A scholarly attempt at an interpretation of Sunday's liturgical readings.

If we are honest with ourselves we should admit to being somewhat biased.  For example, how do I feel about the other person who comes from a different country and speaks a strange language?  Or what of the individual who has a different colored skin, or is economically downtrodden?  No matter how much we try, there appears to be a built in emotional distance.  The fact is that negative bias is definitely learned, and quite likely developed from sterotypes.

In the Gospel (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus speaks to people who are convinced of their own righteousnes, and believe that others are worthless.  His form of explanation is a parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  The former would be considered middle class and be part of a well respected group in society.  The latter would not be popular with the people because of the job that he has collecting tax.

As the parable begins, both go to the temple to pray.  The Pharisee begins by bragging   what a good guy he is.  He tells God that he is glad that he is not like thieves, adulterers, or even like that tax collector in the temple.  He fasts semi-weekly, gives ten percent of his salary to the Temple treasury,   While on the other hand, the tax collector with eyes facing the floor, strkes his breast and says, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  Then we notice a contrast between the two.

Their form of prayer is contrasted by centering on the themes of EXTERIORITY and INTERIORITY.  From an exterior point of view, the Pharisee is a well respected member of the community, and could be considered middle class.  On the other hand, the tax collector is not liked by the people for the kind of work that he does.  Sadly, the people make their judgement based  on their exterior observation.  Exteriorly, the Pharisee seems more respected.

However, from an interior point of view, it is the tax collector who comes out on top.  The Pharisee talks about his virtues as if he were totally responsible for them.  Seems as though he didn’t   need anybody else.  The tax collector, on the other hand, was aware of his own limitations and probably realized that he might have cheated others,  He asks God to be merciful to him.

Jesus said, in effect, that the tax collector went home justified, but the Pharisee did not.  Why?  Because what really counts is the interior part of the person, since that is where motivations, moral value judgements, and attitudes lie.  Actions follow decisions which are internal.

What can we learn from the above Gospel reading?  Basiscally, I would say at least three things.

First, it is necessary to make a distinction between the external and internal aspects of our personality.  Probable evaluation is made when the internal aspects are focussed upon.  They provide the motivation and value system for our actions.  The old adage no doubt has merit.  To wit:  “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”  We don’t have total control of the exterior aspects of our person.  We are born into it.  However, we do have control over the internal aspects of who we are.  We make our decisions based on our motivations and values.

Second, in our dealing with other people, we should pay more attention to the interior dimension as the basis for judgement.  Quite often we are lulled by early stereotypes such as wealth and upper class status as basis of behavior.  This is sad.

Third, our prayer life should not be limited to always asking for something.  It would be well for our interior dimension to include a plea for mercy or an act of thanksgiving. This would give more meaning to prayer–and to our relationship with God.

Pharisee and Publican - Tewkesbury Abbey

Pharisee and Publican – Tewkesbury Abbey (Photo credit: Walwyn)

Recall the final words of Jesus in the parable as proposing the final contrast:  “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”  Our role in this contrast will be determined by our choice of whether our judgement on others is based upon external or internal criteria.

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