Imitate the Tax-Collector's Humility, Learn from the'Toeless One's Integrity
First Reading (Sir 35: 15-l7,
20-22): God listens to the prayer
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus,'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector…' But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Lk 18: 10-14 summarized)
Jesus told this parable to those persons who were self-complacent and despised others while justifying themselves.
The main characters were a Pharisee and a tax collector. Jesus' audience knew immediately that he was not pointing to two individuals but giving examples of two kinds of people. The Pharisee represented intellectuals, sincere persons of good moral character. Such a person would enter the temple, dignified and full of self-confidence. He faced God and other people and events with no qualms of conscience. He would hate evil as an enemy and sigh deeply about unworthy persons. He even would thank God that all that was good in himself came from God and for this he would never forget to praise and thank God.
The content of his prayer was full of sincerity, objectivity and was not exaggerated. From that point of view it was earnest and proper. " 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 away a tenth of all my income."
The tax-collector represented another category of people. Rapacious, shameless, willing to be the'running dog' of foreigners, he had no sense of morality, justice or ethnic pride. For him money was his life, his god, his all. For money he would extort others and be unjust; with money he could live sumptuously and luxuriously, spending as he wished.
His prayer consisted of one sentence only: "God,be merciful to me, a sinner!" He did not dare go near the altar, he could only stand afar off without even raising his eyes. He realized he had no place in the temple and in God’s eyes was worthless. From little up, he had been taught to think and look upon himself in this way.
After telling this story Jesus drew an unexpected conclusion, "I tell you, this tax-collector went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee." Jesus wants us to learn from this parable: "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
In today's first reading from the book of Sirach there is a strongly-worded footnote to Jesus' words: "The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds, and it will not rest until it reaches its goal: it will not desist until the Most High responds." (Sir 35: 21)”
The Pharisee's problem was not his goodness or his good deeds and behavior, but because he used it as an occasion to exalt himself and attack and disdain others. He is a good example of the 'imperialism' of goodness, that is, using goodness as a weapon and instrument to oppress people.
Facing injustice, do we ourselves show sympathy and understanding to others rather than only denouncing them? Do we try to analyze in depth the reasons behind it? Do we try to walk with unjust people? Do we truly believe that all sinners and evil persons might at the same time be 'victims,' worthy of our sympathy and in need of our help and encouragement? How can we bear their burdens, feel their powerlessness, share their anguish, help them in their weakness?
The tax collector was favored not because of his wicked deeds of course, but because he acknowledged his sinfulness and he was repentant. He did not make excuses nor did he gloss over his misdeeds. He simply admitted his sins and prayed for forgiveness. He was determined to change his life.
In Zhuang Zi's" Evidence of Complete Excellence, there is a story about a man without toes. Shu Shan, the "Toeless One" of Lu was a cripple. His toes had been cut off as a punishment for his crimes. He called on Confucius but was met with sarcasm. Shu Shan, the Toeless One, said," I lost my toes because I did not know how to behave properly. I abused myself. I came here today because there remains something more precious than my toes and I want to preserve it." (1) He admitted that he had committed crimes and deserved to be punished. He became a cripple and had his toes cut off. He went to Confucius because he knew there were things more precious than his two legs, that is, life and morality. He had lost his toes and he did not want to lose the full life that morality brought.
Seeing his sincerity and courage Confucius said to his pupils, "Learn more, pupils! If a person like the"Toeless One" still gives all of himself to repair the wrongs of his previous behavior, how much more should persons of integrity." (2) Confucius wanted to point out to his pupils that even a cripple without toes like Shu Shan knew he should work hard to make up for his previous mistakes. Even more so should those who are morally and physically whole.
It is truly commendable when former sinners make amends, especially when they are physically deficient but have blameless hearts. Should not those who are healthy in body and soul, when confronted with persons less fortunate, put forth even more effort? Let us take lessons from the tax collector and the toeless Shu Shan!