Pharisee #1, Pharisee #2 and the Tax Collector

10 “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
11 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.
12 I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
13 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.’
14 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.” (Luke 18:10-14)

This parable, often called “The Pharisee and the Publican [or “Tax Collector”], is one of those things often cited, along with the infamous “Judge Not, lest ye be judged” to stifle any condemnation of objective moral evil.

To properly understand this parable, however, we must also think about what it meant to be a Pharisee and what it meant to be a tax collector.

In Roman-occupied Palestine, the tax collectors were looked upon by their Jewish brethren as collaborators. They were unclean because they cooperated with the Roman authorities. They also economically cheated their brethren. When we talk about Jesus associating with “tax collectors and prostitutes”, that really applies to two different categories of people.

As C. S. Lewis points out somewhere, prostitution is not a generally glamourous profession. Few people think, “I wanna grow and be a prostitute.” It’s a profession that someone enters out of desperation. Though sadly many who enter that profession get so buried in sin that they not only lose hope but the desire for salvation, still many who are trapped in that lifestyle want a way *out*. Prostitute-type sinners are looking for a Savior, and Jesus offers that hope.

Tax collector-type sinners are on the opposite end. They’ve got it made: they have everything the world could offer. Roman tax collectors made their living off of graft. The Romans expected them to pay the required tax, but the tax collectors themselves would often abuse the tax code and overtax people to make a tidy profit–as Zaccheaus admitted to doing when he promised to give back everything he took unjustly, plus interest.

When the Pharisees condemned Jesus for “dining with tax collectors and sinners,” however, the Gospel only recounts two occasions of Jesus dining with a tax collector. One is the home of Levi/Matthew, after he abandoned tax collecting and literally dropped everything to follow Jesus. The other is Zacchaeus, who literally goes out of his way to see Jesus, then welcomes Our Lord into his home, and then promises to give away first everything he took unjustly, plus interest, and next 1/2 of everything that is rightfully his. Only after Zacchaeus promises to do that does Jesus say “truly salvation has come to this house” (Lk 19:9; a warning to the “salvation by faith alone” crowd).

So it is not really fair to say Jesus dined with “tax collectors”–the only two recorded cases were tax collectors *who had already repented*. And the same with prostitutes and adulteresses. Whether the various sinful women mentioned in the Gospels (the woman who anoints Jesus at the Pharisee’s house, the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, or Mary of Magdala) are the same or different, the essence of all these women’s stories is Jesus’ words to the woman whom He saved from stoning: “Go and sin no more.” (Jn 8:11).

Every case of the Pharisees condemning Jesus for associating with “sinners” pertains to someone who’s already repented. Indeed, the key passage where they condemn Him for doing so is at dinner at Matthew’s house (Mt 9:11)–yet the Pharisees are *right there*. They’re at the dinner party, too! When they come nad say “This woman was caught in the very act of adultery” (Jn 8:4), they condemn themselves for voyeurism, which is why reading is often paired in the Liturgy with the story of Susannah in Daniel, where a couple of peeping-Tom priests get mad when the woman they’re lusting after rejects their advances, so they accuse her of adultery (Daniel 13).

Nowhere does Jesus encourage His followers to regularly hang out with *unrepentant* sinners. Quite the contrary:

14 Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words—go outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet.
. . .
34t “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. 35For I have come to set a man ‘against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one’s enemies will be those of his household.’

37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up his cross* and follow after me is not worthy of me. 39* v Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:14, 34-39)

And, immediately after the teaching about removing the beam from one’s own eye (Mt 7:5), Our Lord says, ““Do not give what is holy to dogs,* or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (Mt 7:6).

On the other hand, what are the Pharisees? Well, we know the Pharisees were self-righteous, but we forget in what their self-righteousness entailed. The Pharisees were very concerned primarily about cultural “righteousness” and about appearances, and not even necessarily about “moral righteousness.”

