Pharisee and tax collector

Have you ever considered yourself more privileged than others? Have you ever been in a group where you see yourself as being in the wrong place because you perceive that nobody in the group measures up to your class, level of education, political views, exposure, or even your religious belief system? In short, have you ever seen yourself superior to others because of the simple fact of having a different identity?

If you have a “yes” answer to any of the above questions, you may be guilty of the pharisaic syndrome. In the Gospel today (Luke 18:9-14), our Lord Jesus Christ tells a contrasting parable that addresses those who ride on the wings righteousness while despising others. Two men, a Pharisee, and a tax collector go up to pray at the temple area. The Pharisee takes a prominent position and prays to himself (not to God).

The Pharisee starts his self-praise prayer by thanking God for being different from the rest of humanity who are greedy, dishonest, and adulterous. Next, he contrasts himself from the tax collector with his religious practices of fasting and paying of tithes. On the other hand, the tax collector standing at a lowly position and without even raising his eyes to heaven beats his breast, asking God to be merciful to him for his sins.

Our Lord concludes the parable by remarking that the tax collector went home justified, unlike the Pharisee, who was prideful in his prayers. Furthermore, he states that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Pharisee and his Pharisaic Syndrome

The Pharisees represent an elitist sect within the Jewish religion that maintains strict observance of the written laws and the tradition of the elders. They are remarkable for creating barriers between themselves and others who do not belong to their sect. In some places in the Gospel, our Lord Jesus Christ refers to them as hypocrites (Luke 11:37-44; Matt.15:1-9; Matt. 23:23-24).

The Pharisaic syndrome consists of a double standard of living. The name “hypocrite” is from the Greek “hypokrites,” which means a stage actor, dissimulator, or pretender. Therefore, a hypocrite lives a life that contradicts the real facts of the person’s life. From the analysis of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Pharisees fit into the structure of hypocrisy. They pretend to be righteous and holy in the presence of people, but inwardly they live a contrary life unknown to the public.

The Pharisee in the parable comes to the temple to make a pretentious show of piety to spite other people. The presence of the tax collector fuelled his hypocritical ambient as he sets standards of virtue and religious devotion to make the tax collector feel inferior and unworthy. Notice that what he offered was not a prayer because nobody prays to himself. He was merely narcissistic.

The Tax Collector and Sinner

Tax collectors at the time of Jesus worked for the Roman government in all the regions under the empire. It was also a common knowledge among the Jews that they extort money from the poor masses (Luke 3:13). Hence people see them as sinners (Matt. 9:10; Mark 2:15; Luke 5:30). Zacchaeus would confirm this theory during his encounter with Jesus Christ when he resolved that he would repay everyone he defrauded four times as much (Luke 19:8).

The tax collector did not come to the temple with the same disposition as the Pharisee. The Pharisee went as an intact spotless religious enthusiast, but the tax collector came as a broken, dirty sinner. However, at the end of their prayers, they switched places. The Pharisee went home broken and inadequate because he did not pray to God. On the other hand, the tax collector went home whole and healed because he had a transforming encounter with God.

Notice also that the tax collector did not pay attention to the arrogant pretension of the Pharisee; in fact, he was not looking, he refused to be distracted and focused on praying to God. His prayer was brief and straight to the point, “God be merciful to me a sinner”. Often, we allow the obsessive drama most people display around us in the church to distract us. There is a need for us to focus on God, not on people.

The central virtue of the tax collector which our Lord Jesus Christ extolls is his humility. It is impossible to offer a sincere prayer to God without humility; God commands humility before we could engage ourselves in prayer (2 Chron.7:14; 1 Pet. 5:8). Humility helps us to recognize our inadequacy before God while acknowledging His sufficiency. The First Reading today (Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18) tells us, among other things, that “the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds.”

Moving Forward 

In life, do not allow what people say or do change whom you ought to be before God. In the narrative, the tax collector refused to copy the bad example of the Pharisee, and he would not allow himself to be intimidated by his self-praise. He instead remained humble and focused before God, and He answered him with divine forgiveness and peace.

We learn from the misdeed of the Pharisee that it is wrong to judge people because we are different from them. Often, being different from other people does not make you better than them. Humility helps us to accept what we are and allow others to be who they are. Like in the case of the two, there would always be a result of every action. Outwardly, the Pharisee thought he was in excellent standing, but in God’s presence, he was taking the least position while the tax collector who comes in humility received divine exaltation.

There would be the need for us to examine our lives to discover the hidden symptoms of the Pharisaic syndrome and pray earnestly to God for the grace for total liberation.

Watch out for these Pharisaic Syndrome

  • Are you always talking about the faults of others?
  • Are you always judging others?
  • Are you always talking about self-accomplishment and looking for people’s validation and praise?
  • Are you always comparing yourself to others to put them down?
  • Are you always blaming others?
  • Are you always criticizing others?
  • Are you always blameless and never acknowledge, accept, nor apologize for mistakes?

Have a beautiful Sunday, and a glorious week ahead. May the grace of God abide with you always as you submit to Him in humility.

Fr. Bonnie.



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