Saturday, October 22, 2016

Illustrating the Parables – The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

The Pharisee and The Tax Collector
from a Picture Bible
French, St. Omer (Abbey of S. Bertin), c.1190-1200
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS 76 F 5, fol. 17v
Jesus addressed this parable
to those who were convinced of their own righteousness
and despised everyone else.

“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity --
greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” *
(Gospel of Luke 18:9-14)

Gospel for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time,
Year C -- October 23, 2016

The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (in some versions, a Publican) is one of those parables that are instantly understandable and applicable to even the most modern person.  We may sometimes have some problems relating to the shepherds, farmers, vineyard owners, servants and other characters in the parables of Jesus, but this one should be accessible to all of us.  We have two characters, the rather pompous, self-satisfied Pharisee, and the humble, despised Tax Collector. 
The Pharisee and The Tax Collector
from Composition de la sainte ecriture
French, 14th Century
Chantilly, Musee Conde
MS 26, fol. 210r

 Most modern people, be they religious or secular, believer or atheist, probably more resemble the Pharisee who has come to pray in the temple.  We pat ourselves on the back for our “good” qualities.  We are kind, we are generous to all, we pay our taxes, we “keep our nose clean”, we are good.  We are not like those deplorable people we read about in People Magazine.  We are self-satisfied and we are blind. 
Lucas van Doelecum, after Gerard Groenning, The Pharisee and The Tax Collector
from Thesaurus Novi Testamenti ... continens historias atque miracula domini nostri Iesu ChristiFlemish, 1572
London, British Museum
Anonymous, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Dutch, ca. 1630-1640
Private Collection
The Tax Collector on the other hand, is not so easy to find in contemporary society.  He is so aware of his own failings in relation to God that he won’t even approach the front of the temple area but stays toward the back.  He doesn’t mentally pat himself on the back.  Instead, he asks for mercy for his sinfulness.  And, Jesus says, because he has asked for mercy, mercy will be given to him and not to the self-satisfied Pharisee.  That is because the Pharisee never asked for mercy.  

In reality, the one and only unforgiveable sin is the one which you never ask forgiveness for.  But, if you are too enamored of your own good qualities, too busy patting yourself on the back, you may never notice your have any sins at all.

Barent Fabritius, The Pharisee and The Tax Collector
Dutch, 1661
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Fabritius here takes the story to its conclusion, showing not only the moment in which the two men are in the temple, but the effects on their souls after they leave it.  In the center of the painting, they are in the temple, the Pharisee kneeling  near the front and the Tax Collector standing near a column at the back.  On the far left, the Pharisee leaves the Temple, while above him in the sky is a demon, signifying the continued sin of his own pride.  On the far right the Tax Collector leaves the Temple and an angel appears above his head, signifying the mercy given to him.
Artists have not presented this scene too often.  My usual search, which can easily yield one hundred or more illustrations of other scenes, turned up only a few manuscript illuminations from the Middle Ages, a few paintings and prints from the Baroque period, including one painted by Barent Fabritius for the Lutheran Church in Leiden which is the most elaborate I found, and one example from the end of the nineteenth century.   
James Tissot, The Pharisee and The Tax Collector
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

It is true that the subject is not nearly as picturesque as some of the other parable scenes.  But, perhaps, the real reason is that it cuts a little too close to home.  For, human nature has not changed, there were just as many Pharisees in any other period of history as there are today. 

© M. Duffy, 2016

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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