In this parable, Jesus contrasts the proud Pharisee with the humble tax-collector, who recognises his need for forgiveness. Fr Adrian Graffy reflects.
9 Jesus spoke the following parable to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else. 10 'Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, "I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. 12 I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get." 13 The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." 14 This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.'
Other readings: Ecclesiasticus 35:12-14,16-19 Psalm 33 (34) 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
This is another of those wonderful parables which are only recorded in the Gospel of Luke. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, rather like the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, describes a stark contrast.
Jesus gives a caricature of a Pharisee who is inordinately proud of his achievements, one who completes all that the Law requires, and far more besides. Jesus describes the Pharisee as praying ‘to himself’. This could simply mean that he was praying softly, but it seems also to suggest that the prayers of this man can never reach God. They are simply an expression of his pride and self-obsession, which is accompanied by a judgemental attitude to others.
We should be careful not to extend this negative portrayal of one Pharisee to all Pharisees, as has often been done in interpreting the gospels, for many members of this religious group were exemplary in their attitudes and conduct. The tax-collector recognises his need of forgiveness. The gospels are full of references to tax-collectors, who were often dishonest, and sought the company of Jesus along with other ‘sinners’ (as in Luke 15:1). This man is deeply conscious of his need for God. He stands far off because he recognises that the God of holiness is to be found in the Temple, and he feels unworthy to come closer. He is a man of genuine faith and he beats his breast in an honest expression of his need.
‘Justification’, being ‘at rights with God’, is not a result of our own efforts to accumulate good deeds, but comes as a free gift to those who acknowledge their sinfulness and believe in the forgiveness Christ offers.
Are my efforts to do good an attempt to win God over, or an expression of love for the God who forgives me?
Do I pray as my heart directs me, or as I imagine I should?
Let us pray for those who are desperate to please God.
Let us pray for the faith which acknowledges the need of forgiveness.
Rev Dr Adrian Graffy is a member of the Vatican Commission that takes a lead in Bible scholarship, interpretation and promotion in the Catholic Church.
Rev Dr Graffy said of his five-year appointment by Pope Francis in 2014: “It is an honour to be nominated by Pope Francis as a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. I feel humbled and very much look forward to being of service to His Holiness and the Church.”
He added: “A great deal has been achieved in England and Wales in recent years by many co-workers to advance Biblical scholarship and the provision of easy-to-use resources. I would like to take this opportunity to thank them and the Bishops’ Conference Department for Evangelisation and Catechesis for their efforts to promote understanding and love of the Bible, particularly through the publication of the teaching documents, The Gift of Scripture and the study guide to Verbum Domini, The Word of the Lord.”
Rev Dr Graffy received his doctorate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome in 1983. He taught for over 20 years in St John’s Seminary in Wonersh, and is Chair of the National Scripture Working Group, which is an instrument of the Department for Evangelisation and Catechesis of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. Fr Graffy is a past director of Brentwood’s Commission for Evangelisation and Formation and parish priest of Christ the Eternal High Priest in Gidea Park, Essex. Among his publications are the Gospel of Mark and the Letter to the Romans (Alive Publishing).
Listen to BBC Essex interview with Fr Adrian Graffy