Reflections on the Tax Collector and the Pharisee

I would like to begin with a basic psychological observation about the nature of personal identity. We use the personal pronouns I and Me to speak about ourselves in the knowledge that we know of whom it is we are speaking.
That you and I each possess a singular identity is a construction, a kind of necessary myth.  The myth of the personality rests on the processes of identification. Identification is the way we associate to particular facets of identity as if they more truly define who we are. Which facets we do and don’t identify with results from forces inside us – the world of our unconscious instinctual desires, unresolved conflicts and fears – and from outside us through the processes of socialization and education.
In reality our sense of personal identity is not singular, but continually shifting coalition of many internal and external variables.

 The idea that we have a singular identity is a necessary myth. The construction and maintenance of personal identity, is a process of selection and management. The personality manager is called the ego if we are wicked old Freudians or persona if we are of a more, trendy Jungian bent. The ego/persona is a manager between the forces of inner desire and outer constraint. The quality of our mental and emotional health is dependant on how well our ego or persona has been constructed and how well it manages the job of mediating between inner and outer realities as we struggle to more or less successfully present ourselves to the world.
II 
In societies such as those of the contemporary West we place a huge importance on developing strong and seemingly unified and autonomous ego/persona. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries American culture has spear-headed this development but it’s a development that we can trace back to the Enlightenment at the end of the 17th Century best summed up in Descartes’ dictum cogito ergo sum I think therefore I am.
America and the Anglo-Saxon world more generally has become the cultural home of the idea of the rugged and autonomous individual. There is the myth that we can all make it on our own if we are left alone to do so. People assert truth simply on the basis that this is what they believe, or think or feel – and often all three at the same time. People complain to one another ‘you can’t tell me I am wrong because this is what I believe’ or more commonly ‘you can’t tell me I am wrong because this is what I feel’. This has led us to a situation where so much discourse at both the level of society and personal interaction is a chorus of the deaf. And this contributes to another unfortunate consequence – that of polarization. If I believe this or feel that and you believe and feel something different then either you must be wrong because I am always right –a strong autonomous ego/persona, or I must be wrong because I never get it right – a weak ego/persona. Polarization operates not only between people and within in each one us.
In the spiritual tradition ego/persona has generally been regarded as a problem. This is a perception shared across all major religions. And from what I have been describing we can see why spiritual traditions have tended to view ego as problematic. Too much emphasis on it makes social cohesion difficult. And too much emphasis on it cuts us off from the influence of the divine – which for Christians means the creative, sustaining, and sanctifying action in the world of the Trinity.
Religion helps us in supporting our development in two principle ways. In the first phase of life from birth to early adulthood, religion nurtures and helps to support the establishment of firm ego foundations strengthening the boundary around the ego. However in the second phase of life, from the middle of adulthood years culminating in the mid- life transition – usually around the age of 45-50 – the strong boundary around the ego needs to become more permeable in order to allow for a greater flexibility and influx of the divine spirit. Having established strong ego functions we need to begin to loosen their hold on us so to be more open to the process of the final phase of life, which is growing into union with God.
The need for religion and spiritual practice to support us in the transition of the middle years of life is aptly demonstrated as we look around at those of us who are gathered here this morning. Many of us talk about being drawn to this Cathedral as seekers after something we sense a need for but only ever dimly perceive.  We stay because here we find nourishment for our hearts and minds through a faithful proclamation and fearless exploration of God’s Word and the balm for our jangled and frayed senses provided by the dignity of our liturgy and the glory of our music.
We are all rather typical of a society, which currently experiences a spiritual hunger exacerbated by our disillusionment with the promises of material prosperity. I always think of the song Is that all there is immortalized by Peggy Lee in which she sings the words:
is that all there is, is that all there isif that’s all there is my friends then lets keep dancing, lets have a ball and break out the booze.
We see all around us people asking the song’s question and I know through talking to many of you that we feel this question – is that all there is- to varying degrees of intensity in our own lives.
I have tried to show that personal identity is far from the simple and straightforward thing we usually assume it to be in order to open a way to address the gospel reading this morning.
III 
