The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican

Homily, October 27, 2013 - 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Rev. William A. Au, Ph.D.

A Catholic Biblical scholar, Hans Walter Wolf said: “Real prophets consistently confuse people.”  Because they challenge people to reconfigure how they look at things, and how we look at things determines what we see and get out of what we hear and experience.  

Today’s Gospel — Jesus doing precisely this — tells the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (or as my grandmother used to butcher it, the parable of the Pharisee and the republican).  It is a parable it is said that was told in response to the “self-righteous.”

The Pharisees have gotten a bad press in Christian circles because of their opposition to Jesus.  But they were the liberals of their day.  They took their religion seriously.  In the parable he is proclaiming how he has kept all the commandments and rules and followed all the rituals required of him and paid tithes on his income…  And he did.  

The publican was a despised figure and with reason.  He was a tax collector for and occupying power and was seen as traitor and public sinner.  Yet he is presented as recognizing his sin and need for God’s mercy, while the Pharisee is seen as taking credit for his righteousness before God as if he earned it, and did not deem the publican worthy of acceptance as a human being.  

Jesus says that it was the publican who went away justified – must have left a lot of his listeners scratching their heads – confused, for this turned the way they were conditioned to see things upside down.  

This parable is set in the context of multiple disputes between Jesus and his opponents — Pharisees and Sadducees.  We must be clear here: this is not a dispute between Christians and Jews or a comparison of Christianity and Judaism.  This is a fight among Jews as to what is the real inner meaning of their faith and religion—what is the core experience of God to which the biblical faith of Israel is supposed to lead people?  

In this conflict Jesus is acting in the tradition of Jewish prophets—insisting that the faith of Israel has nothing to do with political power, ideologies of control, or protecting the institutional interests of the religious establishment.  

Rather, it has to do with a radical openness to God’s presence among us—calling us beyond where we are- into an experience of God’s compassionate love for us and the necessity of our compassionate embrace in that love of all others.  ---what he radically opposed was the reduction of religion to an ideology focused on keeping power and influence for the religious establishment rather than being the God’s instrument of bringing the transformation of faith and compassion to human society. 

This conflict between Jesus and his opponents over the fundamental understanding of their religion is most important to us to reflect upon—for it is the same challenge we are facing as a church.  This fact has been brought into sharp focus by our new Pope Francis, who has said things that –like every good prophet—has confused people— because its tone and content is quite different from what our church establishment has been saying and conditioning us to hear.  (I have been asked to address this and have waited for this Sunday when the scriptures set the stage to do it)  

Francis too places before us the challenge to reconsider how we look at things as Christians and how we understand our faith and the nature and role of the church.  Time will tell what his influence will be, but I believe he is raising the same challenges as Jesus was in the gospel accounts.  For the problem Jesus was addressing is not peculiar to Judaism but is at the heart of all religions.  So let us review briefly some of the things Francis has said and hear in them the echo of the voice of Jesus:  

Francis said: "Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open new areas to God.  Those who today always look for disciplinarian solution, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists—they have a static and inward directed view of things.  In this way faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.”  

We are already painfully aware of the consequences of religion being turned into a political ideology as part of the human conflict for power and control—it is easy to see it in other religions in the justification of terrorism or violence, etc.  

Yet the real challenge is to see this dynamic in our own religious community and institutions. 

  • Within the church we have witnessed how conservative and liberal factions can savage each other with a viciousness that shows none of the compassion of Jesus - because they are convinced they are fighting for the real truth of their religion. 
  • I have seen how church authority can handle issues of challenge or dissent without any sense of fairness or due process because they either know only disciplinarian approaches to being questioned or feel their need to defend the institutional interests or positions dispenses with the need for fairness or due process. 
  • I have seen how the sex abuse crisis was handled without any sense of justice for the victims and then shifted to dealing with accused priests without any sense of due process.  Because in both instances the real issue was protecting corporate interests that had become identified with the church and the faith. 
  • In our church communities we have seen those who differ with the church’s position on various moral issues, or who have been divorced etc., have found themselves treated   
    by laity and church officials alike as if they were public outcasts with no place in the church.  

In the face of this reality Francis said: “If one has the answers to all the questions, this is proof that that God is not with him.”  

Instead Francis seems to be calling us to what should be the true focus of our religion: “We must always consider the person.  Here we enter into the mystery of the human being.  In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them starting from their situation.  It is always necessary to accompany them with mercy” That is the first concern we have as a church must be to touch the hearts of people to proclaim God’s merciful love to them and uphold their sense of personal self-worth.  This is the necessary basis for any dialog.  If we, as a church do not communicate our acceptance and compassionate love for people, why should any of them care what we have to say?  

Thus, Francis said: “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, small minded rules.  The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you, and the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all else.”  This is the very thing Jesus did when he addressed how the religious law was applied in ways that denied that centrality of the human person.  Such as when he was attacked for healing on the Sabbath and said: “The Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath.”  

