished in heart, knowing full well that what he did was wrong. Maybe that tax collector knew full well that it was his weakness and sin—his attachment to favor? to wealth? to power?—that kept him where he was, and maybe he knew just how powerless he was to defeat those particular demons. Perhaps his prayer of humility was also one of despair: Have mercy on me, for I am not able to change myself!
And he may have come back to that temple again and again, days,weeks, months, years, in that anguish, asking for mercy, hoping for grace and strength. How long did it take, how many prayers, before the private man, the man praying in such humility in the temple, became manifest in the public man who was such a notorious sinner? Maybe it never happened; if it did, it’s certain that some never saw it.
It’s important to understand right and wrong, faithfulness and heresy. It’s important to raise voices against injustice and correct error. It is important to oppose sin, especially visible and pervasive sin passed off as government policy. It’s important to remember that correcting the sinner is a spiritual work of mercy.
But it’s also important to remember we never know who is standing unnoticed in the back of the church, eyes downcast, asking for mercy at the same time we are calling down judgment. It’s important to make sure we aren’t standing in the front of the Church loudly declaring Thank you God, that I am not like other men.
For indeed—sometimes we are.