Channeling our Inner Tax Collector
We’ve heard about them many times before: the blustering Pharisee who stood up and “prayed to himself,” the humble Publican who hunkered down in the back of the Temple area and begged for mercy. The latter “went home justified”; the former just went home. If you’ve been paying attention, it’s pretty clear why things turned out that way.
Any questions? Yes. One.
Where am I in this story?
I’d love to say that I’m not with the Pharisee, not so comfortably sure of my genuine obedience to the Law that I am oblivious to the reality that everything is gift. But I’m not so sure that I can claim that.
I’d love to say that I’m with the tax collector, achingly aware of my sins and of my crying need for God’s mercy. But I’m pretty sure that I can’t claim that place, either.
Oh, I might not be as bad as the Pharisee – might not send God a bulleted list of all my good deeds, usually don’t look scornfully out of the corner of my eye at someone else and thank Him that I’m not him (or her), don’t tend to “take the first place at banquets” or to “make [my] phylacteries broad and [my] fringes long” (Matthew 23: 5-6). Nobody’s called me “Reverend Mother Provincial” – ever!
And yet. Looking at what I’ve just said that I “don’t do,” I see that I’m still channeling my inner Pharisee. Making lists of the faults of others, minimizing my own. I seem to be a card-carrying Pharisee without even trying.
But tearing my eyes away from that commanding figure for a moment, I look at and listen to the tax collector, shyly praying at the rear of the Temple. Unlike the Pharisee, he hasn’t done good deeds. In fact, he’s probably contributed to making life miserable for many of his fellow Jews in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. Unlike the Pharisee, too, he doesn’t make a list, doesn’t parade his misdeeds as a prelude to a nice tableau of repentance. Instead, he just turns to God to ask for mercy and forgiveness.
Like the Pharisee, the tax collector came to the Temple. Something in the tax collector’s heart -- which was, after all, made of the same material as the Pharisee’s heart -- prompted him to a different stance before his God, both physically and spiritually. Jesus says he went home “justified,” which is also my desire. So I’m left with two more questions: What was that “something”? How could I get in touch with it in my own heart?
Jesus tells this story, not for the tax collectors and folks like him, but for “those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” In short, folks like the Pharisee. Folks like me. And maybe you. Maybe you and I have had our “intelligences Christianized” (to quote Saint Marie Eugénie) enough so that we don’t take it to the degree that the parable’s Pharisee does. But if we’re honest, I think most of us need a little more tax collector and a little less Pharisee in our hearts. Ask for that gift from the only One who can give it to you. Like the tax collector did.
—Sr. Nuala Cotter, RA, Provincial of the U.S. Province