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Dividing Humanity into Various Catagories

By Fr. Jack Evans

Gospel (Luke 18:9-14)

Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. "Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.' 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.' I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

First, the parable seems to contain a pretty clear message about humility and arrogance and, again, the Pharisee seemingly becomes the convenient whipping boy. But 20 centuries later, removed from its cultural context, perhaps we miss some of the reaction that Jesus knew how to evoke. To first century Jewish ears there is much more to the story. The Pharisees were highly regarded for their learning, piety and disciplined lifestyle. Everything this man says about himself is probably true. The tax collector was an employee of the Roman administration, collecting money from his own people to fill Roman coffers and, hence, a traitor. To call such a person "justified" or "righteous" would certainly have shock value and even cause scandal, especially when contrasted with the stature of the Pharisee.

Maybe there are a couple of points for reflection that can be drawn from this. First, the Pharisee is prone to dividing humanity up into various categories, the tax collector's group being one of them. The tax collector however is too desperate to be worried about any sort of group, but empty enough for God to work with and in him. As one writer observed, the parable seems to be saying that any time you seek to divide, who's in and who's out, you will find God on the other side!

Second, there is an irony in the reading of the parable. We automatically side with the taxcollector but can find ourselves, unwittingly, standing in the same part of the temple with the Pharisee and praying: "Thank God I'm not like this Pharisee!" Same arrogance, different name!


The Lord hears the cry of the poor
I will bless the LORD at all times;
His praise shall be ever in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the LORD;
The lowly will hear me and be glad.
The LORD is close to the broken-hearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
The LORD redeems the lives of his servants;
no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him.
The Lord hears the cry of the poor.

Columban Fr. Jack Evans is a staff member of the Center for Peace, Ecology and Justice at the Columban Mission Institute in Sydney, Australia.

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