Modernizing the Parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee

By: Mormon Heretic
September 16, 2013

I’ve been reviewing The Challenge of Honesty which was released Sept 1.  (You might want to check out my first post, or second post on the book.)  Frances Lee Menlove relates the following.

Today I am going to tell you a story.  This is a Jesus story, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, which Jesus told to some people who trusted their own righteousness and regarded others with contempt.

I’m a grandmother, and I’ve learned that stories are not only important but can be adjusted to meet the occasion. One of my grandson’s favorites is “The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig.”

I will first tell the parable as it appears in the Gospel of Luke and then take some liberties with it.  I’m allowed to do this because I’m a grandmother.

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I think you that I am not like other people:  thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humbles themselves will be exalted.  (Luke 18:10-14, RSV)

Luke18v9to14_2004Remember the audience here.   Jesus was talking to people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others”  (Luke 18:9).  Perhaps this parable is speaking to us in these contentious times.

Now, can you hear the punch in the ending?  The good guy in this ancient culture is the Pharisee, but in this story, the Pharisee is the anti-hero.  The tax collector went home right with God, without even being told to change occupations.

Pretend for a moment that the parable had said that two men went into a church to pray–one a Mormon bishop, the other a Hell’s Angel.  The bishop prays, “God, I think you that I am not like the Hell’s Angel over there.  I fast, I pay my tithe, I do my temple work, and I’m bishop to boot.”  The Hell’s Angel prays, “Have mercy on me a poor sinner.”  The Hell’s Angel goes home right with God, but not the bishop!

That story stings.  We wince hearing it.  Remember, our imaginary bishop is doing the right things–fasting, tithing, serving, attending the temple, and obeying the commandments.  The problem is in his attitude, his sense of self-righteousness.

Why does Jesus take self-righteousness with such deadly seriousness?  Why does this one negative trait–self-righteousness–trump all the Pharisee’s positive ones?  I thing there are a couple of reasons.

First, self-righteousness is the bane, the destroyer of human relations.  Self-righteousness depends absolutely on a division of humanity into “us” and “them.”  I can’t be up unless you are down.  Contempt for others is always a partner of self-righteousness.  The reason is clear.  Pride is not accidentally, but essentially, competitive.  This way of thinking about human relationships, in terms of us and them, was anathema to Jesus.  Jesus was constantly and consistently inclusive.  He went out of his way to make non-Jews heroes of his stories.  He kept company with outcasts.

There is another ugly side of self-righteousness–the inability to be self-critical.  If we are totally convinced of our own righteousness, self-examination is not necessary.  Listen to this old aphorism, “A surplus of virtue is more dangerous than a surplus of vice.”  Why?  we ask naturally.  Because a surplus of virtue is not subject to the constraints of conscience.

Being on the side of right can delude us into believing that anything is justified because of our relative moral superiority.  The history of religion-fueled hate and killing and oppression is horrific.  Religion-based self-righteousness not only warps interpersonal relationships, impeding love of neighbor, it also deadens self-reflections.

I would also like to take another liberty with this parable.  What if the Pharisee had prayed, “God, I thank thee that America is not as others are, those other faltering nations and those other countries of evil-doers”?  Or let’s push this further.  (Remember, I’m a grandmother.)  Let’s add one small but portentous flourish:  “God, I thanks thee that America is not as others are, and God, I thank thee that you, Lord, are on our side.”

What do you think of Menlove’s update to this parable?

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13 Responses to Modernizing the Parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee

  1. Hedgehog on September 16, 2013 at 1:23 AM

    I like it.

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  2. Louis Gardner on September 16, 2013 at 5:02 AM

    I love this book. I ordered it after I read your first post and when it finally came read it in two days, and plan to read it again. I’ve been contemplating willful inactivity for personal reasons which parallel some of the issues addressed in this book and however after reading have rethought about giving the Church another go.

    To answer your question, it’s easy to point out the destructive actions and philosophies of others (SSM is a dire threat to families, etc.) and list sins in which to avoid and so on. It takes a little more to be introspective, critically, when it involves ourself. I have an issue when members subscribe to and treat others due to their subscription to what I perceive as an unspoken orthodoxy and cultural mores as doctrine and it irks me to no end; then, I become critical of them to satiate my own anger (may be too strong of a word, maybe not) which then places me in the seat of the hypocrite since I’ve become simply by noticing and reacting to their actions just like the Pharisee and Bishop in Menlove’s story. Does that make sense? It is a difficult path…

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  3. Mary Bliss on September 16, 2013 at 6:34 AM

    Louis, yes. It’s another easy pitfall, no matter what your political or social or cultural perspective:
    “God, I thank thee that I and my friends are more politically and socially enlightened than the person who just made that cringe-worthy statement in Sunday School.”

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  4. nate on September 16, 2013 at 7:15 AM

    In the parable, both the prayer of the Pharisee and the Publican are common prayer templates in the Jewish tradition:

    The self-justification template, as exemplified in Psalms 26 also often includes comparisons to the wicked, as in the parable: “Judge me, O Lord; for I have walked in mine integrity: Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; try my reins and my heart. I have walked in thy truth. I have not sat with vain persons, neither will I go in with dissemblers. I have hated the congregation of evil doers; and will not sit with the wicked. I will wash mine hands in innocency… Gather not my soul with sinners, nor my life with bloody men in whose hands is mischief, and their right hand is full of bribes.”

