Pharisee or taxman?

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“I am not as nice as you think I am.” I guess all over the world we have times when we don’t want to look people in the eyes. Christianity teaches that this can be a good thing.

Jesus Christ once told a symbolic story about a pharisee and a taxman who went up to the temple to pray. The pharisee thanked God that he was not like common people, who were various kinds of sinners, but that he fasted more than the Law required and was very careful about paying the dues required by his religion. The taxman, on the other hand, dared not approach too close to the holy place or lift his eyes, but prayed: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” According to Jesus, the taxman went home justified – righteous before God – but the other not.

People these days have a somewhat inaccurate idea about pharisees. It is used as a general synonym for hypocrite. Indeed, Jesus did call them hypocrites. But the hypocrisy he talked about is not the crude form where people lie about good things they don’t actually do, or exaggerate the good deeds they do and hide some deep dark secret. I suppose you could call that hypocrisy too, and a bad case of it! But there is no hint that the pharisee was lying before God, at least not intentionally. He really was a man who went to great lengths to fulfill the rules of his religion, and he probably did not do anything hideous behind closed doors. The pharisees were the cream of the Jewish religion at the time.

Likewise the taxman, or publican, was probably not someone you’d like to be seen with. Even today, when the taxes are collected for the benefit of the poor among us, there are many who would dearly like to push a taxman down the stairs. But these guys back then were collecting taxes for the occupying Roman administration, to maintain the continued occupation and generally keep the Jews under the thumb. So not only was he a taxman, but a traitor as well. This was generally not a job that attracted idealists, as you can imagine.

So the thing here is not that the pharisee was actually evil and the taxman was actually good. They both were able to assess themselves as seen from outside, rather than conveniently forgetting their weaknesses and exaggerating their good points, as we naturally tend to do. There is no reason to doubt that the pharisee was a certified Good Guy by human standards, and the taxman not so much.

You may want to ask God about this, but I believe the big deal here is that one of them saw the huge distance between himself and God, while the other did not. I think so because these things happen to me from time to time. Something happens that reminds me that God is in Heaven and I am on Earth, and bragging and preening is a bad idea, particularly in the sight of God or Heaven.


For the ease of talking about it, let us divide people into three groups. It is really more like a seamless spectrum, I think, but this makes it easier to look at it. On one end, you have the hardened criminal. Even though he does disturbing things, he does not feel bad about it. He is adept at blaming other, and is keenly aware of his own rights and needs. If those cause trouble for others, they got what was coming to them, for not taking care.

In the middle, we have all the common people who try to be good but sometimes fail. When these failures are revealed to cause suffering, we feel bad about it. We did not mean to hurt anyone, we did not think it would end up like this. When we see the consequences of our mistakes, not just to ourselves but also to others, we can easily say with the taxman: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” We are aware of our sinner status … for a while. But when we don’t see any obvious mistakes, or there don’t seem to be any consequences, this feeling fades and we start feeling pretty good about not being like that creep over there.

And then we have the saints. They hardly have any vices at all, and although they have temptations, they don’t usually fall in them. But the very fact that they feel something very different from what God would feel, that distance bothers them greatly. The fact that they don’t have divine nature in every aspect of their life and thought makes them feel keenly their lack of holiness, and they feel unworthy before God. Even though they live good lives and try to bless people in their hearts, they still feel the need to pray: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”


Despite my talking at length about these things, I am not actually one of the saints. Unless something amazing happens, I am unlikely to be in that number, when the saints come marching in. I can join the pharisee in thanking God that I have not actually killed anyone (so far, long may it last) – but I don’t really feel like “Oh my God I’m seriously a sinner!” except when the poisoned fangs of evil sink deep into my soul and horrible thoughts feel disturbingly natural. As long as I am not led into temptation but delivered from evil, I feel pretty good about myself.

So that is why failure is not optional for people like me, who talk about things that are too big for our breeches, above our pray grade etc. But sometimes it can’t be helped. Sometimes we must say all the words that should be spoken, before they are lost forever.

And as a bonus, I can enjoy feeling like a certified sinner for a little while, instead of the usual pharisee…

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