Parables of Jesus


Exemplary conduct

The Pharisee and the publican

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The Pharisee and the publican

From the Gospel of Luke Chapter 18, Verses 9-14

He said this parable again for some who had the intimate presumption of being righteous and despised others: Two men went up to the Temple to pray: one was a Pharisee and the other a publican. The Pharisee, standing up, prayed thus to himself: Oh God, I thank you because I am not like other men, thieves, unjust, adulterers, or even like this publican. Fasting twice a week and paying tithes of everything I own. The publican, on the other hand, who stopped at a distance, did not even dare to raise his eyes to heaven, but he beat his chest saying: Oh God, have mercy on me a sinner. I tell you: unlike the other, he returned to his home in peace with God, because whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Parable of Luke exegesis

This parable wants to focus on the dangerous presumption of considering oneself to be just and, with this intimate certainty, to feed contempt for others. To make this important teaching understood, Jesus contrasts two emblematic figures of his time. On the one hand the Pharisee, who was held in high esteem by the people: although they were in the minority in the Sanhedrin and occupied a smaller number of positions as priests, the Pharisees "controlled" the decisions taken by the Sanhedrin much more than the Sadducees or the scribes, precisely because they had the favor and support of the people; for this reason they were considered the "guarantors" of the Law and its correct interpretation, which they tried to achieve by adding precepts about precepts to every little nuance of the Law itself.

On the other hand, the tax collector, who was a sort of tax collector appointed by the Roman government: a seemingly normal job, if it hadn't been for the fact that the presence of the Romans was not appreciated by the local population; the publicans, who belonged to the Jewish people, were hated for having chosen to be on the side of the invaders, and also because with this work they held back a share of extortion for themselves; they were therefore considered "sold" as prostitutes, men "without hope", whose sin, according to the common way of thinking, could not know redemption. Through them Jesus reveals the presumption of being just and the danger to which every man can be exposed, if he falls into this insidious temptation.

Let us remember with what expression the demon tempts Jesus himself: "If you are the son of God, then you can [...]". It is the treacherous attempt to ignite in Jesus a feeling of presumption, provoking him to use his power. If even Jesus was tempted to do so, how do we realize if we are subjugated by the presumption of considering ourselves righteous in our way of acting and thinking? From what we read in the parable exposed by Luke, the answer should be immediate: when we cultivate disdain for others, judging them and sometimes condemning them, when we look for the infamous splinter in their eyes, highlighting everything we consider wrong or negative in them.

The parable focuses precisely on this argument, or on the presumption and contempt that are two faces of the same coin: presumption is an interior attitude, while contempt is the behavior we manifest as a consequence of the presumption cultivated in ourselves; and both are contrary to the two commandments left by Jesus: The first is: "Listen, Israel. The Lord your God is the only Lord; you will therefore love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength". And the second is this: "You will love your neighbor as yourself. "There is no other commandment more important than this".
(Mk 12,29-31)

The first commandment invites us to entrust ourselves totally to the Father, and being righteous means exclusively submitting to His will. The second commandment invites us to love and certainly not to criticize or despise others. On the basis of these two commandments the teaching of the parable is unraveled. Jesus had previously warned the Pharisees, calling them "hypocrites" and "whitewashed tombs", precisely because in them there was the conviction, based on the outward appearance of his own attitudes, to be just before God. And, in fact , the Pharisee of the parable of Luke prays standing up to affirm his presence at the temple with greater arrogance, turns to the Father saying: Oh God, I thank you because I am not like other men "and increases his contempt when he says that being their thieves, unjust, adulterers, are happy to be neither like them nor "like this tax collector", but on the contrary fast twice a week and pay the tithes of everything I own ". Making himself an interpreter of what could be pleasing to God, in the end he does not pray but simply expresses a religious formality.

The attitude of the publican, on the other hand, is completely different: "he dared not even raise his eyes to heaven, but he beat his breast saying: Oh God, have mercy on me a sinner"; as a publican it was considered by pharisees, scribes and priests a sinner regardless, because not aligned with their Law; feeling himself a sinner, he does not consider himself worthy to approach God, nor to seek the forgiveness of the Father with his eyes turned to the sky. But precisely with this attitude of submission, he recognizes the superiority of God, entrusting himself and totally surrendering himself to him; demonstrates the purity of his heart and puts into practice the great commandment "You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind" (Mt 22:37). This is why the tax collector returns home justified.

The teaching of the parable is therefore clear: the Pharisee is the man who exalts himself and is gripped by the presumption of being a just man; but when he finds himself before God and His justice, he will realize that he has always and only acted for himself, to be praised by men, without accepting God in himself, and will therefore be humiliated. Jesus insists a lot on this teaching, so much so that he also remembers it in the "Parable of the rich and the poor": when the rich ends his earthly existence, before the Supreme Knowledge he is in the throes of despair, because he realizes that he will no longer be able to reach God because, during his earthly life, he had not sought the true Good. The message that Jesus leaves us is therefore to pay attention to this intimate and subtle temptation, which leads to the presumption of being righteous: it is not we who have to declare ourselves righteous before God. We will be righteous if we will do His will, and it is only by following the road taught by Jesus that we will have the certainty of being pleasing to God.

We must be vigilant, because even among believers of today there is this presumption, which becomes clearly evident when they allow themselves to despise others. The demon tries by every means to convince us that we are perfect and therefore authorized to judge others, but in this way we fall into its deceptive trap and we move inexorably away from God: eternal life is a good too precious to allow a subtle temptation to make it lose forever; let us therefore follow Jesus and make his precious teachings the rudder that directs our sailing from this life to the promised Kingdom.