The Sadducees were Biblical and legal literalists. The classic Sunday school pneumonic tool that they were “sad, you see, because they didn’t believe in the Resurrection” is an oversimplification which side-steps the fact that they were the “fundamentalists” of first-century Judaism. Sadducees held that the only Scriptures were the five books of the Torah. They did not believe that the Prophets and Writings belonged in the Scriptures, and especially not the Writings that were originally written in Greek (the Deuterocanon). So any theological concepts that were introduced outside the confines of the Torah, such as the “resurrection” or the existence of angels, were rejected by the Sadducees. In cases like the ‘messengers of God’ mentioned in Genesis, a Sadducee would interpret those passages as referring to human prophets, and not to angels.

The Pharisees, by contrast, not only accepted the Prophets and Writings as part of Scripture, but they believed the law was open to interpretation based upon tradition. Our Lord to that extent agreed with their school of thought, and some scholars argue that if we are to place Jesus in any school of Judaism of His day, he’s clearly a Pharisee–He uses Pharisaical methods of Scriptural exegesis and hermeneutics.

The problem with the Pharisees, though, is their primary concern was “separating the sheep from the goats,” and emphasizing the cultural separateness of the Jews from the Gentiles. They “strained the gnat and swallowed the camel” (Mt 23:24) because they emphasized the aspects of the Law that were of lesser important but more superficial. It’s easier to sit down and say, “Let’s try some camel burgers for dinner” than it is to sit down and eat soup for dinner and find a gnat floating in one’s soup. That’s just gross.

So the Pharisees would condemn acts of external impurity (such as healing on the Sabbath) while ignoring acts of genuine immorality (such as staring at naked women in the hopes of catching them committing adultery). They would condemn collaboration with the Romans by the tax collectors while essentially collaborating themselves (again, they were at the dinner party, too).

Jesus’ most explicit condemnations of the Pharisees in Mark 7 still don’t make sense out of the historical context, but for example, when He says, “Yet you say, ‘If a person says to father or mother, “Any support you might have had from me is qorban”’* (meaning, dedicated to God),” (Mk 7:11), this refers to a legal fiction that they would create. It does not refer to giving money to the “Church” or to authentically failing to care for one’s parents because of a religious obligation–after all, the same Jesus also said “let the dead bury their dead” (Lk 9:60) and on numerous occasions called His followers to abandon their families.

What made the Pharisee’s version of “Qorban” immoral was it was a religous kind of tax evasion or asset hiding.

A prominent football coach with quite a “nest egg” legally signs everything over to his wife, claiming it’s so she won’t have to pay estate taxes when he dies. Just a couple months later, he is announced as a plaintiff in a major lawsuit, and shortly after that, it’s publicly announced he has cancer. So his critics question whether he was really providing for his wife or trying to protect his assets against the lawsuit. Whichever of the three possible motives, or all of them, it may have been, it’s a common practice to transfer assets in some some seemingly innocent way to avoid any one of those three eventualities when one knows they’re on the way.

Another example is how companies avoid various tax codes by the corporate structures they use. So some critics of “Obamacare” have noted how companies that want to avoid the penalties for “Obamacare” just have to divide themselves up into smaller “dummy corporations”, each having the maximum employees to skirt ACA’s requirements.

That’s essentially what the Pharisee’s version of “Qorban” was. The Law allowed for assets to be transferred to the Temple. Qorban was a way of legally transferring assets to the temple so they could still be used by the individual but not officially “in his name,” so he wouldn’t have to use them to care for his other obligations. I also once heard that the Pharisees would try to avoid “breaking the sabbath” by packing “just enough food” so it didn’t count as work, then stopping every so often that it wasn’t “work” to rest and have a snack so they could claim they weren’t “traveling on the sabbath”. So let’s say they said the maximum distance you could travel on the Sabbath was 10 miles. A Pharisee would walk for 10 miles, then take a break and eat a cracker and say it was a “meal.” But if he saw you walking 11 miles, he’d accuse you of breaking the Sabbath.

