The familiar story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector has to be one of the better known stories that Jesus used in the instruction of his disciples. The good-guy, bad-guy image captures the imagination at an early age.
As a youth, I couldn’t imagine the Temple scene very well. I saw it more along the lines of Alan Ladd and Jack Palance in the western classic, Shane. Perhaps you remember the saloon scene. I pictured them with hats, big Stetsons. One wore a White Hat. Well, sort of white. But none the worse for wear. The other wore a Black Hat.
You can guess who wore the Black Hat.
I watched from a safe distance, from under the swinging doors of the saloon, as the scene unfolded. First, the Black Hat drew a prayer, ‘God, I thank 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.’
I liked it. It thrilled me! It was fast. And it a sense of being right.
My attention was then riveted on the Tax Collector. He was wearing the White Hat.
I was surprised! He was not the popular candidate here. He was outnumbered. He might be slow. Surely he would miss! He drew a prayer, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
Seemed a low calibre prayer, but it hit its mark!
And that’s what I thought the story was all about.
Until I noticed who Jesus told the story to. (Jesus) also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.
Jesus had told this story to the guy in the Black Hat. That would have been Jack Palance. Alan Ladd, the guy in the White Hat never heard it. Jesus didn’t tell it for his benefit. He told it for the benefit of those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.
He tells it still, to us.
We seek to be righteous and in the security of our trust in our own goodness, we hold others in contempt. We thank God that we are "not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." Oh, the categories change, and include our deepest fears, but the perspective remains the same.
Jesus’ admonition cautions us all that our thankfulness, our Eucharist, not be filled with contempt for others.
Rather, repairing misplaced trust in ourselves, we might find ourselves, Black Hat and all, echoing the words of the shunned, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
Copyright © 1998 James T. Irvine