The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself…
We live in an age of self-disclosure and self-description or so we tell ourselves. The Pharisee was only describing himself. It would have been valid, don’t you think, if he had left off only the part deprecating the poor publican. He was perfectly right to be proud of what he had done – he’s not an extortioner, not unjust, doesn’t commit sexual sins, he follows the rules, and even gives over and above the required donation, he tithes from everything. There – again, except for his deprecation of the other party – is a pretty awesome dude, no? He might even show up on Oprah these days, or at Joel Osteen’s place. He could be part of any version of the Prosperity Gospel, no matter where it’s preached (again, minus that beating up on the poor publican). Were he to run for office in our world, we might only have a campaign advisor tell him to stop with the negative ads. We like someone who can blow their own trumpet under the spotlight.
The Greek almost puts it in scare quotes: it says “he stood thus: moving toward himself, praying.” Later (verse 13) using the same word for self (auton) the Publican is described as “striking the breast of himself.”
Looking around my blog… noting how much of it is “moving to himself” instead of “striking the breast of himself” and, even, aware that if he was striking his breast on the blog it would just be showing off…
Thing is: the publican really was doing self-disclosure. Not our modern Self-Disclosure, but the real thing. He knew himself, he knew that he was the problem in the equation, not the solution. Apart from his political stance (you have to suck up to the Romans to get this job) we know nothing about him: for all we know he tithed, was sexually pure, did not extort money, and was quite just in his dealings with people. We know nothing else about him except that he’s a tax collector. We learn most about our own biases (and the biases of Jesus’ first century audience) when we judge the publican.
It was in knowing himself correctly – ie in relation to God and others – that he was saved. It was in right relationship, in humility before God and man, that this man went down from the Temple justified. I bet dinner parties were something at his house: friendly, warm, welcoming. Of course no one wanted to go because he voted for the wrong party and – worse – that party had won the election! (But we’re gonna get them – and this guy too, damn him! Just wait and see…) so no one went to his house when he threw parties. But I bet he was a great host.
Now the other dude, I bet his parties were pretty awesome too, and maybe you’d covet an invite because all the right people would be there (and they voted for OUR SIDE and eventually we will win cuz God votes for us too)! But I bet he makes you wear bowties – and it’s not even dress up fun, but he makes you wear them because that’s what you do. You’ve got to know which fork to use on the starter. He will quiz you on what you had for lunch, because to be kosher you have to stay away from the other (Milk or Dairy) for X amount of time and if you don’t follow the rules you can stay – of course! I invited you – but, you know, I can’t feed you: we’d all be impure then. They were stage-perfect parties, but I bet no one had any fun.
It is in humility that we come into right relationship. Not because we need to beat ourselves up – there is a false humility too, wears well on your false self – but because that’s who we really are we are: humility, from humus, earth. We are Sons of Adam – the Earth Creature. This is, I think, why God won’t ignore the pleas of the Fatherless and Widow – they know where they are. They have no pretension. Of course they, too, can have a bloated ego, demand their rights, etc, etc. But before God we don’t have rights: we have awe and humility. And before our fellow man: the image of God, we should have the same. Humility is the foundation of prayer (as noted yesterday), it is also the root of all the virtues. We can not love or serve without first being humble. Then, truly, the prayer of the lowly pierces the heavens. (Pro Tip: when ever giving alms, ask for prayers… cuz they will get heard long before yours.)
We live in an age of self-disclosure and self-description or so we tell ourselves. But if we fail at right relationship, how can we know ourselves? The true self is a communion, a dance of self-emptying service before the Other. If I am not in that dance, then my self-description is in error, it is a false self that I describe and feed. The Pharisee wasn’t “into himself” but rather faking it. Apart from God, the only real Self in the picture, there was only the Publican in the Temple that day. The rest was smoke and mirrors.