    Then the penitent template, as in Psalms 51: “Have mercy upon me…For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me… Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

    There is nothing “wrong” with the prayer of the Pharisee, in that he was simply observing the Law and praying according to the template given in the Book of Psalms. But Jesus is preaching a higher Law, and rejecting the Jewish tradition of hatred of enemies and self-justification through the works of the Law.

    How does this apply to Mormons, as the the prayer of the bishop? Self-justification is a tradition in LDS doctrine as well, which believes in seeking covenant blessings through obedience to Laws. But no one can justify themselves entirely, as we must watch our thoughts, hearts, words, and deeds, a much higher bar than the Israelites, and therefore, we are always in a state of imperfection. There is also no room for judgement, as we cannot know the state of a man’s heart by his deeds or outward appearance.

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  5. Jeff Spector on September 16, 2013 at 8:18 AM

    A travesty.Setting up a totally false comparison. A Pharisee and a Mormon bishop are not equal. The story does not give any rank to the Pharisee.There is not reason to believe that he has any rank.

    This comparison would have been more appropriate as a observant member of the Mormon Church or an observant Catholic, Baptist or Muslim.

    Just further evidence of her open hostility toward the Church.

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  6. MH on September 16, 2013 at 8:23 AM

    Jeff, I think you are seeing what you want to see, and not giving her a fair reading.

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  7. Will on September 16, 2013 at 11:29 AM

    I like her analogies as long as they are taken with the right spirit and it is not forgotten that: 1) a Bishop is a common judge of Israel and as such has the right to make moral judgments 2) America is an exceptional nation setup by God as a beacon of freedom and a venue for him to fulfill his purposes.

    Bishops can and do exercise unrighteous dominion and will be held accountable for said actions. Likewise, American’s will forget or fail to live up to the covenants and blessings tied to this Promised Land and will lose their security and standing in the world as a result.
    It is dangerous if we lose sight of America’s exceptionalism and turn over diplomatic issues to the likes of Vladimir Putin for instance.

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  8. Douglas on September 16, 2013 at 3:18 PM

    Both OP and comments have been spot-on!

    There is nothing wrong with the good deeds of either Pharisee or Mormon Bishop. After all, we are created unto good works. Essential, but not even in the same realm as what the Savior did for us. The Apostle Paul declared OUR “righteousness” as filthy rags. My personal analogy would be that your bail comes to $800.03. The Savior notes that you have but three pennies in your pocket. So He produces one picture of Ulysses and three of Benjamin, and you’re sprung, and all He asks is that you’re sorry for having done what got you busted, that you admit you’ve screwed up and that you realize that you need His grace. Naturally, once freed, the Master is peeved if you’re making yourself a legend in your own mind for chipping in three cents.

    What the tax collector or the biker were offfering that their respective counterparts appear to have not is the sacrifice the Savior explicitly demands: a broken heart and a contrite spirit.

    One thing should be understood about the role of a tax-collector in Roman times. It was a very lucrative position, usually sold as a franchise by whatever local puppet ruler was then in charge (like Herod over Galilee). The collector typically had free reign to act as he pleased, which usually didn’t please those in his grasp, as long as the local client ruler and Rome got their cut. I suppose it was possible to not be too opressive in tax collection but magnamity was exceptional. Hence why tax collectors, being considered as robbers and traitors, were widely despised. That’s why the Savior is citing the example of a repentant taxmam, even for a reprobate like that there’s hope!

    As for what is the typical attitude of a Mormon bishop, rather than be self-deluded as to his own righteousness, it’s been my experience for nearly 35 years of membership that most tend to be somewhat overly self-critical. True, there has been some “doozies”, we pick our bishops from the male part of the “hew-mon” race, thereby operating under handicap by default.

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  9. DM on September 19, 2013 at 3:47 PM

    Well, since we are pretending to be a “Judge in Israel” (and Douglas correctly stated that the Bishop is actually a judge…), why not make some more comparisons? How about a faithful member of the Church who follows the commandments and the counsel of the General Authorities, tries to be obedient and defend the Church whenever possible, and the Mormon Feminist who prays to a Mother in Heaven, desires ordination, and in general does not defend the Church nor willingly obedient to the General Authorities (and considers what they say as “untruthful” because they are “men”). Which one makes it to heaven? Who is the most self-righteous? Of which will the Savior say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant…”

    We can make these comparisons all day long

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  10. Jeff Spector on September 20, 2013 at 8:11 AM


    “I think you are seeing what you want to see”

    what I see is a false comparison, which DM, points out can be made all day long and means virtually nothing. I had no problem with Frances points on self-righteousness, but saw her recast as just a way to dig at the Church.

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  11. Mormon Heretic on September 20, 2013 at 8:46 AM

    Would it have made a difference if she had picked a RS pres, primary teacher, Sunday School Pres, Ward Mission Leader, YW Pres, or EQ pres rather than a bishop?

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  12. hawkgrrrl on September 20, 2013 at 10:36 AM

    I think Jeff’s point is that status is irrelevant. The pharisee does not have any special status in the community. So maybe “TBM” or “orthodox member” is the right parallel. Adding status shifts to parable to being about church leadership or as others pointed out mitigates the person’s judgmental stance as a person in charge of the flock (although that seems dubious to me given the words of the prayer). I also think contrasting the tax collector with a biker is odd. Bikers don’t have to be inherently bad. Tax collectors were reviled because nobody likes to pay taxes, particularly to their Roman conquerors. Maybe comparing to a collaborator (or lobbyist?) would be closer.

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  13. [...] week’s scripture topic appears to be Pharisees. Alex detected a certain irony in a Mormon song about this tale of not being able to see what [...]

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