“And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. “The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ “I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”” (Luke 18:9–14, NASB95)
What if we were to put this in modern terms? Who would be the Pharisee? Who would be the tax collector? Jesus’ intent was that his audience initially side with the pharisee, that they were most like him in their thoughts and attitudes. And that the tax collector was a hated enemy, a collaborator with Rome, while retaining their Jewish identity. Often seen as thieves and unjust because of their jobs, outcasts of proper temple society. Just like when Jesus uses a samaritan as the hero in the neighbor parable, Jesus choice was designed to create shock – a blow to cherished self-righteousness in order to knock the idols of self from their throne.
Changing the groups in the parable to something of today is dangerous, just like it was when Jesus spoke this parable. The Pharisee could be anyone that identifies themselves as pious or better than others because of their actions and beliefs – I go to the right church, I publicly pray over every meal, I tithe, I drive the speed limit, I have a fish on the bumper. Just like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable there is nothing wrong or improper in any of those things. The problem is the “I” in front of them. I get the feeling that if Jesus was speaking this parable to us individually he would choose the actions, motivations, and thoughts that we take pride in. He would target those things that we use to confirm and justify our standing before God.
Replacing the tax collector in the story is not difficult. The basic criteria is that they need to be in a group or groups that would be classified as sinful yet might identify with faith. Say an abortionist, a tattooed and pierced teen, an LGBT activist, or a white supremacist. Again, I think that if Jesus individually told us this parable he would use a group that would produce the most shock to our pride. The person or group we would be most skeptical and cautious of if they joined us for Sunday worship. The person or group that we would say to ourselves – I’m glad I’m not like them.
So, if Jesus was directing this parable at you, what would the “I” list contain? Mine would look something like – I blog about Jesus, I serve my church any way I can, I’ve never been with another woman other than my wife, I have a degree in theology, I give beyond the tithe. Like the pharisee in the parable, nothing wrong with any of those unless they become my identity before God and man. What would be in your “I” list? Who would be your tax collector?
The point of course is to remove the idols of religious and spiritual pride and know that all of us, any of us, can only approach God like the tax collector – God be merciful to me, the sinner!