This is also why Francis said: “The church can no longer insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods…we cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines……we must find a new balance, otherwise the moral edifice of the Church will likely crumble like a house of cards.”  

His words serve to challenge us to see that to focus totally on certain issues as we have,  blinds us to the totality of the Church’s moral teaching, and reduces these issues to being a litmus test of loyalty to the institution and institutional policy that reflects the reduction of religious faith into an ideology of control:

  • I have seen the results of this in the promotion of clericalism and careerism in the clergy in which many feel they must adhere to narrow sets of statements on certain issues in order to promote their careers.
  • I have seen how this careerism and narrow focus has justified the abuse of power in the church.  An example you are aware of, seems to me, to be the recent actions taken against American orders of religious women, who are under church scrutiny for a number of vague charges which included, not adequately addressing the issues of gay marriage and abortion and contraception, and spending too much time addressing the needs of the poor and social justice instead.  I cannot but wonder what the saint whose name our current pope chose would have to say about such an accusation. 
  • I have seen how this narrow obsessive focus on these issues has allowed church leaders and lay advocates to ignore Papal and church teaching on issues of war and poverty, feeling that they only need to mouth narrow statements on abortion, gay marriage and contraception in order to be good Catholics.  For example, neo-conservative Catholic advocates have justified and pushed for military action in the Middle East and even justified the use of torture, while ignoring Papal condemnations of such actions.  They have in turn criticized more liberal catholic advocates for questioning the Church’s position on gay rights, or contraception or the role of women and the use of authority, by disparaging them as “cafeteria” Catholics who want to pick and choose what they believe.  The truth is, these folks are just eating at a different cafeteria and hoping the rest of us don’t notice.  
  • Consequently we have all witnessed the growing reality of whole classes of people within the church who feel they no longer have a place in the church because they are divorced, gay, or cannot accept a position of the church on contraception or the role of women, etc.  

In the face of this reality which has come to dominate the inner experience and outward posture of our Church, Francis said: “The Church must be a home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of people.”  Words that proclaim that the church and especially its shepherds must be humble in bringing God’s mercy to the modern world—to liberate people from the arrogance, authoritarianism, and hubris of both the church and state that has made people lose a sense of their worth and God’s healing mercy and love.  

To accept the challenge that Francis puts before us it is necessary that we listen to the Jesus whose teachings he reflects.  The Jesus who always rebuked the mentality in which in the name of religion:

  • People close themselves off from any real dialog or encounter in the search for truth. 
  • Who for the sake of certitude and self-assurance imprison themselves in very narrow definitions of the human person and human relationships. 
  • Who out of fear use morality and religion to justify unfair or even violent opposition to those who do not share their world view or live as they do.  

Indeed we need very much the liberating encounter with the Jesus who was always in opposition to the religious ideologies and fundamentalisms of his own day.  

For he was always exposing the idolatry of their presumption to put God in a bottle and exposing the difference between believing in air-tight theological definitions and believing in the living God who is beyond all our definitions.  

We need the transforming encounter with this Jesus:

  • Who in the face of the self-righteousness of the representatives of religion rebuked their pretense to have any special hold on God’s love and mercy.
  • Who in the face of bigotry and the religiously endorsed nationalism and prejudices of his day - proclaimed the worthiness of the foreigner, the pagan, and social outcast. 
  • Who in reaction to those who tried to use the scriptures as a weapon against him— taught that the scriptures are alive to us only if we allow them to speak unfettered by our prejudices and predetermined ideas of what they must prove or have to say to us.  

This is the Jesus who stands before us today in the gospel—as the one who proclaims the ever greatness of God in the face of all human attempts to contain God.  He stands as the one who proclaims the utter falsehood of all human beliefs that do not lead us to a deeper and humbler understanding of God’s compassionate love for all people.  

It is this Jesus who calls us to act out our faith in the concrete circumstances of our lives where God is constantly acting  in unexpected ways to reveal the interconnecting  web of relationships which we never knew existed between saints and sinners, believers and unbelievers, men and woman, rich and poor.  

We cannot encounter this Jesus without being challenged to see our Church and world through his eyes.  We are challenged to judge ourselves and our church by the standard of the one who taught that the ultimate test of our faith is whether we are being led to a more humble submission to God and a more compassionate embracing of one another.

To accept his challenge is not easy, but unless we allow the words of Jesus to fill our hearts we will not be free of the fear that only pretends to capture the truth, and thus be able to encounter that truth which alone can make us free.  

Thus, I hear in the words of Francis the words of the one whose vicar he was called to be—and I for one believe he is making the same challenge that Jesus is making in today’s Gospel.  As confusing as it may be for many, we must learn to see things differently - through the eyes of Jesus, or as Francis said:  We must find a new balance or else even the moral edifice of the Church will collapse like a house of cards.  

As Jesus always said, let those who have eyes see, let those who have ears hear.