“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ “
How literal do we want to go with “went up to the temple to pray”? In other words, is Jesus setting up the context to be about Christian vs. Jewish religiosity? Or, as a parable, is it more about spirituality in the newly christened Church: Who are the “Pharisees” of the Church and how can we avoid being like that? Or again, is Jesus being more cosmic? There are two ways of being, of existing, of posturing oneself before the ultimate meaning of the world.
I think it’s a cosmic point with particular applications in all other contexts. I think this is the only way to see genuine application of the parable in the world today.
The Pharisee represents those who “rely on themselves” because they are righteous. That is, there is a genuine righteousness which humans are capable of doing. Those who live a good life, make good decisions, treat others well, are faithful to their spouses, eat well, and give to charity certainly have a righteousness; they have a healthy attitude of gratitude toward God. Read any book on wellness, mindfulness, and spirituality, and you will see each of these “righteous” behaviors addressed in some way or another.
This is clearly the meaning of “spirituality” in the world today. One’s notions on God and spirit are simply tools in the toolbox of ones “resiliency” and ability to handle life. It’s really all about the Self, the actualization of the Self or whatever. It’s all about you achieving your personal goals, and according to the wellness or mindfulness guru, you need a healthy spirituality to that end. You have to “rely” or “trust” in your own resources.
The Church hasn’t been helpful in this regard either, and here’s where there is application of the parable in the context of the Church. On one hand, there are Medieval doctrines of grace that sound an awful lot like the Pharisee’s prayer: God infuses us with grace through the Sacraments to the end that we might be loving; in other words, at the end of the day we can literally say, “Thank you, O Lord, for making me such a good person who gives to charity, fasts, treats others well, and is faithful to my wife.”
On the other hand, it’s difficult to walk through the aisles of the modern Church and not stumble over the words “empower” or “enable” peppering the sermons and mission statements. The idea is that the Gospel is all about “empowering us to do X, Y, and Z,” X, Y, and Z being whatever action the leadership wants the congregation to pursue. Well, at the end of the day when you’ve done X, Y, and Z, what sort of prayer do you have? “Lord, I thank you that you have empowered me to be such a good person who tithes, fasts, treats others well, and is faithful to my wife.”
In both instances, God is the means to an end, the divinized, perfected Self. Reliance is ultimately upon one’s own person. Well, if God is the means to an end, it shouldn’t surprise us if the God getting us to that end can take on different forms. Mindfulness, spirituality, energy fields, higher powers can all get you to that end. Whatever it takes, it doesn’t matter, because it’s all about you, so that you can “trust in yourself.”
The Pharisee is an emblem of the humanistic religion. He is an emblem of the divinization of Self. It’s the Gnostic heresy all over again, the discovering of God in the inner regions of Self, something to trust in. Even the Pharisee’s posture in the temple – marching up to the front, standing up – demonstrates a supposed affinity with the divinity, like the line between him and God is awfully fuzzy.
Jesus levels this understanding of God. If we learn anything in this parable, we learn God is far from being us. The publican keeps his distant – God and him are not the same! He doesn’t lift up his eyes – God is something “other” to make him tremble! And he begs, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Lord and sinner are twain which shall not meet, unless the former has mercy on the latter.
Of course, Jesus is the temple, the fulfillment of the temple. In Him, the temple, is where we who beg for God’s mercy receive the benefits of a high priest who offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins. In Him, the temple, we are brought near to God. And as we leave Him, the temple, the Church, we go home justified.