Pharisee & Publican

Who measures up? Who hits the target? Who gets the prize?

There are many times in the Gospels when Jesus sets out to shock his listeners and upset their traditional and ingrained way of thinking. So much so that many could not take what he was saying, it was too much for them and they simply walked away. The parable of the P&P is just one such example. Two men go up to the temple to pray. One we are told is a Pharisee, this by definition someone who is looked up to by everyone as leading an impeccable religious life, a man who lived by the book, kept the rules and prided himself on his moral virtue. This becomes obvious in the way that he prays when he takes his place at the top of the Temple.

It’s a picture we can easily imagine. This character goes up to top seat full of his own importance, he puffs out his chest, and he begins what he thinks is his prayer but in fact is his boast. He thanks God that he is not like the rest of men, not grasping, unjust or adulterous, someone who pays his dues and does his share of fasting. Then he goes off on a rant of comparing himself with the unfortunate tax collector down in the back seat and gives himself a further boost of virtue on the back of the others misfortune. He’s thinks he’s praying to God but notice how Jesus says that he prayed to himself.

Its something I have heard it thousands of time in a confessional situation. Someone starts off with, ‘No sins Father, I haven’t murdered anyone, I’m basically a good person, I don’t think that I have done any wrong to anyone and when I see the carry on of others around me I cant be doing doing too bad. Our former bishop Brendan Comiskey used to hear lots of such confessions as well and he often asked such individuals are you boasting or confessing? I have often been tempted to say the same. One character came to a priest one time and said its many years since I’ve been here and now my memory is so bad that I can’t remember anything so just go ahead and accuse me and I’ll defend myself.

I had a relative some years back that I used to compare to the Pharisee. She acted holier than thou and believed herself to be without sin and better than everyone else. Like the actress May West, well known for her easy virtue, who said that once she was as pure as the driven snow but then she drifted. This lady prided herself on never having drifted! Yet behind all her religiosity I saw that she could be nasty, intolerant, spiteful jealous and very judgmental. This woman had never got married and was probably bitter with life. Even as a teenager I came to the conclusion that her so called virtue was really a cover up for lack of opportunity. She mellowed in her latter years and at least dropped the notion that she knew how everyone else should be living their lives and rearing their children.

In contrast we can imagine the Publican or Tax collector coming into the Temple. He sits in the back seat and beats his breast, ‘O God be merciful to me a sinner.’ In contrast to the Pharisee he really knows himself and what he is made of. He is painfully aware that he has messed up, how he has used others for his own advantage and carved a profession out of doing so. He knows that in betraying others he has sold out on his better self and that while his wealth was increasing his moral stature was decreasing. So it is with profound self-knowledge that he beats his breast knowing that through his fault that he has not just sinned but sinned grievously and badly needs Gods mercy. This man’s prayer was heard and we are told he went home justified while the other religious fanatic did not. Justified can be understood as ‘Just as if I had never sinned.’

The publican is a text book example of what a really good confession sounds like and I am not thinking of one in the box. Let me share a few examples from experience of what I would call Tax collector confesions. I do so because a lot of people realize that the old way left a lot to be desired and wonder where is the place of Confession in today’s world.

My life is a mess and I need to find out what’s going on and sort it out.

I seem to have lost my way and my life is a wilderness.

I always seem to bring out the worst in people.

My life is far too busy and I leave no time for myself or for reflective space.

I seem to be far to judgmental and intolerant of other behaviors.

My anger overflows and I end up hurting the people who least deserve it.

I had an abortion years ago that I have never acknowledged even to myself.

I was unfaithful to my spouse, we never spoke about it and now he’s dead.

I had a vicious row with my father before he died and now it’s too late to say sorry.

I need to forgive but am too eaten up with hurt and anger to do so.

My partner died three years ago and I can’t seem to go and move on.

I beat myself up over my past mistakes and regrets.

My second name is worry and I’m always anxious and fearful about the future.

From day one my son and I never got on.

I have drawn too tight a circle around me and my family.

Sexual thoughts and obsessions have too much rent free space in my head.

I never forgave my sister for being born and so we never got on.

My partner and I are not getting on. We’re both selfish and fight like children.

I am far too passive and never confront the situations that I need to.

I let fly too easily and say things without thinking and get myself into trouble.

I don’t get on with my boss or most authority figures for that matter.

I am running from facing up to my past but it keeps coming back to haunt me.

Such humble admissions are very real and open the way for a person to go home like the publican feeling heard, justified and at peace with themselves and God.

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