In Christian arguments, “Pharisee” is kind of like “Nazi” in political arguments: it gets thrown around so much as to lose its meaning, and if we’re going to accurately apply it, we need to know what it means. For the Pharisees used complicated legalisms and theological arguments to justify their own behavior while condemning others for superficial offenses (“not by appearances shall he judge,” says the Prophet, Isaiah 11:3).

It is one thing to speak of those who think they are righteous when they are not. It is one thing to speak of those who sin and admit it and don’t repent. It is a third thing to speak of those who sin and repent. However, where the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican gets misapplied, and where the charge of Pharisaism is often misapplied, is in situations within the Church where we argue with one another about moral or theological teachings.

The better passage about internecine arguments among Catholics is the “letters to the Seven Churches of Asia Minor” in Revelation 2 & 3. I believe I’ve blogged about this passage before. Like all aspects of the Book of the Apocalypse, these seven “letters” are much debated. A popular theory is that they’re about “eras of Church history” or something. But I think it’s simpler than that. In those letters, we can see the divisions that exist in the Church today and have probably always existed: the “conservatives” who are upright in God’s law but sometimes forget compassion; the “liberals” who are good about compassion but associate too much with unrepentant sinners and allow corruption to infiltrate the Church; the “charismatics”; those who get it right; the martyrs; etc.

Isaiah says “woe to those who call evil good” (5:20). This is the stock-in-trade of the so-called “Catholic Left” today. It’s one thing to show compassion to sinners, but true charity requires calling someone to repentance and welcoming them. How many of us have been to confession only to have the priest say, of an intrinsic evil, “That’s not a sin” or “That’s not a sin anymore”? I know someone who spent many years away from the Church, and then, upon regaining his faith, went to his local pastor and asked what to do, especially given some of the moral complications of his marriage and such. The priest said, “Well, the Church doesn’t believe in sin anymore, so you can just come back.”

Fr. Corapi may have fallen into trouble with his own fame getting to his head, but he still had some worthwhile stories, such as the priest at a conference who spoke of how hell and the Devil are obsolete (of course, the CDF issued a document in the 70s denouncing this popular “spirit of Vatican II” teaching). A lady asked the priest, “Father, do you *really* not believe in Hell?” “Of course not.” “Well, you will when you get there!”

When someone is calling evil good, and using theological sophistication to undermine a clear-cut teaching of the Church (such as the intrinsic evil of artificial contraception), it is not “name calling,” nor is it “Pharisaism,” to point out that such a person is on the fast track to Hell. Rather, the person who uses theological sophistries to justify evil is the one engaging in Pharisaism.

It is not uncharitable to point out that someone is speaking for the Devil, not for God. It is, rather, a supreme act of charity.

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4 responses to “Pharisee #1, Pharisee #2 and the Tax Collector

  1. promises to give away first everything he took unjustly, plus interest,

    It was not a question of interst as among usurers for voluntary money loans, but a Mosaic legal debt of paying back fourfold whatever beast one had stolen from other shepherds or cowboys. Or livestock owners generally.

  2. pneumonic tool

    mnemonic tool, I suppose you mean.

  3. which side-steps the fact that they were the “fundamentalists” of first-century Judaism. Sadducees held that the only Scriptures were the five books of the Torah.

    First of all that is an enormous injustice to Fundies. Their not believing Maccabees is pretty secondary to their believing all of Genesis and possibly per definition too a misinterpretation of Romans.

    Second that makes them advocates of basically same canon as that of Samaritans. If true, have not checked it with anyone else yet.

  4. On Zacchaeus’s “interest”–good point.
    On the spelling: thanks!
    On the Sadducees, I wasn’t comparing them to Christian Fundamentalists in the rejection of Maccabees but the biblical literalism part. The part about the Torah may be slightly oversimplification of their position, but they certainly put the priority on the Torah. But my comparison to Fundamentalists is that they were the Biblical literalists. The Sadducees appear far less in the Gospels than the Pharisees, and give up more easily, because their position is so alien to Jesus’.

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