Of all the parables of Jesus, this one sets the most wonderful traps for us. The easiest one to fall into is to think that we are more like the tax-collector than we are like the Pharisee, that we belong with the poor and humble person at the back of the church. Jesus tells us that this is the best place to be because it is the tax-collector who goes home justified. A very good illustration of this trap is the teacher who, introducing her class to this parable, was horrified to hear herself saying at the end of the lesson, 'so, children, let us thank God that we are not like the Pharisee'. We have then swapped places with him, proud to be like the publican who went home at rights with God, feeling self-righteous that we are not like the (self-righteous!) Pharisee.
Another strategy then is to say 'well actually I am a bit of a Pharisee'. And I am actually in a more difficult situation than the publican who is an obvious sinner whereas I am tempted to think that I am better than him. And so my sins are more difficult, and probably more interesting. He struggles with fleshly sins (greed, lust): my difficulties are more in the area of pride, much trickier. My sins are more sophisticated than those of the tax-collector, more difficult to articulate clearly, more subtle in the demand they make for contrition and confession. I need more help with repentance because of my pride and self-righteousness: so you see I am the one who is really in the position of the tax-collector, a poor sinner crying for help!
A compromise, though walking straight into another trap, is to think that as a group we are more like the Pharisee while individually I am well aware of my sins. Critics of the Church ceaselessly tell us how hypocritical, self-righteous, and rejecting of others we are. So I might be tempted to say that, as an individual I am like the tax-collector, humble and contrite, whereas as one of the group I too am a Pharisee. But Jesus does not offer us this option: it is a matter of this individual, the Pharisee, and this other individual, the tax-collector.
So what option is left, what other strategy might there be for receiving this parable? The only workable one is to stay with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem no matter what our hearts and consciences are saying to us about ourselves. There are many knots, many paradoxes, many reversals spoken about by Jesus on that journey: the first will be last and the last first; the one who exalts himself will be humbled and the one who humbles himself will be exalted; the prodigal is welcomed home with great joy to the dismay of the faithful elder brother; love your enemies and hate your families.
The logic of all this does not surrender itself to hard thinking. It is the logic of love, of the service of others, and of growing self-knowledge. We see the sense of it only in practice, in walking the way of Jesus and entering, with him, into the centre of these paradoxes. His journey culminates in the Great Reversal, the central mystery at the heart of creation and of human history, the death of the Son of God and his resurrection from among the dead (when the last is first and the humbled one is exalted).
Jesus himself struggles with these knots, reversals and paradoxes in his prayer in Gethsemane. Today's first reading tells us that the prayer of the humble person pierces the clouds, and reaches the throne of God. Here in Gethsemane is the one truly just person, humble and obedient, brought to his knees by the weight of sin, evil and death which he is facing. The vocation he has received, the will of the Father for him, means he must engage with sin, evil and death, facing them directly, entering into them (in the case of death) and into their consequences (in the case of sin and evil).
It is striking how the prayer on Paul's lips in the second reading sounds much like the prayer of the Pharisee in the parable: I have kept the faith, I have finished the race, I have competed well, all that remains for me is the crown of righteousness. This is not the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane though we can imagine that it might well be his prayer on Easter Sunday. The striking difference between the prayer of the Pharisee in the parable and the prayer of Paul the Pharisee is that Paul does not compare himself with others as the Pharisee compares himself with the tax-collector. Paul looks only at God and at himself and in that way understands his spiritual condition. It is another part of how we must receive this parable: there is no need to compare ourselves with anybody else, all we need worry about is how we stand in the sight of God, how we are in the light of Christ.
If we remain faithful to the way of Jesus, seeking to be with him in prayer and to serve him in love, then the unfolding circumstances of life will bring us inevitably to places where all we can do is pray humbly. Another great lesson of today's parable is that it is not any particular kind of person who is heard by God, it is a particular kind of prayer that is heard by God. And that prayer can come from the heart and lips of anybody, poor or rich, struggling or successful, tax-collector or Pharisee.
Our relationship with God, and so with others, cannot be evaluated in any mathematical way. It is what the Pharisee tries to do, measuring out his service of God, even going beyond the call of duty so as to be on the safe side. Sadly, we are also told, the Pharisee prayed to himself. The tax-collector, whose life has brought him to a place of humility and poverty, does not compare himself with anybody else nor does he try to work out the mathematics of his situation before God. He simply kneels, in solitude, and prays to God, speaking out of his poverty, the simplest possible prayer whose power pierces the heavens.
You can listen to an earlier version of this homily here.