There are two ways to read this parable. On the face of it the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is a story of contrast between two types of people. The Pharisee is the conventional religious person. He is dutiful, conscientious, faithful, and disciplined – a man who can hold his head up in the presence of the Lord. He has a successful ego/persona presentation that leaves him feeling confident and secure in knowing who he is and that he is generally admired by others around him.
The Tax Collector in contrast possess none of the Pharisee’s self confidence.  He is a man who has made those sometimes inevitable compromises with life. He is rather wretched. He feels bad about himself with none of the Pharisee’s inner security nor public social approval. He is terrified as he comes before his Lord in the Temple. Here he can only stand back hang his head in shame.
Yet he is the one of whom Jesus says this man will go home justified.
We all love to judge the Pharisee If we take ourselves outside the context of this parable don’t we really want to be like him. Some of us may feel like the Tax Collector but this is such an unpleasant feeling who of us would actively choose to be in his shoes. We judge the Pharisee and praise the Tax Collector because like good students we already know the teachers desired answer. We all know that Jesus is comparing the Pharisee less favorably to the Tax Collector and we want to get full marks.
But if  in the course of a more general conversation with no reference to this parable to alert us – if I asked you to rank the following qualities in a person as dutiful, conscientious, faithful, disciplined and obedient to spiritual requirements and conscious of a responsibility to those around them – Would you not aspire to possessing these qualities?  Would any of us really want to be described as someone who is neglectful of duty, is not faithful and makes a living exploiting the weaknesses of others?  I will leave you to silently answer that question by yourselves.
What is actually wrong with the Pharisee? He does all the right things and appears to be a good man? The problem with the Pharisee is that he does what all of us have been indoctrinated to do which is to trust in ourselves to be autonomous successfully functioning egos and personas. THE clue is in the first line of the reading – Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves. There is something about self sufficiency and successful functioning that God does not like because it makes us inaccessible because we have no need for Grace.
A second way to read this parable is the one I want to draw your attention to. The two men are psychological types for different facets within our own identities. Both types are in tension within us. We often will appear or at least try very hard to appear to be humble and thereby end up secretly thinking rather well of ourselves. Or we may feel overwhelmed by a sense of failure and throw in the towel feeling it matters little what we believe or do and experience s failure of courage and hope.
 In the Collect we ask God to increase in us the gifts of faith, hope and charity: and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command.
Thinking of the Pharisee and Tax Collector as two facets of identity within each one of us I invite you think about when you come before God – who in you – Pharisee or Tax Collector is doing the asking? Because depending on who’s doing the asking there is a huge difference in the result. The Pharisee in us gets our prayer answered. Those of us with strong Pharisee facets are successful, accomplished, dutiful and faithful and mindful of others and our responsibilities towards them. But we live out these gifts as if they are personal achievements – personal attributes. The gifts of the Spirit are treated like the premiums we can afford to pay into the great salvation insurance policy that will at some point pay out by giving us eternal life. We will get out what we put in. It’s our sense of successful spiritual achievement that shuts us off from God. We become self sufficient and content to follow the rules and obey the laws but having no real need of God.
The Tax Collector in us knows that an increase of the gifts of the Spirit is undeserved. It’s certainly beyond our ability to achieve. For the Tax Collector faith, hope and love are not the expressions of his or her ability to make virtuous deposits into the Eternal Life Bank or pay the premiums of our Salvation insurance. The Tax Collector in us does not claim the gifts of the spirit as personal attributes.  When identifying with the Tax Collector figure within us we are aware of our vulnerability, our dependency, of our deep need of Grace. Therefore we have no other possibility than to open from this place of need and deprivation to the hope of acceptance and fulfillment in the Holy Spirit.
The ego/persona is sometimes referred to as a small self. The small self needs to get out of the way to allow the influx of the divine self. This is what religious belief and the spiritual practices of prayer, worship and service lead us to as we negotiated the disillusionment of the second phase of life. In this phase we are called upon to become a conduit for the influx of divine energy into the world. We lend ourselves to God for his purpose and in the words of St Paul in today’s Epistle we become poured out as a libation. Then in the words of the prophecy of Joel the spirit will be poured out on all flesh. If we are sons and daughters we will prophesy. If we are old men and women we will dream dreams. If we are young men and women we shall see visions.

About relationalrealities

Episcopal Priest currently Rector of St Martin's Providence, RI
This entry was posted in Sermons. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s