Pharisees and Tax Collectors


The gospel reading for today reminded me of a social psychology experiment that I once learned about at the Museum of Science in Boston. The experiment asked visitors to first think of another person and then decide whether a list of adjectives—such as thoughtful, careless, messy, kind, flexible, dependable—applied to this other person often, sometimes, or never. Next they were to think of themselves and whether these same words applied often, sometimes, or never. Most people will use “sometimes” more often in relationship to themselves than to others . The social psychology designers suggested that we are more likely to develop complex and nuanced narratives about ourselves, whereas we like to make easy, more stereotypical claims about others.

I thought about this passage as I heard the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector at Mass today. The Pharisee has a pretty simple narrative about the tax collector: the other guy is a sinner. In contrast, the Pharisee thinks that he himself is a careful follower of the law . Maybe, in fact, he did not act perfectly but justified himself and his reasons for acting as he did. Like the subjects in the social psychology experiment, perhaps he thought something like this: I follow the law but when I don’t, there’s a good reason for it. Most of the time I’m calm and when I’m not, it’s because person I lost my temper with deserved it! After all, that other guy “always” acts so badly.

The tax collector is different. He knows he is complicated: a sinner but also someone deserving of mercy. He knows sometimes he does a good job of doing what is right, and sometimes he screws up. But his focus is on himself and not the judgment of others. He refrains from making judgments about others’ situation, perhaps because he knows that he does not know. Instead he puts his energy into bringing all of himself to God: the good and the bad, the parts of himself in need of healing. His focus is not on the Pharisee or anyone else but rather on his relationship with God.

We also are encouraged to do the same: to present ourselves to God as humble sinners yet also those who trust in the richness of God’s mercy. We are invited to take our focus off of what others do wrong, and off simplistic judgments. Instead our focus can be God and the vastness of God’s love. It is this love and acknowledgement of our own limit yet belovedness that can open us up to genuine care for others in our families and communities.