Sir 35:12-14,16-18 • 2 Tm 4:6-8,16-18 • Lk 18:9-14
William Barclay, in his commentary in Luke, part of the Daily Bible Study Series, tells of a rail trip he took to England. Along the way he saw a whitewashed cottage that was absolutely radiant in its whiteness. Its glowing whiteness made a huge impression. On his way home to Scotland, Barclay noted that it had snowed. When the train again passed the white cottage, Barclay was startled to see that, compared to the snow, the white cottage was not at all radiant; rather, it was drab and gray compared to the snow.
What is the snow that might outshine us? This question was one of Jesus’ concerns in telling today’s parable.
One of Luke’s favorite techniques in teaching the Gospel message is called the reversal motif. Luke begins by accurately describing everyone’s common beliefs and common social and cultural expectations. This is exactly what the first part of the parable does. It accurately describes the Pharisee and the tax collector.
The method of praying was to pray aloud. In the Middle Eastern philosophical understanding of language, for a prayer to exist it had to be said, not thought.
In the minds of Jesus’ listeners, the Pharisee was truly a good and holy person. He was the model of what we would call a living saint. It was proper in prayer to tell God who you are, so the Pharisee described himself to God, and the Pharisee was what he claimed. He was a good man who was better than most, who kept the law faithfully, fulfilling every precept and even went beyond what the Law required.
The tax collector, as well, was what he said he was. He was not a hero in this story. He was a sinner and a big sinner, the most reviled of men. He was a traitor to his people. He worked for a foreign, occupying government that collected taxes for the occupiers, and he earned his pay by over-taxation. He would have been thought of as ritually unclean; therefore, he would have had no right to enter the Temple.
The reversal is seen in Jesus’ statement that the tax collector was the one who went home justified by God. It is amazing that Jesus was not attacked when He said this! This reversal would have infuriated his listeners.
We play the game of keeping up with the Joneses. We measure almost everything about ourselves by comparing ourselves to others. Sibling rivalry is based on comparisons. Younger siblings compare themselves to older siblings. Other siblings resent the (perceived or real) favored child. Siblings fight over parents’ wills, often thinking that someone in the family got more than he or she deserved. At the office water cooler, employees complain that someone who does not work as hard as they got a promotion when it was not deserved: “That promotion should have been mine!” We even judge our potential of getting into heaven based on our comparisons to others. We think, “I’m not as bad as most people,” or we joke saying, “If Jane didn’t get into heaven, then we’re all in trouble.”
What does the parable highlight? The Pharisee was actually better than he said he was, and the tax collector was probably worse than he said he was. What is going on? The problem Jesus exposes is that the Pharisee was comparing himself to other people while the tax collector was comparing himself to God. Jesus’ expectation of the Pharisee, and thus of us, is that we judge our goodness and holiness by looking at God, not by looking at those around us. God is the standard!
It might be interesting to note the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We so often say we do not really need to go to confession, telling ourselves, “I’m not that bad. I haven’t committed any serious sin.” Compared to others, we might be right; we might actually be as good and holy as the Pharisee or even better. The word reconciliation has its roots in the Latin word “cilia.” It is part of the word for eyelash. Reconciliation could be translated to mean “eyelash to eyelash,” or spiritually put, confession is to be eyelash to eyelash with God! We might be truly holy compared to other people, but how holy are we when compared to God? This is part of the reason for the sacrament, to help us set the bar for our personal holiness.
What does our gleaming white cottage really look like?